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Auditors Rejecting AP Course Syllabuses

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Students of David Keener, an ex-priest who teaches at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, almost always pass the Advanced Placement biology exam. So when the teacher submitted a description of his course for the College Board's first quality-control audit of the AP program, nobody thought there would be a problem.

A clean audit was also expected for Frazier O'Leary of Cardozo High School in the District. The College Board has often asked the highly regarded AP English teacher, who has long experience in urban education, to help train others to meet the challenge of teaching at a college level.

Yet Keener, O'Leary and other AP veterans in the last few months have met with a surprising initial response from auditors: rejection. Most ultimately win approval, but the new audits begun this year have rubbed raw the already bruised relations between some high school AP teachers and the college professors who are rating them.

Area school officials say auditors have penalized teachers for trivial omissions and sometimes have failed to read the course descriptions carefully. The teachers involved say they are willing to rewrite the descriptions but wonder why their records of classroom achievement are ignored.

College Board officials say 51 percent of the 132,433 AP teachers who have been audited so far say the process has improved their courses. The officials acknowledge that some rejections have been for small flaws, but they say corrections are easy to make and 90 percent of all submissions have been approved.

The New York-based College Board is a nonprofit association of schools, colleges, universities and other organizations that provides, among other services, the SAT and AP testing programs.

The audit has had a big impact in the Washington area, which has the highest AP test participation in the country. Faye Brenner, advanced academic program specialist for Fairfax County schools, said her teachers are patiently making changes and resubmitting course descriptions, or syllabuses, but many are not happy about the red tape.

"What is frustrating is that this is an exercise in paperwork and may not always reflect what is going on in the classroom," she said.

Exacerbating the friction is the fact that 95 percent of the auditors are college introductory course instructors, working on campuses where AP is a growing threat to their revenue and, sometimes, their self-respect. From 1999 to 2007, the number of AP exams with scores high enough to qualify students for college credit, thus enabling them to skip some introductory college courses, doubled to 1.5 million.

AP is the country's largest program of college-level courses taught in high school. Such courses are virtually required for applicants to selective colleges. They are popular with students, who say that they have made it easier to adjust to college academic demands, but many college and university officials have reacted to the perceived threat to their introductory courses by cutting back credit for AP. Some complain that high school teachers cannot match the level of instruction their faculty provide.

The AP audit was designed in part to buttress the argument that AP courses -- coupled with the AP exams -- are just as good as college introductory courses. Many high school administrators say AP is even better because it has teachers such as Keener and O'Leary, who are more experienced in adjusting to different learning styles and have more time with students than the overburdened graduate students and professors who handle introductory courses in the state universities where most Americans get their degrees.

Some AP teachers complain that their college professor auditors are not only ignorant of the teaching records of the people they are auditing but are alarmingly inconsistent in their judgments. Patrick Welsh, an AP English teacher at T.C. Williams who has been recruited many times by the College Board to grade AP exams, called it a "bureaucratic mess." He said he and three other teachers submitted identical syllabuses for an AP English Literature course they are teaching this year. One syllabus was accepted. The other three, including his, were rejected. When three teachers in Fairfax submitted the same syllabus, one was accepted, one rejected with three suggested revisions and one rejected with eight suggested revisions.

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