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Round 2: College Courses vs. AP Tests

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005;

My Dec. 14 column, "Why Colleges Think They Are Better Than AP," brought a flood of e-mails that would have drowned my computer, except that I was actually working during the holidays, having blown all my vacation time in November, and so I was able to bail out fast enough to stay afloat.

I am going to quote from many of those thoughtful messages in a follow-up column soon, as well as give AP critic William Casement, the subject of the column, a chance for a long response, and then eventually a conversation-in-a-column with me to try to sort it all out. But I received two e-mails that were so astute, and from such well-informed people, that I thought I would offer them unabridged today before I do my summary of the many others.

_____In Today's Post_____
Advanced Course Bonus Points Challenged (The Washington Post, Jan 11, 2005)
_____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_____
Seven Reasons NOT to Fear the New SAT (washingtonpost.com, Jan 18, 2005)
Our 26 Most Dangerous Schools and Other Fables (washingtonpost.com, Jan 4, 2005)
Are Bonus Grade Points for Hard Courses Unfair? (washingtonpost.com, Dec 27, 2004)

The first message is from Luther Spoehr, lecturer in education and history at Brown University, and formerly an Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher for 18 years, as well as a reader for the AP exam and co-author of a book for teachers on the document-based questions that are important in that test. The second message is from Jon Reider, the guidance counselor at University High School, a private school in San Francisco, who previously taught in a Great Books humanities program at Stanford for almost 30 years and was a Stanford admissions officer for 15 years.

See why I picked these two? They provide perfect balance. One is East Coast and one is West Coast. One started his career in high schools and moved to college. The other went in the opposite direction. Both have an unusual grasp of what happens in both AP and introductory college courses, and they can speak knowledgably about Casement's view that the intro college courses are better than AP, and my view that they are not.

Both of today's guest columnists said they would be happy to receive e-mails, Spoehr at Luther_Spoehr@brown.edu and Reider at jon.reider@sfuhs.org.

Here is Spoehr:

Prof. Casement worries that AP is growing too fast, and to a certain extent I agree with him. In my field of U.S. History, the 1982 AP Exam involved about 40,000 students; last year there were more than 260,000. And I think the fact that some school systems now mandate offering more AP courses when there is rising student demand for them makes it more than likely that some of these courses are being taught by teachers who are insufficiently prepared, to students who are consequently not ready for the exam.

The College Board has not been entirely unresponsive to this problem. They provide online resources and still put on professional development seminars. In addition, the standard for AP U.S. History has been toughened during the past few years; these days barely 50 percent of students taking the exam now get a grade of "3," "4," or "5."

Still, from where I sit (admittedly, with a good view of only this one program), much more needs to be done. The two biggest shortcomings that I see in the would-be AP U.S. History teachers I meet are their sparse knowledge of history and their limited understanding of what it means to "think historically" (and how to teach their students to do so). To many of them, history is just facts and AP History merely requires that they memorize more facts.

Having granted all that, however, I still think that AP U.S. History provides the single best preparation for college history courses now available to students, and that criticisms like Prof. Casement's miss the mark. Let me list some reasons why.

• The AP U.S. History course, which spends more than two thirds of its time on politics, public issues and social history, is one of the last places where students can get a survey course that really insists that they try to understand change over substantial periods of time. Critics who charge such courses with superficiality are often betraying only their own lack of depth.

There is just as much to be said for knowing at least a little about a lot as there is for knowing a lot about a little -- especially if students learn to "think historically" in the process. In the right hands, the survey does not merely supply "background material" for in-depth seminars to come later, but embodies an intellectual approach that is valuable in its own right. That's why the Bradley Commission, more than 10 years ago, argued that every college history department should include a "survey specialist." It hasn't happened.

There's no prestige attached to teaching such "service courses" at the college level, a fact which undoubtedly helps to explain why they are often taught badly or not at all. And I seriously doubt that many college surveys, especially large lecture courses, do any better at teaching "historical thinking" than the high school courses currently do. I have taught the survey at both the high school and college levels, and I know I did a better job in high school, because I had fewer students and more time in class with them.

• Over the years, AP has grown in importance as a college admissions tool. Colleges want applicants who have taken the most challenging courses available, and AP courses, with their very public syllabi, provide that, as well as externally administered exams that provide a rough comparison of performances by students across the country.

Critics such as Prof. Casement should be careful that their criticisms are not taken to mean that schools should simply stop giving AP courses. The potpourri of social studies courses and history electives that would take their place would undoubtedly do a poorer job of educating students and send a less clear and meaningful message to the colleges about what students have achieved.

• On the issue of credit and placement, there is a lot more at work here than Prof. Casement seems to acknowledge. Faculty at elite colleges no less than at so-called "second tier" institutions are protecting departmental "prestige" and enrollments (and enjoying the smug satisfaction of pronouncing the work of others to be inadequate).

In my observation, many college faculty members with strong opinions about the deficiencies of AP know very little about it. In conversations with college faculty from all over, I've made a point of using the term "Document-Based Question" -- just to see how many times it draws a blank look. They do no better when asked what they like or dislike about AP's course of study. These same faculty would be very reluctant, I suspect, to allow students from their own survey courses to be tested on a year's work (as AP students are), not just a semester's, and have their own performances judged by how well their students did.

• College professors who denigrate AP sometimes cite as proof the growing number of elite prep schools that no longer offer AP courses. But such schools are playing their own marketing and branding games. Back when AP was restricted to a self-chosen few, it was to the independent schools' advantage to set themselves apart and offer AP. Now that more than half the high schools in the country offer AP, they're doing it again, implying that "We're too good for AP."

