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March 27, 2007

Advanced ego

by Pia Nargundkar, Online Editor-in-Chief
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
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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  • __ on March 27, 2007 at 4:59 PM
    Good article! The College Board is really taking over the high school curriculums, and there is way too much of an emphasis on passing the test instead of actually learning the material
  • Good job Pia on March 27, 2007 at 5:05 PM
    I couldn't agree more.
  • Yeesh. on March 27, 2007 at 5:20 PM
    It's really sad! Today's students know nothing more than how to pass the county/state tests. Useless in the real world. Let's get some people who don't just teach the test!
  • good plan (View Email) on March 27, 2007 at 7:51 PM
    i totally agree...unfortunately, a teacher who really teaches instead of teaching to a test is gonna have students who dont do well on that test and are therefor labeled "dumb" or "low achieving"
  • you may know me on March 27, 2007 at 8:19 PM
    Very, very well written...it's long past time somebody's done something like this.
  • awesome on March 27, 2007 at 8:32 PM
    hey mr. walstein finally got his thoughts out there in public.
    awesome
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  • Anarchist on March 27, 2007 at 9:09 PM
    Sorry, "good plan", you're totally wrong. I had great teachers who didn't teach to tests. Instead, they actually taught the material. As a result, I blew standardized testing out of the water - kids who had lazy teachers who only followed the test couldn't compete.

    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.
  • another brick in the wall on March 27, 2007 at 10:06 PM
    Sometimes I wish Anarchist would shove his elitist ideas...you've kinda got a big ego, too, there, buddy.
  • Libertarian (View Email) on March 27, 2007 at 11:00 PM
    Great article, agree 100%. I still remember an AP teacher last year talking to us about how she was going to make sure we took good notes and how "if you were taking this class in college you wouldn't have someone like me", yet the teacher still insisted that we take good notes and if we didn't our grades were penalized, and she maintained that the class was a college-level class. The problem is the teachers are high school teachers, and they have a degree in dealing with high school students. College is a much different mentality, mainly because you spend a lot of money to go there so if you don't learn it's pretty much your problem. In high school if kids aren't learning the teacher is held accountable. I believe this is wrong but that's how it goes in high school.

    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.
  • what anarchist said on March 28, 2007 at 8:06 AM
    yeah he/she is right. its better that teachers teach the subject at hand instead of a test. thats why we're in the class, to learn the subject and therefore with what we have learned we pass any test.
  • you might know me on March 28, 2007 at 2:08 PM
    Anarchist, I, too, have had amazing teachers who taught the subject and didn't care about the test. The problem is that if you expect any reasonable-sized fraction of all teachers to be able to do that effectively, you'll end up with bad results overall. I don't think you can expect the entire county to have nothing but great teachers.
  • Samples on March 28, 2007 at 3:53 PM
    One big advantage of taking an AP course is that your teacher will actually know you and actually care about your performance in the course and on the culminating assessment. In most cases, university professors are not as student-oriented. Most are more concerned with their research than teaching well. Most talk to the chalkboard for an hour while you work the college newspaper crossword, teaching yourself the material in your free time later.

    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.

  • Someone you may know on March 28, 2007 at 10:28 PM
    To Samples:
    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.
  • college going kid on March 29, 2007 at 12:25 AM
    what you fail to take into account is that there is an increase in the number of students taking ap's that aren't necessarily taking ap classes, but are instead taking relevant and difficult courses in programs such as cap or the magnet which help them prepare for the test but don't cater to it and provide a broader knowledge base. personally, i have taken three ap's which i didn't take ap classes for, and got a 5 on all of them, and i know many people with similar achievements. if that isn't an indication for better preparation and education, i don't know what is.
  • Samples on March 29, 2007 at 10:04 AM
    Someone I May Know, the good thing about calculus in particular is that the various methods of solving a problem go hand-in-hand. I think that this increases the depth of understanding for an AP Calculus student as compared to the student who learns calculus in college. I agree that my previous comment did make it sound that we simply have to cover more topics in AP than a college course. I should have further stated that this increases the depth of understanding in AP Calculus.

    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.

  • Libertarian (View Email) on March 29, 2007 at 11:30 PM
    To Samples:

    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.
  • Samples on March 30, 2007 at 2:42 PM
    You make a good point, Libertarian. Many students will simply do what it takes to get a grade instead of learning what they should be learning. And that is one of the most difficult things about teaching. It is frustrating to see students using their intelligence finding ways to get around sincere learning rather than spending an equal effort internalizing the concepts.

    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.
  • Whoa on March 30, 2007 at 8:24 PM
    There's a teacher here that claims AP Calc is the same or better than college calculus? Where did he go for college?
    The AP calc exam is a joke...
  • Anarchist on April 2, 2007 at 2:01 PM
    The teacher wasn't claiming that the AP EXAM was necessarily as difficult as an equivalent college exam, only that the AP CLASS was as hard or harder than a college course.

    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.
  • Blair Alum on April 3, 2007 at 10:15 PM
    Whoa is right. I know tons of kids in college who aced the AB or even BC calc exams but then struggled through Calc I. That said, a solid AP calc class can teach you the material well enough to make it easy for you to skip your first few college math courses. But the point of the article was that since the AP exams are so much easier now, a high score on the tests no longer guarantees that you are well prepared to skip a college calculus course.
  • Samples (View Email) on April 10, 2007 at 3:19 PM
    Thanks for clarifying my point, Anarchist. AP Calculus as a class can be just as challenging as a college calculus course, regardless of the difficulty of the AP exam.

    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...
  • journalism dude on April 17, 2007 at 4:33 AM
    I am a bit confused as to why Mr. Walstein was used as a source for this article. He does not teach an AP course and it is therefore unclear why he would be the source that was chosen. In journalism, the quality of an expert source must outweigh the convenience of interviewing them. There must be more AP teachers in Blair who could comment on the topic than just Mr. Vlasits.
  • Henry Scher (View Email) on April 17, 2007 at 12:38 PM
    Just as a note to add to that of Samples, I have taken both AP calculus and a college version of the class, and the college version was only slightly more rigorous and definitely on the same level as the AP calc class.
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