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April 6, 2006, midnight | By Ashley Lau | 14 years, 9 months ago

Blazers question effectiveness of AP courses

A year ago, junior Efrata Obsa feared the rigor of college courses. She had heard stories of students who were kicked out of college because they could not meet the strenuous academic demands.

Hoping to get a taste of college-level coursework, Obsa enrolled in her very first Advanced Placement (AP) class, AP Psychology, last fall. She wanted to prove to herself that she could handle the work required to study clinical psychology and medicine in college.

But while many Blazers like Obsa are turning to AP classes as a means of challenging themselves and earning college credit, scholars are beginning to question the value of the AP program as an effective substitute for actual college courses. A recent survey by researchers at Harvard University and the University of Virginia (UVA) found little evidence that high-school AP courses significantly boost college performance.

So as the AP program, celebrating its 50th anniversary this school year, continues to gain nationwide popularity, experts, teachers and students alike are taking a step back to reflect on whether the program's proliferation has begun to dilute its quality.

Assessing the quality

Harvard professor Philip Sadler and UVA professor Robert Tai assessed this quality when they first began their study in the fall of 2002. According to Tai, the study surveyed 18,000 college students enrolled in introductory biology, chemistry and physics classes from a diverse sampling of schools ranging from small colleges of only 5,000 students to major universities with over 15,000 students.

According to a Harvard Gazette news report, the studies found that students whose high-school coursework emphasized depth over breadth perform better in college courses. In addition, according to the report, students who had taken AP science courses, scored a 4 of a possible 5 on the exam and then taken an introductory college course in the same discipline averaged a college grade of only 87 percent, even after added study at the college level, only five percent higher than those students who took a non-AP high school honors course.

The findings have further amplified growing speculation over the effectiveness of the AP. "I was personally surprised," Tai says. "I did not expect to find only half of the students who got 5s to have gotten As."

The decision to "go AP"

This study has further called into question why so many students are so eager to be a part of the AP frenzy. At Blair, 586 students took a total of 1,540 AP exams during the 2003-2004 school year, according to the MCPS Schools at a Glance annual report. In comparison with the five other high schools in the Downcounty Consortium, Blair students took the most APs. And out of the nearly 70,000 AP exams taken in Maryland that school year, according to the College Board, the number of AP exams taken by Blazers account for over 2 percent of the state's total.

But junior John Jenkins had not intended to be part of the statistics. Jenkins, who initially registered for an on-level economics course last spring, found himself in social studies teacher Brian Hinkle's AP Economics class last fall. Due to the lack of students signed up for the on-level course, the class was cancelled and Jenkins was forced to take the AP route.

Jenkins's story is a testament to the growing popularity of AP courses at Blair. According to College & Career Center Assistant Cathy Henderson-Stein, the number of Blazers taking AP classes has risen substantially in the past decade.

But not all students and teachers can speak highly of the AP courses. Obsa, who is also taking four honors-level classes this year, says she doesn't see much difference in workload between her AP and honors classes - a reason why experts now say APs are not suitable predictors for college success. "It's not that structured," Obsa says of her class. "We watch a lot of videos and discuss in class."

Senior Zach Rothman, currently taking AP English Literature & Composition, believes that the debatable quality of AP may be due to the fact that many classes are geared towards passing the actual AP test rather than educating. According to Rothman, his AP Literature class takes time to complete practice AP exams about every one-and-a-half weeks.

Tai, formerly a high-school physics teacher, agrees that not all AP classes may be held to the same standards. "There is a lot of variation in quality. Some classes are really good; some aren't," he says.

From a college view

Many colleges and universities are also catching on to the assessment of the "quality" factor when considering whether or not to give students credit for AP courses. Because some high schools choose to stick the "AP" label onto existing courses below AP level, colleges like Stanford University won't reward credit for relatively new AP courses like AP Environmental Science and AP World History.

Though 87 percent of Blazers taking the AP tests scored a 3 or higher, according to Blair's Schools at a Glance annual report, these startling facts are no reassurance to the many Blazers who invest an entire year and spend $82 per test in hopes of passing out of the courses in college. "I have to work my butt off to pay [for the AP test]," Obsa says. "I'm not sure if my mother can pay. It's discouraging for people who have low income."

The AP debate

The AP program, created by the College Board, was never meant to be a center of agitation in college admissions. Developed in 1955, the program was initially designed to allow the highest-achieving students the opportunity to engage in advanced coursework and earn college credit while still in high school. By the 1980s, many high schools began realizing the educational opportunities offered by AP courses and before long, the number of available APs soared.

But with the rise in AP courses came a narrowing of the curriculum. In 2001, a 19-member committee of the National Research Council examined AP programs in math and science and concluded that the expansion of the AP program has led to courses being taught solely around the AP test by stressing memorization rather than active problem solving.

This problem can be traced partially to the fact that AP teachers are forced to teach a relatively large amount of material in a short period of time, sometimes at the expense of in-depth analysis. For example, AP World History students must be familiar with everything from the Neolithic Revolution at the end of the Stone Age to the Holocaust and the World Wars of the 20th century. That's 10,000 years of human history in only eight months.

Giving the AP name fame

Nevertheless, the AP has grown into a benchmark of student achievement. Newsweek ranks high schools based on the percentage of students taking AP or equivalent International Baccalaurate (IB) exams. President George W. Bush has even proposed a 73 percent increase in funding for AP and IB programs as a part of his initiative to raise high-school achievement levels.

But many Blazers like Rothman don't see the AP as a good standard for judging schools or students. According to Rothman, success depends upon the individual, not the number of APs on a student's resumé. "I know a lot of smart people taking honors and a lot of not-so-academic people in AP Lit," Rothman says.

Even as APs garner widespread recognition, studies like Harvard's and the National Research Council's continue to review the value of the program. According to Tai, the Harvard study was only a small part of a much larger project.

Despite the controversy, Tai remains firm in his belief that the AP system has its loopholes, explaining, "They're skipping out on their education by taking a test that's only three hours long."

Ashley Lau. Born in Boston, Ashley is a huge Red Sox fan and sometimes wishes she could just live at Fenway Park. She loves to run, do tae kwon do, travel, cook, go to concerts and has a new obsession with the TV show 24. Someday Ashley … More »

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