I have thought for some time about Advanced Placement and its worth in an education system that is increasingly using the internet to educate students. I think more and more about the worth of Advanced Placement courses, as to whether they are useful anymore, and recently I have been going through some soul searching about it.
When I began teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition nearly 12 years ago, I was completely sold on the idea of the courses. Students would be able to take a course with college rigor, then they would take a test at the end of the year that could garner college credit if they passed it.
Test results are interesting. In 2013 on the AP Lang test only 50.1% of the students made a passing grade with the majority of those in the 3 range which is just passing. AP Lit did a little better, with 58.1% passing, 31.6% of those making a 3 on the exam. The problem with this is that if I were to base my teacher evaluation on my student pass rate for the AP exam I would probably lose my job. I am told constantly by AP officials that this is “normal”, that the test is unusually hard in order to prove that college rigor was maintained, but how do you tell a student who just took your rigorous course that they failed the end of instruction exam and that their failure is “OK”?
The fact is that most of the students who take AP exams or AP classes are the highest achievers. They are your school’s best and brightest, usually. In order to pass the AP exam, AP officials tell me over and over again at expensive summer conferences that I should encourage my students to “get at least 1/2 of the multiple choice questions correct” and to “get the job done” by scoring at least a 6 out of 9 on the essay portions.
Is this training our students for college level work or not? Our concurrent enrollment courses are used in our high school for double credit, both in high school and in college. Some of the courses are completed online, while others are completed at nearby colleges. Even though the online courses are not as rigorous as the courses on campus, students are gaining college credit in more ways than ever, and some would argue too easily. In this digital age college credit is becoming increasingly easy to obtain.
I asked my AP students about this problem, and their answer was quite surprising. They appreciate the rigor of the AP courses because they say that the courses prepare them for college. Studies show that AP students have a better chance of graduating from college in four years and are more likely to attend graduate school. (The current U.S. student has a 35% chance of dropping out after their first semester of college and only 50% of students actually graduate with a degree.) My students feel that AP courses are preparing them for a successful academic future. When asked if they would take a college preparatory course their junior year, they balked at the idea of an entire year of preparation for college without college credit, and said that they wouldn’t take the course even if it had a weighted GPA.
The successful AP Language Arts program must have an iron-clad vertical team. Honors courses must begin in the 7th grade teaching students the foundations of rhetoric and analysis. Vocabulary must be memorized and applied. At each consecutive grade level, teachers must build on the skills taught in the lower grades so that by the time students reach their junior year and enroll in AP Language and Composition, they will be ready to be trained for the AP exam.
But this may not be enough.
I took the AP Language and Composition released exam in my hotel room during a summer conference, giving myself the same time that my students would get on a real test, and wrote the essays on the prompts provided without looking at the rubric. I graded my own test, and honestly made an upper 3 on the test…and I have an English degree. In contrast, my colleague, a very capable and hyper-intelligent Chemistry teacher, took the Chemistry AP exam and aced it, but only because he used dimensional analysis to extrapolate his answers. This made me ask the question: “What chance does a high school student have?”
Apparently a 50/50 chance.
I believe that AP courses or the rigor of these courses is important. Too many American high school classes are mental cake walks, with students stopping and starting to the monotonous music of boredom and low expectations. Why shouldn’t every course be as rigorous as AP, using tests such as the SAT and the ACT as gauges for ability? I have not developed an answer to this as yet, as I am letting my administration and department heads figure this out. Whatever the solution, American education is not up to par with most education systems in the world, and as my professor friends tell me, as if reading a script, “These students come to us from high school feeling great about themselves, but they can’t do math and they can’t read or write.”