washingtonpost.com  > Education > Columns > Class Struggle

Critic Responds on the AP Debate

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; 10:21 AM

Today's guest columnist is William Casement, the former college philosophy professor whose provocative and important article on the worth of high school Advanced Placement courses for college credit has been the subject of three of my columns so far. I invited Casement to respond in full to what many readers and I have said about his argument. He and I also plan in a future column to have a conversation by e-mail on all of these issues that will, I hope, point toward ways to resolve our differences. Casement has kindly given his e-mail address, Wmrcase@aol.com, in case readers wish to reach him.

By William Casement

_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at mathewsj@washpost.com.
_____Also in Class Struggle_____
How to Ace the SAT Essay in 6 Easy Steps (washingtonpost.com, Mar 1, 2005)
College vs. AP -- the Backlash (washingtonpost.com, Feb 16, 2005)
Learning for a Better Life, Not Just a Better Job (washingtonpost.com, Feb 8, 2005)

Jay Mathews' December 14th column "Why Colleges Think They're Better Than AP" summarized and reacted against an article I wrote entitled "Declining Credibility for the AP Program" that appeared in the journal Academic Questions. Both he and I received numerous responses to the column. He then gave a subsequent column to two guest writers on the topic, and last week summarized and quoted from the responses he got to the first column. I appreciate having the opportunity now to reply to the limited interpretation of my position that readers were exposed to, and to point out the flawed approach in Mathews' brusque dismissal of colleges as better places for college-level study than high schools are.

First, let me say that my article did not call for the downfall of AP:

I didn't question the worth of AP as a high school program -- as offering a challenging curriculum to prepare students for college.

I didn't question the worth of AP as an indicator for college admissions offices to use in making their decisions.

I believe both of these topics warrant study, and in fact, formal reports by several researchers and organizations have been issued recently in that regard that are critical of AP. My article is not one of them.

Neither did I say or suggest that there are no AP students or teachers performing at the college level. Strong students and teachers can be found in many places, and they should be commended for their accomplishments. What I did say cast doubt on how representative those accomplishments are of AP as a whole: the program taken in its entirety -- on a national basis -- is of questionable worth for college equivalency. I put together a case that supports the growing movement among colleges today, mostly the more selective ones, to restrict or refuse credit for AP. Here is that case in a nutshell.

Originally AP was for only the best and brightest students. Today its sponsor, the College Board, says it should be for anyone who wants to try it. Many high schools follow this policy, with AP now becoming more a rite of passage for college-bound students in general than a program for the academically talented.

Originally AP was for high school seniors. Today 11th, 10th, and 9th graders comprise between 40 and 50 percent of AP students. This youth movement comes with a growing trend for students to skip taking high school courses (for instance, regular or honors World History or Biology) and go straight to AP, meaning their highest level of preparation for taking a college course is middle school. Readiness for college study requires an intellectual growth and maturation process. How many 15- and 16-year-olds are truly ready?

Since 1986 the number of AP tests taken has increased a whopping 700 percent to 2 million. Average AP test scores for that period have decreased from 3.1 to 2.96 -- hardly noticeable.

AP's teacher corps falls far below college accreditation standards. The vast majority of professors at four-year colleges hold PhD degrees, and a master's degree is the minimum standard for community colleges. With a 2002 report revealing that half of AP teachers lack master's degrees in the AP subjects they teach, and a 2001 report saying 100,000 new AP teachers would be needed by 2010, the qualifications of the AP teacher corps are strongly suspect.

One third of all AP students don't take the AP exams. What grades are they getting for those courses? College students who skip a final exam get an F for the exam and are likely to fail the course.

College Board studies claiming to show AP is equivalent to college are done once every five years, without a standardized methodology, sometimes including very few AP test takers in certain fields, sometimes at only one college, and using data that are several years old when the studies are released. In what industry, particularly a rapidly expanding one, would consumer reports of this sort be considered acceptable?

Despite the fact that Mathews' account of my position left out much of the above, the responses I received ran two to one toward casting suspicion on the AP program as college equivalent.

One response supportive of AP, by a teacher, said:

"Repeatedly graduates of our high school return and report that their freshman writing classes are easier than their high school English classes were. Many of our AP graduates who never earned an A in high school earn As with ease in college."

My hat goes off to a teacher and school having success with AP -- and to others like them. If only such success could characterize the program as a whole. On the other side of the ledger, a parent says:

"As our daughter began her first AP class . . ., she experienced inadequate and negligible skill and ability from a teacher newly recruited, poorly trained, inexperienced, and sadly not educated in the area of study."

From another parent:

"Our district does have a policy of allowing anyone to take AP classes. Which, I believe, is a good thing. I think my kids have received a good education. Do I think the teachers know their subjects as well as even a graduate TA? No. And sometimes I'm amazed at some of their class assignments, given that AP classes are supposed to be college level. For example, my son, as a 10th grader last year took AP World History (and he got a 5 on the AP exam). Each grading period they had some kind of assignment where they had to color pictures. This struck me as more elementary school than college."

From an overseer of educational programs:

"For the last few years I have been on the County Gifted and Talented Advisory Committee. About five years ago, our county began encouraging all students, not just gifted students, to take AP and IB courses. That had several effects. On the bright side, a higher percentage of the overall population took at least one challenging high school course. But, more students failed or got 3s on the AP tests. Teachers with limited content knowledge of their subjects took a few training sessions and became AP teachers. And some experienced teachers began complaining that they had to dumb down their AP courses because they felt compelled to review the basic material more often for the benefit of the less advanced students in their AP classes."

