David Keener, who teaches Advanced Placement biology at T.C. Williams High School, can frighten his students just by reaching for his desk drawer -- that being the first indication they are going to get one of his famous pop quizzes.
Wakefield High School AP psychology teacher Tonya Guiffre helps her students learn the subject's complex vocabulary by having them design crossword puzzles using the terms.
Doug Grove, who teaches AP psychology at Washington-Lee High School, reminds his students that the best way to keep AP test graders from overlooking the points students are trying to make on the exam is to underline each one.
Keener, Guiffre and Grove are different teachers at different schools, but they have three things in common. First, they all teach AP classes -- college-level courses with independently written and graded exams; by taking them, students can earn college credit. Second, they are among the most successful teachers at their schools in preparing students for the three-hour AP exams. Third, they illustrate the emerging possibility of using AP results -- which are public records in Alexandria and Arlington -- to assess the quality of individual teachers in local schools.
Keener, who has been teaching AP biology at Alexandria's T.C. Williams since 1990, had all but one of his students receive passing scores on the 2003 exam, and that was a bit below his usual performance. It was the first time in 24 years that he did not have every single student pass the test.
Slightly more than 81 percent of Guiffre's (pronounced Joo-FRAY) students passed the AP psychology test in 2003; nearly 81 percent of Grove's passed the same test at Washington-Lee. Those were the highest AP passing rates at their schools except for AP Spanish, where 92.2 percent passed at Wakefield and 100 percent passed at Washington-Lee.
AP and its smaller counterpart, International Baccalaureate, give students college-level courses and tests in high school to prepare them for the long reading lists and lengthy exams they will encounter in college. For years, AP and IB were small programs that involved only a few A students. But the programs have grown tremendously in recent years, particularly in the Washington area. At the five public high schools in Alexandria and Arlington, most students take at least one college-level course.
Nationally, some parents have begun to ask to see individual class results to determine which educators are doing a good job teaching the courses and which aren't. Arlington and Alexandria school officials say they will give the data to those who ask for it, although Kathleen Wills, the director of planning and evaluation for Arlington schools, said she will not release the results of AP or IB courses that have fewer than three students because it would violate student privacy by making it possible to discern individual scores.
Nearly all other Washington area school systems except for Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties say they will release the data if asked, with some restrictions for small classes. A Manassas city school official said the district probably would not release the data.
AP and IB exams are the only standardized tests whose results are publicly available on a class-by-class basis in the Washington area. Parents are told how their children performed on state tests, such as the Virginia Standards of Learning exams, but states generally do not report those scores on a teacher-by-teacher basis.
IB exams are graded on a seven-point scale, with scores of 4 and higher earning credit at many colleges. AP exams are graded on a five-point scale, with a 5 being the equivalent of a college A, a 4 the equivalent of a B, 3 a C, 2 a D and 1 an F. IB scores of 4 and above and AP scores of 3 and above are generally considered passing scores.
AP and IB results can be used to assess an individual teacher's work only if that teacher is the only one in the school teaching that subject. For instance, the AP data released by Arlington County shows that 26 Washington-Lee students took the AP psychology exam in May 2003, and all of them were Grove's students. Seven students earned 5s, seven got 4s, seven got 3s, three scored 2s and two students scored a grade of 1.
At Wakefield, 11 students took the AP psychology exam, all of them in Guiffre's class. Three students earned 5s, four got 4s, two had 3s and two earned a grade of 1.
The T.C. Williams AP grade report for May 2003 shows 41 students took AP biology, all of them in Keener's classes. Twenty-three students earned 5s, eight scored 4s, nine had 3s and one scored a grade of 2.
Despite their success in preparing students for the exams, Grove, Guiffre and Keener either advised caution in using AP and IB results to judge teachers or opposed doing so at all.
"I think any information parents can get is good," Guiffre said. But she said parents should remember a phrase she teaches her students: "Correlation does not equal causation. . . . Just because there is a relationship between two variables does not mean that one causes the other."
Guiffre, 36, grew up in Arlington and attended Yorktown before getting a degree in history and political science at Mary Washington College, now the University of Mary Washington. She started the AP psychology course at Wakefield in 1999 and developed a system of giving students frequent vocabulary reviews and practice doing the kinds of free-response questions that make up half of the exam. A typical question will describe a psychology experiment and ask students to point out the researcher's mistakes.
Guiffre said in the first years, 60 percent to 65 percent of her students passed the AP test, so "I was absolutely on cloud nine when I saw the scores in 2003." This year she had 16 AP students -- they'll get their results in a few weeks -- and she expects to have 21 in the fall.
Graduating senior Nora O'Reilly, who plans to major in psychology at James Madison University, said she "really felt prepared" in Guiffre's class "because she explained things so well."
Grove, 40 and himself a graduate of Washington-Lee, said there are several factors outside of a teacher's control that can affect AP scores, such as whether the exam is given at the beginning or end of the long and exhausting May testing season at Washington-Lee, which gives both AP and IB exams.
Like Guiffre, he created the first AP psychology course at his school five years ago. He too has his students write a great deal to prepare them for the analysis required on the exam. He organizes students into small groups to work on some questions and insists that they underline important points on their exams so that weary graders will not miss their work.
He recalled how one student handed in a paper early in the year in which he had underlined every word.
"You said you wanted us to underline," the boy said when he saw Grove's puzzled look.
"If you underline everything," Grove said, "then in effect you are underlining nothing."
Keener, 58, came to T.C. Williams in 1990 after 11 years teaching AP biology at Bishop Ireton and Paul IV Catholic high schools. He said he decided to leave the priesthood because he realized education was his primary calling and he wanted to devote all his time to that.
He has gained legendary status at T.C. Williams and leadership of the science department with energetic lectures that put concepts learned weeks before together with the newest material.
"He is so excited about what he is teaching, and he really passed that on to the kids," said Barbara Stoddard, a rising junior who took AP biology this year.
Keener's pop quizzes bring moans from his students, but the regular reviews seem to work.
He said he was not in favor of the Alexandria School Board's decision this year to adopt the practice used in Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties that requires all students in AP classes to take the accompanying AP exams. Students who do not need the course for credit might not try their best, he said, and he feared the test results could be used in just the way some parents want them to be used -- to evaluate teachers.
He said he has been assured that Alexandria administrators will not use the results in that way. And although parents and students will have access to the scores, he said he hopes they will not use them to decide which teachers are best.
"There are just too many factors that go into what happens in the classroom," he said.