March 27, 2007

## Advanced ego

The number and score of students taking Advanced Placement (AP) exams is

a) a good indicator of progress in the county

b) a testament to how well MCPS is doing compared to the nation

c) a testament to better preparation and teaching

The Montgomery County Board of Education (BOE) recently released their budget-operating plan for the 2008 fiscal year. The BOE justified its spending plan by boasting about reforms that have brought "unprecedented academic achievement" in MCPS students; achievement measured in part by the performance of Advanced Placement test takers. While MCPS is using such performance to prove they have created better-educated students, all the statistics really show is a watering-down of the curriculum and a push for course enrollment.

The Class of 2006 broke the previous class's record on AP "achievement," with 56 percent of the class taking at least one AP exam and 45 percent scoring a 3 or above, according to the MCPS announcement. While both the percent of students taking APs and score averages are much higher than ten years ago, when very few students took AP classes, the county is drawing a faulty comparison.

Currently, neither the quality nor the rigor of AP courses has remained intact, as the AP curriculum has gone through a systematic watering down. This leads to a false generalization, on MCPS's part, of "effective" achievement. Rather than improving education in schools and narrowing the achievement gap, the county has simply modified the curriculum of its classes to encourage more students to take "higher-level" classes.

When AP classes were first implemented in 1955, they were rigorous, challenging classes, equivalents of freshman or sophomore college courses. "But AP isn't doing what it used to do," magnet math teacher Eric Walstein said. Walstein, who has been teaching at Blair since 1986, has witnessed the change in the curriculum. "Kids are coming to me thinking they know calculus because they took AP Calculus but they really don't because material is being taken out and preparation [for the exams] is bad."

Walstein voices a sad truth about MCPS's push for more kids to take AP classes. Instead of the classes being the college-level courses they are supposed to be, they are being tailored into Honors classes, with many Honors classes regressing to on-level classes. Walstein described it as "course-labeling inflation." More students may be taking AP classes, but without a truly challenging curriculum, the term loses its prestige and value as an indicator of progress.

For example, the College Board implemented a change in its AP Calculus curriculum in 1997, in which material was taken out of the BC Calculus exam (the harder of the two calculus varieties). Since then, the number of students taking BC Calculus has skyrocketed and the ratio of students taking AB Calculus to BC Calculus has plummeted. So, while on the surface it may appear that more students are taking a harder class, in truth, these students are merely taking an entirely different – and easier – class with the same name.

That's not to say that taking AP classes is bad. College and Career Center Assistant Cathy Henderson-Stein said that admission representatives want to see students challenge themselves, and that AP classes are a great way to show them diligence. "If you want to take six or seven AP classes and handle it, then I'm all for that," she said. While Henderson-Stein is correct that AP classes are still harder than regular classes and thus beneficial for higher-level students, the fact that more students are taking them does not show progress.

George Vlasits, who has been teaching AP U.S. History for the past 14 years says, "I think we use statistics to show what we want to show." He agrees that the "achievement" of 45 percent of last year's class taking an AP and scoring a 3 or higher is overblown. A grader of the actual AP tests, Vlasits testifies that although the number of students who take an AP exam has greatly increased, the percentage of students getting a 3 or above has stayed the same.

AP tests are graded on a curve, meaning that a student's score is based on the comparison between how they did and how everyone else does. This way, even though achievement may be down on these tests across the board, the statistics still show students performing well. So while some may argue that an improvement in actual test scores shows that MCPS is doing its job, if counties across the country are also watering-down their curriculums, the percent improvements mean nothing.

AP classes can be highly beneficial for students, but it is clear that they should not be used to mark achievement in high schoolers. The fact that more students are taking AP tests is merely a testimony to the school faculty's ability to motivate kids to sign up for more challenging courses. Yet, if these students end up not learning as much as they should in these classes or getting false indicators of their performance from their AP scores, the student is the one who ends up at a loss. Rather than inflating these numbers to make the county look better, MCPS should promote the real achievements – teachers who teach students more than just how to pass standardized tests.

a) a good indicator of progress in the county

b) a testament to how well MCPS is doing compared to the nation

c) a testament to better preparation and teaching

**d) none of the above**The Montgomery County Board of Education (BOE) recently released their budget-operating plan for the 2008 fiscal year. The BOE justified its spending plan by boasting about reforms that have brought "unprecedented academic achievement" in MCPS students; achievement measured in part by the performance of Advanced Placement test takers. While MCPS is using such performance to prove they have created better-educated students, all the statistics really show is a watering-down of the curriculum and a push for course enrollment.

