Nearly All Area AP Teachers Get Passing Grades in Audit

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

When the College Board announced last year that every high school Advanced Placement teacher would have to prove he or she was actually teaching a college-level course, there was widespread fear the process would purge worthy teachers from the program, weeding out good courses along with the bad.

They needn't have worried. In the first quality-control audit of the AP program, no AP teacher or course was rejected in the Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George's or District school systems, according to area education officials. Of the 146,671 AP courses submitted for review nationwide, 136,853, or 93 percent, were approved.

The year-long audit, which ended in January, addressed mounting concern that rapid expansion of the college-preparatory program over the past decade had brought about a decline in the rigor for which it is known and that some students were not learning material worthy of an introductory college course.

But the ease with which many teachers passed the audit has prompted some to question its value. Thousands of teachers submitted exact copies of course outlines from colleagues who had been previously audited and approved. The College Board condoned the practice, as long as everyone submitting the same syllabus vowed to teach more or less the same course.

"A lot of people figured out the game real quick," said Saroja Ringo, an AP world history teacher at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. "Once you got one syllabus in your school district that passed, everybody just submitted the same one."

Auditors approved every AP course offered in the Fairfax and Montgomery school systems, the largest in the region. In the District and Prince George's systems, where AP offerings are comparatively uneven, all but a handful of classes were approved, and the rest are still under review, officials said.

Officials in four other counties -- Charles, Loudoun, Prince William and St. Mary's -- reported that all AP courses had passed the audit, with the exception of a few courses in Charles and Loudoun that remained under review.

Trevor Packer, College Board vice president for AP, said the audit illustrates that "most AP teachers were teaching effective courses." Educators said the overwhelming success of local school systems shows the strength of AP offerings in the Washington region. It also refutes the fears, voiced by many teachers during the 12-month process, that course outlines were being haphazardly rejected by the college professors who were enlisted to read them.

Horror stories spread in the early weeks of the audit: Only two-thirds of courses were approved on the first try, and teachers with decades of experience were rejected for minor omissions. But auditors offered one-on-one help to teachers who had been rejected, and teachers began circulating successful course outlines, which colleagues gratefully copied.

"After a while, it was clear that their intent was to improve the course curriculum. They weren't out to get anyone," said Faye Brenner, who oversees AP in Fairfax.

AP courses and end-of-course tests, given in the spring, present high school students with college-level work; those who score well on the tests may be able to enter college with advanced standing. The program has nearly doubled nationwide in this decade, with the number of tests administered increasing from 1.3 million in 2000 to 2.5 million last year.

For the audit, teachers were asked to submit documents to prove the courses they taught deserved the AP brand. Teachers could revise and resubmit a rejected syllabus as many times as they liked. Only approved courses may be listed as AP on a student transcript from now on, although anyone may take an AP test.

The audit does not seem to have slowed the expansion of AP. Packer said the number of exams ordered this year reflects a 9 percent increase over last year, "and that's the exact same growth rate as we've seen in past years."

Locally, auditors approved 709 AP courses in 22 Fairfax high schools and 795 courses in 25 Montgomery high schools. In Prince George's, 292 of 300 courses were approved, with the rest under review. D.C. school officials provided no data on courses but said that 144 AP teachers had been audited and approved. Some school systems could not supply audit data because of their Easter break.

A list of courses approved at individual schools is available in a new online AP course ledger. It shows, for example, 57 approved AP courses at Thomas Jefferson High School, the Fairfax magnet school, and nine at Central High School in Capitol Heights, where students took just two AP tests last May and passed one. AP officials stress that a well-taught course does not guarantee success on the exam.

Packer said many school systems used the audit as an opportunity to decide on a uniform lesson plan for each course. He stressed that teachers who handed in duplicate course outlines "are giving us their word that they are using this in the classroom."

Ringo, a lauded AP teacher, submitted a syllabus written by a colleague at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda that had already been approved and reflected what she teaches.

But teachers with little grasp of the program could cheat the system by handing in the work of a better-informed colleague. The College Board has no way to root out such abuse, although officials said they will use remote tools, such as course descriptions on school Web sites, to police the effort.

Teachers had the most trouble getting approval for foreign language and literature courses and for subjects relatively new to AP. Courses in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish literature, music theory and Italian all had approval rates lower than 90 percent. Established courses such as English language and U.S. history fared better.

At Wakefield High School in Arlington, all but two AP teachers had their courses approved on the first attempt. Mike Grill, AP coordinator at the school, said the AP music theory teacher had to re-submit his syllabus because he had omitted a grading scale.

"You would call a number, and you'd actually get a live voice to kind of explain what was missing from your syllabus," Grill said.

Although there's a common sentiment among area AP teachers that the audit did not accomplish much, College Board officials point to survey results, collected during the audit, that show that 14 percent of teachers used the process as a way to "gain or preserve" adequate instructional or laboratory time to teach their courses. One-quarter of first-year AP teachers reported using the audit to leverage higher-quality textbooks. Some teachers said the audit alerted them to changes in the course that they had not incorporated into their lessons.

"For very experienced AP teachers, the audit provided minimal value," Packer said. New teachers, by contrast, "found the audit essential," he said. "They felt that they didn't know fully what they were supposed to be teaching until they went through the audit."

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