On APs, philosophical disagreement

Dec. 22, 2005, midnight | By Armin Rosen | 18 years, 3 months ago

As the program grows, problems can't grow with it

He's been writing in support of Advanced Placement (AP) tests for over two decades, formulated a controversial and nationally respected ranking system for high schools based solely on the number of AP tests administered, declared APs the catalyst of a golden age in American education and said that APs will soon overtake the SAT as the standard measure of high school learning. But Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews is no sellout. He's a utilitarian.

Stated simply, utilitarianism is the idea that the value of a thing, action or idea is primarily determined by its usefulness. To supporters, APs are extremely useful: The intensive three-hour long tests provide "a check on what teachers have already taught" says Mathews in a phone interview, arguing that the exams create clear standards that could reinvigorate apathetic school districts, and raise the general quality of education. APs might monopolize curricula, but "the monopoly" in education, says Mathews, "is with limp standards in most high schools."

They don't just possess utility — they generate it. Mathews says that his support for APs began when, as a young reporter, he observed Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante's remarkable ability to motivate inner-city youth to pass the difficult AP Calculus exam. What Mathews said he learned from Escalanate, who was later the subject of the movie "Stand and Deliver," is that students and teachers alike can be inspired to achieve and succeed by the creation of high standards.

The existence of a single, attainable goal like a 4 or 5 on an AP exam could produce thousands of Jaime Escalantes. But the exam could also fall victim to the things that afflict any standardized test, specifically the changes that occur when knowledge and learning stop being goals unto themselves, and suddenly become tools used in the accomplishment of a single objective.

There is rightful skepticism towards anything that could have a limiting impact on teachers and schools: Wrote education activist Denis Gray in Congressional Quarterly, "If public schools try to perform up to the national standards…the effect will be to intensify all the elements of the current system that do not work…all based on a misguided orthodoxy that bears little relation to how people live." Gray wasn't writing about APs and was instead referring to a hypothetical system of national educational standards for all American high school students. But with any standardized test, there's the possibility of the creation of a "misguided orthodoxy" that could severely harm the educational environment.

The "orthodoxy" of a standardized test gives teachers and students the added responsibility of test preparation. It pegs the quality of education to the quality of the test that is being taught to, a troublesome proposition if students can pass that test without rigorous study. And it has the potential to dramatically and unintentionally alter the way schools are run — Richard Montgomery English teacher Amy Malone wrote in a letter to Jay Mathews that the expansion of APs has "caused schools to lose their way" through packing AP classes in order to inflate enrollment numbers, instead of focusing on the quality of the classes being taught.

Deborah Stipek of the Stanford Educational School claims that such an orthodoxy already exists within the AP program, writing in a 2002 Los Angeles Times piece that the methods used to teach to AP tests "contradict everything we know about engaging instruction, the kind of teaching that makes material relevant to life and generates the desire to delve deeper."

To prevent this from becoming an objective reality rather than a subjective opinion, APs must avoid becoming limiting, domineering, bureaucratic standards for standards' sake while continuing in their popularity and growth. Stipek's point of view is not totally antithetical to Mathews's — after all, students can be motivated to achieve the high standards of APs by an engaging and creative teacher, and by the feeling that what they are learning is relevant and intellectually stimulating. But this can only happen if AP curricula remain flexible, and if tests become a measure of knowledge more so than an individual's ability to sit a three-hour exam.

It might take some philosophical reconciliation. Mathews labeled a recent report criticizing the quality of AP science standards an "ideological document" based more on the prejudices of the college professors who wrote it than any solid proof of the program's ineffectiveness. But the debate over APs is fundamentally ideological. It's between pragmatists who eschew alternatives to the AP on the grounds that they are idealistic and unworkable, and skeptics who instinctively mistrust any overarching standards. Both have a point. And because the AP is rapidly expanding, and remains the only option available to high schoolers who want a preview of their college education and increase their chances of getting into a selective college, both have to be listened to — lest APs become a cautionary reminder of the shortcomings of standardized testing rather than a revolutionary exception to the rule.

-1.1 million students took over 2 million AP tests in 2004, according to the Washington Post. The number of tests administered has doubled over the last ten years, and is close to the 1.4 million seniors who take the SAT each year.
-In the last five years, AP participation has increased by 45 percent, according to US News and World Report.
-Low income students took 144,532 AP exams in 2003, according to US News and World Report.
-The AP program was created in 1955 to give prep-school students early exposure to college coursework.

Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »

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