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.
Since its Jan. 23 launch, the audit has drawn submissions from 55,000 teachers, Matts said. University professors review the courses and usually respond within two months. Seventy-four percent of courses have been approved to date. Unsuccessful teachers are encouraged to resubmit up to three times, with guidance from the College Board. Once approved, teachers and their syllabuses are sanctioned until they move to another school or the course requirements change.
Wendy Borrelli, who has taught AP Literature and Composition at Springbrook High for two years, earned approval on her first try. She completed the audit in a day and submitted it the first week the College Board would take it.
"The bulk of what I sent them was the real syllabus that I give my students each semester," Borrelli said. She concedes that the audit would be more work "if you weren't the kind of organized or, shall I say, anal-retentive teacher that I am."
For college admissions officers, the audit might assuage rising doubts about the value of the AP stamp on an applicant's transcript. They, more than any other group, pushed for the review, driven by the steep increase in applicants claiming an AP pedigree.
"Is it possible to expand these courses as fast as they have and maintain their quality?" asked Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University in Fairfax County. "Anecdotally, what we're hearing from people is that that's a huge challenge: that the classes have gotten significantly larger and that the push to get so many people into [them] has led to a tendency or a temptation to lower the rigor of the course."
Matts said college officials nationwide were "curious to know what has happened to the curriculum when we're seeing a 150 percent increase in the number of students taking these classes over the past 10 years." He cited well-traveled anecdotes about schools that "simply make up courses and call them AP."
Although fast-growing AP programs in the Alexandria, Fairfax, Montgomery and Arlington County systems retain a uniformly high caliber, veteran teachers there say, they have seen or heard of scofflaws elsewhere. In a typical scenario, a school combines disparate groups of honors and AP students into a vaguely defined AP course without intending to teach the advanced curriculum or to prepare students for the end-of-course exam.
"They'll call it AP, but you end up with two of 26 kids taking the AP test," said Mel Riddile, principal of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. "Is that really an AP course?"
Students might have the most at stake. An aspiring pre-med student might learn in the fall that the AP biology course on her high school schedule has been downgraded to the more generic "honors." This, in turn, could affect what she is taught in the class and her chances for taking, let alone passing, the prized AP biology exam, a gateway to college credit and advanced standing. (Taking an AP course by itself is not enough to earn college credit; a student must take and score well on the corresponding exam.)
Also at stake might be the prestige factor of the course on a high school transcript and the potential for lost bonus points awarded for AP study, with a corresponding effect on class rank.
Some teachers remain skeptical of the audit: What's to stop lazy AP teachers from copying another teacher's syllabus and passing it off as their own? Who will ensure that lesson plans approved by the College Board will actually be taught?
Supporters of the audit effort, however, say it's a step in the right direction.
The mean AP exam score dipped from 3.01 in May 2000 to 2.89 in May 2006, on a five-point scale, a modest erosion in a span of years when the number of exams taken doubled to 2 million.
Of greater concern than the scores -- to critics, at least -- is the growing number of AP students who never take the exam.
Matts, of the College Board, contends that "students benefit even without the exam."
But Riddile says the test is the ultimate measure of AP success.
"What's the only way you can assure that's an AP course?" he said. "That's that the student in that course took the AP assessment, and here's their score."