Re-thinking AP: Thank Goodness, but will it be enough?

In my own effort to lead a 21st century school, I am finding no issue more difficult than determining the appropriate role of the AP exam and AP exam preparation curriculum.

It cannot be ignored that the AP is an important symbol and signifier to many families of a high caliber academic college prep secondary curriculum, and I can’t simply ignore or override the priority and value current and prospective families may place on an AP program.   To its credit, over a period of several decades, the College Board’s AP curriculum did indeed assist valuably in raising the rigor and academic standards of many unfortunately academically mediocre high schools across the nation.

The AP provides a tremendous challenge to many high school students, and I use that term, challenge, in praise: the AP can be an Everest, looming high on the horizon and calling out to many an ambitious 15 year old to work harder and to make the commitment to climb and conquer it.    Looking back on my experience as an AP US History student, I know the course demanded much of me and I know I was thrilled to respond to it, and I enormously enjoyed taking the AP US History exam.

The AP may also still loom too large in the minds of too many college admissions officers.  It is becoming clear that increasingly many of the most important, most selective, most analytical, most thoughtful colleges and universities have recognized the sharp limitations and deep flaws of the AP curriculum, and so hold harmless a student’s AP-free transcript.  But it is not apparent whether this understanding has percolated yet as widely and thoroughly as it needs to across the great breadth of selective colleges and universities.

But, good golly: The AP, particularly in the History and Science subject areas, has become the antithesis of 21st century learning. It privileges breadth over depth and memorization/regurgitation over critical thinking and applied problem-solving.  (More on this just below) (The DBQ section of the AP History exams is an exception.)  For a terrific conversation about the significance and value of a less is more educational approach, see David Truss’ post here.

In my own current leadership, 18 months into it, I know that I have deferred too long confronting this quandry.  I have asked for, encouraged, supported, and celebrated each and every initiative which promotes depth, critical thinking, and rigorous project-based learning.   But in doing so, it only makes the AP course curriculum less well aligned with our school’s educational philosophy and approach.

So today’s New York Times Education Life cover story, ReThinking Advanced Placement comes not a moment too soon, offering both strong articulation of the AP’s failings, and yet also optimism for a successful revamp.   It acknowledges powerfully the problem, praises the course taken by many schools away from the AP, and also offers hope for a coming resolution between the kind of learning that is most important today and the kind of learning the AP assesses.

The problem, as the Times helpfully articulates:

[An AP Bio class]  now confronts a book with 56 chapters and 1,400 pages, along with a profusion of animated videos and Web-based aids that supplement the text.

A.P. teachers have long complained that lingering for an extra 10 or 15 minutes on a topic can be a zero-sum game, squeezing out something else that needs to be covered for the exam. PowerPoint lectures are the rule. The homework wears down many students. And studies show that most schools do the same canned laboratory exercises, providing little sense of the thrill of scientific discovery.

A committee of the National Research Council, a part of the National Academy of Sciences, called attention to these problems in 2002. It criticized A.P. science courses for cramming in too much material and failing to let students design their own lab experiments. It also said the courses had failed to keep pace with research on how people learn: instead of listening to lectures, “more real learning takes place if students spend more time going into greater depth on fewer topics, allowing them to experience problem solving, controversies and the subtleties of scholarly investigation.”

[Teachers are]  also frustrated by the predictable nature of many of the “dirty dozen,” the teachers’ nickname for the basic lab exercises now recommended by the College Board. In one that her class did last fall, the students looked at pre-stained slides of onion root tips to identify the stages of cell division and calculate the duration of the phases.

As the NYTimes article explains, many schools are responding to these AP curriculum flaws by taking their own course away from the AP, a course that my own school is discussing and a vital issue about which I need to elevate my own leadership and engage my community in confronting more directly and resolving more clearly.

I have the greatest respect for the educators who are charting a course away from AP: they are among our most intentional, deliberate, and thoughtful secondary educators.   The NY Times:

Several elite private high schools have also dropped A.P. courses. In defiance, the public school district in Scarsdale, N.Y., created its own in-depth courses called Advanced Topics. (For college credit, students still have to do well on the A.P. or another placement exam.)

