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March 27, 2007, midnight | By Pia Nargundkar | 17 years ago

Advanced Placement tests do not accurately show student achievement

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.

Pia Nargundkar. Pia Nargundkar was Editor-in-Chief of Silver Chips Online during the 2007-2008 school year. More »

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