These comments are particularly telling. As any experienced educator knows, the level at which a course can be taught is determined by the readiness of the students and the teacher. When either or both are at a lesser point than is normal for college work, suspicion should arise -- as it has at many selective colleges that are drawing back on awarding college credit for AP. Concerns about exam grades (being stable in spite of huge enrollment expansion) and exams not taken, along with a lack of convincing studies about college comparability, add to the skepticism.

Jay Mathews' reply to my unflattering picture of high schools trying to become colleges was to issue an attack on the worthiness of colleges to do their job. He made two main points, the first of which was to chide colleges for not providing statistics to show what students in their courses have learned in comparison to high school students taking AP. The problem here is a misunderstanding of where the burden of proof lies. It isn't incumbent on colleges to demonstrate they are better than high schools. The obligation runs in the other direction -- for high schools to prove they are as good as colleges. The party selling the service needs to present the proof, not the party being asked to buy it. If the College Board's studies are not convincing, what would be? Perhaps other studies would, using current data and employing a methodology that a representative group of skeptics from colleges around the country has approved of in advance.

Beyond broad studies lies the question of what individual high schools are doing with AP. Colleges -- each one individually, and with all of the imperfections it has -- have passed review with the major accrediting associations. If high school AP programs want to be recognized as college equivalent, let them show that they meet college accreditation standards -- each high school individually (or each district). Meeting minimum standards still might not be convincing for selective colleges, where self-imposed standards are higher. But it would provide a legitimacy not held now.

Still another way to evaluate AP's college equivalency would be for its students to take the final exams colleges give, and have them graded by college professors. Presently the College Board has a practice of trying out AP exam questions on college students to gauge what college equivalency consists of. But that is putting things backwards. If you want to know how group B is performing relative to group A, then group B should be given group A's exam, not the other way around. Realistically, though, this proposal is not likely to go over well with colleges or with AP supporters. It would be difficult to find professors willing to participate. And AP supporters might object that their students would be taking exams based on syllabi different than their own. This, of course, is what the college students trying out the AP questions face -- not having studied the AP syllabus or prepped for the peculiarities of the exam they are taking, while the high school students have (often with weeks spent on old and simulated exam questions). One proposal to even the playing field has been to have both groups of students take the GRE subject exams used for admission to graduate school. These exams, however, are available only in a few subjects, and they test for much more than the material covered in introductory courses, so they are not geared to substitute for exams in those courses.

Mathews' other main dig against colleges was personal. Reporting his own experience and that of his sons, he castigated the introductory courses they took in large lectures that employed teaching assistants along with professors, and were boring and encouraged memorization and regurgitation. This partial picture was left to stand as a sweeping generalization -- a general indictment of higher education. What he didn't say is that many colleges have few or no large lecture courses and no TAs. At colleges that do, the TA's credentials, while sometimes less than a master's degree, often extend beyond it and can approach a PhD. Overall the academic background of the teaching corps in colleges is vastly stronger than that of the AP teacher corps in high schools.

What about teaching methodology, then? I am no fan of lecture courses; I believe small groups are an easier place for students to learn. But that does not mean that teaching high school students in small groups equals teaching college students in large ones. Other factors, particularly the students' and the teachers' level of readiness, figure heavily into the equation. And what can be said for lectures versus the smaller classes AP students (and many college students) take is that they can eliminate the problem of slowing down the material being taught to accommodate less prepared students. Students who have questions or desire more attention deal with those needs in sessions with TAs scheduled for that purpose (or in meetings with the professors), while professors keep the lectures going at a regular pace. Particularly in the sciences, introductory courses often function purposely as "weed out" courses to determine who has the intellectual right stuff to make it through the advanced courses required of a major in the field.

Lecture classes, then, are not less naturally inclined toward higher level thinking than are smaller courses. They don't hold a monopoly on emphasizing memorization, and neither do they hold one on being boring -- small classes can do so as well. The fact is that college students frequently complain about their introductory courses being boring, regardless of size. The complaints often trace to a predisposed dislike for certain subjects (and a rush to specialize in a major) or a callow notion that instructors should be entertainers.

By depreciating college introductory courses, Mathews was angling to suggest that AP is just as good. But that logic doesn't work. If college isn't all that higher education PR tells us it is, neither is AP what its PR says. As one of my respondents, a college professor, put it, "Mathews took some cheap shots at regular college courses. Maybe not entirely undeserved, but not a very good defense of AP." Not long after Mathews' comments about college courses appeared, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article saying the College Board is redesigning AP courses so as to "promote a deeper understanding of academic subjects among students." The process "would allow the organization to create course materials that more closely correlate with how colleges are teaching various subjects." The focus is on the sciences, with biology the first subject to be redone. Here is recognition from the overseers of AP themselves that college courses, whatever shortcomings they may have, function at a level AP has yet to reach.

Finally, let me address Mathews' suggestion in his last column that maybe AP is not on a par with courses at the 200 most selective colleges, but it is at other colleges. This is pure hypothesis on his part, and highly problematic. The most selective colleges are where AP credit is being restricted the most, but other colleges, too, may question AP's equivalency with their courses. Each college will have to decide for itself just how strong it thinks the education is that it provides to first and second year students -- how strong when compared with a high school program that bears the profile I described earlier.

In the changing climate that surrounds AP, a wide variety of institutions that are far from the top of the selectivity scale are already restricting credit to a grade of 4 in a few to all subjects: Temple University, Touro College, California Lutheran College, Albion College, Oakland University, City University of New York, Belmont University, Florida Institute of Technology, Campbell University, Boise State University, Abilene Christian College, Art Institute of Cincinnati, Texas State University, Wayne State University, Samford University, Ball State University, Towson University, Houghton College, Oachita Baptist College, Benedictine University, Arkansas State University. This is not a comprehensive list, only a collection of examples. But it tells us that recognition for AP as college equivalent is sliding further down a slippery slope than Mathews' characterization will admit.

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive


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