The Class of 2006 broke the previous class's record on AP "achievement," with 56 percent of the class taking at least one AP exam and 45 percent scoring a 3 or above, according to the MCPS announcement. While both the percent of students taking APs and score averages are much higher than ten years ago, when very few students took AP classes, the county is drawing a faulty comparison.

Currently, neither the quality nor the rigor of AP courses has remained intact, as the AP curriculum has gone through a systematic watering down. This leads to a false generalization, on MCPS's part, of "effective" achievement. Rather than improving education in schools and narrowing the achievement gap, the county has simply modified the curriculum of its classes to encourage more students to take "higher-level" classes.

When AP classes were first implemented in 1955, they were rigorous, challenging classes, equivalents of freshman or sophomore college courses. "But AP isn't doing what it used to do," magnet math teacher Eric Walstein said. Walstein, who has been teaching at Blair since 1986, has witnessed the change in the curriculum. "Kids are coming to me thinking they know calculus because they took AP Calculus but they really don't because material is being taken out and preparation [for the exams] is bad."

Walstein voices a sad truth about MCPS's push for more kids to take AP classes. Instead of the classes being the college-level courses they are supposed to be, they are being tailored into Honors classes, with many Honors classes regressing to on-level classes. Walstein described it as "course-labeling inflation." More students may be taking AP classes, but without a truly challenging curriculum, the term loses its prestige and value as an indicator of progress.

For example, the College Board implemented a change in its AP Calculus curriculum in 1997, in which material was taken out of the BC Calculus exam (the harder of the two calculus varieties). Since then, the number of students taking BC Calculus has skyrocketed and the ratio of students taking AB Calculus to BC Calculus has plummeted. So, while on the surface it may appear that more students are taking a harder class, in truth, these students are merely taking an entirely different – and easier – class with the same name.

That's not to say that taking AP classes is bad. College and Career Center Assistant Cathy Henderson-Stein said that admission representatives want to see students challenge themselves, and that AP classes are a great way to show them diligence. "If you want to take six or seven AP classes and handle it, then I'm all for that," she said. While Henderson-Stein is correct that AP classes are still harder than regular classes and thus beneficial for higher-level students, the fact that more students are taking them does not show progress.

George Vlasits, who has been teaching AP U.S. History for the past 14 years says, "I think we use statistics to show what we want to show." He agrees that the "achievement" of 45 percent of last year's class taking an AP and scoring a 3 or higher is overblown. A grader of the actual AP tests, Vlasits testifies that although the number of students who take an AP exam has greatly increased, the percentage of students getting a 3 or above has stayed the same.

AP tests are graded on a curve, meaning that a student's score is based on the comparison between how they did and how everyone else does. This way, even though achievement may be down on these tests across the board, the statistics still show students performing well. So while some may argue that an improvement in actual test scores shows that MCPS is doing its job, if counties across the country are also watering-down their curriculums, the percent improvements mean nothing.

AP classes can be highly beneficial for students, but it is clear that they should not be used to mark achievement in high schoolers. The fact that more students are taking AP tests is merely a testimony to the school faculty's ability to motivate kids to sign up for more challenging courses. Yet, if these students end up not learning as much as they should in these classes or getting false indicators of their performance from their AP scores, the student is the one who ends up at a loss. Rather than inflating these numbers to make the county look better, MCPS should promote the real achievements – teachers who teach students more than just how to pass standardized tests.

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## Discuss this Article

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awesome

Students of good teachers who don't teach to a test will still do much better than students of bad teachers who spend their time on test prep. Simple as that.