That's nonsense. They're indulging teachers who don't want to (or can't) teach a survey course and flattering their "customers" that they're getting a superior "product." College faculty who end up teaching their graduates will be getting a very mixed bag of students: well prepared in a few areas, woefully unprepared in many others. The already-minuscule amount of core knowledge that college faculty can assume their students bring to the classroom will shrink still further.

AP's emphasis on "content knowledge" is only one way it supports much of current school reform. There are others. Reformers want "high expectations" for students; AP insists on it. They want "accountability"; AP provides an instrument for measuring how your students stack up with students across the country. (So a low-income student at Garfield High in East Los Angeles can demonstrate competence equal to that of an affluent student at the New York private school Fieldston -- at least until Fieldston takes its ball and goes home.) Reformers want "performance-based assessment"; AP exams have included a large component of that for 50 years. They want assessment to be "authentic"; the DBQ, while it obviously can't exactly replicate the whole research-and-writing experience, is as "authentic" an experience as you'll find in any standardized test today.

In other words, it seems to me that there is both more and less to this controversy than meets the eye. While AP courses could and should be improved by improving the preparation of their teachers, these courses are the best thing going right now. College faculty should find ways to get involved with the programs in their local schools and improve them, rather than sticking their noses in the air and sniffing haughtily about their own undefined "high standards." And critics at any level, particularly those who want to abandon AP, should be obliged to state just what they think would work better.

Reider made six points in his message:

• In many years of teaching humanities at Stanford, I saw absolutely no correlation between good academic writing and an AP English score, none whatsoever. The students who did well on the AP had been taught how to ace the tests but not to think or create an argument, and certainly not how to revise a paper. There was some modest correlation between good writing and high verbal SAT scores, but our sample was so skewed to the upper end of the verbal scale that I wouldn't want to rely on that.

• I think some AP courses are better than others, and some do a better job of teaching material appropriate for college freshmen than others. It is important to make some distinctions among these courses. For example, I just don't think the AP syllabus in English is meaningful. How is this a college class? A good teacher who assigns good books to read and meaningful writing assignments will do a fine job. In fact, some AP English classes are so skewed toward preparing for the exam that they assign no lengthy piece of critical writing all year. This is the tail (the exam) wagging the dog (the course.)

• Calculus is almost always better taught in high school than in college. Class size, the legendary ubiquity of teaching assistants with limited English in college calculus classes and the high motivation of the best high school math students all make AP Calculus in high school a good idea. The same is true in foreign language, especially in the literature classes. The AP Literature courses in Spanish, French and Latin are wonderful because of their historical sweep and depth. Sadly, hardly anyone in college takes a standard survey of the history of another country's literature any more.

• I have mixed feelings about AP science courses. On the one hand, bright high school students need the stimulus of advanced work; on the other hand, the level of introductory science in college is now much higher than even a strong high school can teach. AP science classes teach good, useful content; the question is whether it is truly college-level work these days. In my experience, the Stanford science faculty divided according to departments. The physics department created a special advanced honors track for the AP students, and that seemed to work well. The chemistry department had one special course for the AP students, but just for one quarter, sort of dessert before the meal, and then threw everyone back into the standard sequence as if they didn't trust the AP syllabus to really teach the kids the tough stuff. Getting the real stuff was crucial, even if the classes were large and not consistently well taught. The general feeling among Stanford students was that AP Chem in high school, while a very rigorous class, did not cover as much ground as the introductory college classes. The biology department allowed NO exemptions or advanced standing for AP Biology in high school. It was as if it didn't exist. Everyone interested in pursuing biology in college had to take the same introductory biology sequences. Students with AP Biology probably found the going smoother, but that's about it.

• The broad survey classes in history that we took in college in the '60s are becoming rare. History majors now tend to take specialized courses in the Civil War or the Russian Revolution without always having a broad background. Thus the AP history courses in high school provide a valuable, even a crucial, service in giving students enough "cultural literacy" so that they know who Andrew Jackson and Machiavelli were. The widespread availability of these courses in high schools has led to the decline of the college survey history class, as college faculty prefer to teach courses in their own specialties. Yet to abolish them would be the equivalent of a college math department no longer teaching calculus.

At the same time, AP History courses don't really teach historical thinking at the college level. They do not require the same level of reading in primary and secondary sources; they still rely heavily on standard, if sophisticated, textbooks. The much-touted trademark of Document-Based Questions is a clever imitation of professional historical synthesis. The true history student must compile these on their own; AP History, out of necessity, pre-selects them. Better than nothing, but not college-level work. These are still excellent high school courses, well worth a bright student's investment of intellectual energy. Unlike Calculus and French Literature, they are just not college courses, as history is now usually taught at the college level.

• Then there are all the new neo-AP or "AP Lite" courses in fields not usually associated with high school curricula, such as: psychology, economics, human geography, statistics, art history, etc. The rate at which these courses sprout from the College Board suggests that the pursuit of revenue is a salient motive in their development rather than the original justification of providing greater challenge for high school students. In what way do these courses fulfill a real need that is not better served by college courses? How different is this from all the different kinds of Pepsi you can buy now?

It is not at all clear that high schools should offer such courses or to what extent they advance the educational mission of high schools, other than offering more choice. There is nothing high school students like more than electives. Giving highly regimented high school students some modicum of choice in their senior years is not a terrible thing, of course. I confess to liking AP Art History and AP Studio Art in particular, because they lend the AP imprimatur, and thus an incentive to take them, to courses which raise significant aesthetic questions, something high school students will benefit from, but which they often won't make the time for in college.

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive


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