To Be AP, Courses Must Pass Muster

Wendy Borrelli, with students Danny Green, left, Kelly Callan, right, and Jason Hernandez, foreground, teaches AP classes at Springbrook High in Silver Spring.
Wendy Borrelli, with students Danny Green, left, Kelly Callan, right, and Jason Hernandez, foreground, teaches AP classes at Springbrook High in Silver Spring. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

While her students at Blake High School prepare for an Advanced Placement exam that measures whether they know college-level world history, Saroja Ringo is being asked to prove she knows how to teach it.

The College Board, publisher of college-preparatory exams, is auditing every Advanced Placement course in the nation, asking teachers of an estimated 130,000 AP courses to furnish written proof by June 1 that the courses they teach are worthy of the brand.

An explosion in AP study -- participation in the program has nearly doubled this decade -- has bred worry, particularly among college leaders, of a decline in the rigor for which the courses are known. Once the exclusive province of elite students at select high schools, AP study or its equivalent is now more or less expected of any student who aspires to attend even a marginally selective college.

In the haste to remain competitive in the AP arms race, schools sometimes award the designation to courses that barely resemble the college curriculum the program is meant to deliver, according to College Board officials and educators. Until now, there has been no large-scale effort to weed out such abuse.

"Anybody could just say, 'I'm teaching an AP course; I'm an AP teacher. There's no protocol,' " said Ringo, who teaches AP World History at the Silver Spring school and works as an official grader of the exams.

Beginning with the 2007-08 academic year, only teachers whose syllabuses have been approved by the College Board may call their courses AP. Each teacher must submit an audit form, along with a syllabus for the course he or she teaches. Depending on how well the teacher's syllabus -- assuming he or she has one -- reflects the rigor expected by the College Board, the process can be brief or time-consuming.

The task has been met with no small amount of grumbling. Montgomery County teachers loosed an angry volley of e-mails over the exercise, mostly along the lines of "Why me?" and "Why now?" But many faculty begrudgingly accept that some quality control is needed, lest the AP program spiral out of control.

"I think the teachers are sympathetic in hindsight," said Stephanie Valentine, who oversees the program at Springbrook High in Silver Spring. "Not while they're doing it."

The implications for high schools and colleges, students and teachers are enormous.

One would be a probable decline -- after years of double-digit growth -- in the number of courses labeled Advanced Placement. College Board officials have set a goal of approving at least 105,000 AP courses, of an estimated 130,000 nationwide. The attrition, they predict, would come mainly from teachers who decline to participate. No school will be restricted from giving the exams, although students without adequate preparation are unlikely to take them.

Tom Matts, a College Board official who oversees the audit, said its purpose is to help teachers elevate their courses.

"We're not trying to eliminate any courses," he said, "but to help teachers understand what needs to be in the course and to provide evidence in the syllabus" that college-level material is being taught.

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