Also, the whole point of AP is to prepare for a test. Teaching to the test may help me get a higher score, but it will not help me learn the subject, which I believe is more important than any test score. I've taken several AP classes, and besides physics (which is double period), none has been even close to what I would imagine a college level class being like. Maybe I'm just over-estimating the difficulty of a college class, but I'd like to believe they are a bit tougher than your average high school class and that they actually demand some independent work rather than the teacher just telling the students everything and teaching them how to pass a test.

Regarding the difficulty of an AP class compared to the equivalent college course, I can only speak about the two AP classes I have taught, AB Calculus and AP Statistics. I can assure you that each is on par with the college curriculum, if not more difficult, due to the vastness of the number of topics we must cover. In particular, many college calculus courses focus on one particular method of working with a given problem (analytically, numerically, or graphically) while in AP we have to cover all methods so that the credit will apply at any postsecondary school. Additionally, the AP Statistics curriculum I taught was spot-on with what I learned in my intro class when I was in college.

Summarizing, I agree that the county's focus on AP passing rates may not be the most accurate way to evidence the success of our students. I agree that statistics can pretty much tell you what you want to hear. However, do not discredit the value of taking AP courses. They are valid, challenging courses that will prepare you for further study at the next level if you, as students, take them seriously.

Just because an AP class covers more material does not mean that the class is necessarily harder than the college version of the class. A college level Calculus class may only discuss how to work problems in one way, but go much more in-depth than an AP class. We should look at depth, not breadth; quality, not quantity.

Having a teacher that cares how you do in class can reach an extreme like Libertarian mentioned. Also, does the teacher care that you learned the material or that you did well in the class?

Also--I am sure you did not mean it this way--you make it sound as if college classes are a waste of time.

Regarding your second point, I would hope that learning the material is equivalent to doing well in the class. I can only speak for my own class, but I design my tests in a way that minimizes the amount a student can rely on memorization. I give my students the opportunity to apply and extend their knowledge on a test rather than matching my tests to my review problems. I offer the opportunity to re-work incorrect test problems so that my students have a second chance to learn the material. I agree with you that learning is what matters, not grades. Sincere learning leads directly to the high grades, and high AP test scores, that AP students crave.

Lastly, you're right, I was not trying to imply that college is a waste of time. College is where I learned to think for myself. I was using an extreme example to illustrate that university professors have many responsibilities other than teaching their classes, the main one being research. Most high school teachers don't have as many outside commitments and can spend much more time outside of class with their students.

It sounds like I'd enjoy taking your class due to your method of teaching. One issue I have though with what you say:

"Sincere learning leads directly to the high grades, and high AP test scores, that AP students crave".

First of all if they crave a high score/grade, they're not going to learn it as well as they can, they're going to learn it so that they can get what they crave. I think that the grades should reflect the learning if the teacher is good, but no grade can truly represent how much a student truly learned, and in the long run that's really all that matters. In 10 years an interviewer isn't going to care about your grade in AP Calc or your score on the AP test. They will care if you can do it.

And although I related a negative experience with a teacher caring a lot about homework, most of my AP teachers have been great at helping me when I needed help and been very open and flexible during lunch or after school whenever I needed help. Depending on what college you go to, the professor could be like that or they could be totally involved in research and not care at all whether you learn anything in their class.

As a teacher, I don't derive as much pleasure from bubbling in an "A" on a student's grade sheet as I do when I see a student have an "ah-ha!" moment during the year when a concept permanently clicks into place.

The AP calc exam is a joke...

And I agree with him/her that it can be true, but I think it mostly depends on the teacher. Good teachers in high school do a better job than bad teachers in college, etc.

I never claimed that one culminating exam is as difficult as an entire college course. It certainly is not. There are students who never take AP Calculus as a course that pass the AP exam with the help of a study guide. However, the topics that come up in class exceed the difficulty of the exam and provide opportunities for real learning to take place. My students won't have to prove the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus on the AP exam, but that doesn't mean that we did not discuss the proof in class.

On a personal note, I am a graduate of the University of Kentucky, where I was able to skip Calculus I with an "A" credit because of my AP exam score.

Whoa, my friend, I hope all my students also think the AP Calc exam is a joke when they are finished with it next month...