It is unfortunate the Times chose not to name the vanguard organization of schools leading this movement, the Independent Curriculum Group.  Its website is a valuable articulation of their philosophy and a compelling advocacy for a change.

In my own educational career, one of my proudest moments was a revamping of the junior/senior History  English curricula at my first high school, Maybeck.   There we dropped the permanent, static, year-long comprehensive survey classes (Modern History, Advanced English), and replaced them with dynamic, semester-length, topical inquiry courses: Origins of the Holocaust, 20th century Poetry).  I love what happened for students and teachers both after this change, the charge of teaching more to passions, teaching more in depth, teaching more by inquiry.

It would be a very exciting initiative to become an Advanced Topics, rather than AP, school.  I can be tempted into the attractions of a 9-12 topical curricular experience, where all “survey” and introductory overview courses are dropped and instead every course becomes a semester length analytical study of a compelling  and often interdisciplinary question: what were the origins of the Holocaust?  How did Darwin derive natural selection?   When will come the singularity?  How do you design a suspension bridge?  How opposed are Islam and Christianity?   Graduates of such a school might emerge brilliantly.

And yet, I still keep returning to the value of external assessments.   This puts me, I know, perhaps in a small minority among the outstanding educators with whom I most associate, and so I say this with some hesitation.     A well designed external assessment, like I think often happens in the CWRA and the IB, and like perhaps may happen in a reinvented AP, offers strong value to educational excellence.   I love that teachers all over can diverge and vary in their teaching methods and yet converge on a common assessment, and be able to use the data results of their student success to inform the effectiveness of their approach.  (Data should inform, not replace, judgement).

I like too the idea that we as educators can externalize the enemy and then take our students’ side.   Rather than having to be both advocate and judge, we can be exclusively and entirely advocates for our students, supporting them with all our heart to tackle and overcome a very challenging task–climbing a genuine Everest.   Like many of my friends, I think teaching to a poorly designed test which measures things which don’t matter very much is poor instruction.  Unlike many of my friends, I think teaching to a well-designed test which measures and evaluates what is most important can be powerful and valuable instruction.

So perhaps there is very good news here– perhaps the College Board will reinvent the AP, particularly in History and Science, to be a “good test.”   The Times piece offers us this optimism:

A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like. The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking. In biology, a host of more creative, hands-on experiments are intended to help students think more like scientists.

“We really believe that the New A.P. needs to be anchored in a curriculum that focuses on what students need to be able to do with their knowledge,” Mr. Packer says. A.P. teachers made clear that such a shift was impossible unless the breadth of material covered was pared down.

The New AP tests will still have some multiple choice questions, but many fewer, and more importantly, there is a promise that they will be different in nature:

“There won’t be any more questions like: here is a plant, and what is this tissue?” says Professor Uno of the University of Oklahoma, who is helping to decide what will be asked. Instead, early samples show that the multiple-choice questions will be more complex. They will require students to read short passages, or look at graphs, and pick the answers that explain why something happened or that predict what will occur next.

The multiple choice sample questions provided entail reading comprehension and an ability to interpret from documents and apply analytical thinking.  Examples can be found here.   I worry still that multiple choice questions by their nature narrow thinking and teach students to believe that intellectual life is about determining the one right answer, but all things considered, this is a good improvement.

Also very exciting about the change is the revamping of the required science laboratories.  AP science teachers rightfully deeply resent the required dumbing down of the current AP labs, formulaic and rote.    But the change is coming.

The basic question: What factors affect the rate of photosynthesis in living plants? The new twist: Instead of being guided through the process, groups of two or three students had to dream up their own hypotheses and figure out how to test them.

This is excellent reform, about which we can and should celebrate.   There is much still to learn, of course, about the AP changes, and we have to ask whether these promised changes will go far enough?   They certainly will not go far enough for many fine progressive educators, whom I respect, who will always opposed teaching to an external test.   And the College Board may feel the pull of the traditionalists too greatly and seek a balance point too rooted in the past way of doing things.

But I want to hold out an optimism, and offer a great encouragement to the “reinventors” that they keep pushing hard to make AP exams relevant to the 21st century learner.

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