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Answering Your Questions: 20 Ways AP is Bad--Not!

The vigorous, but respectful, clash of comments in response to my Class Struggle column today, "20 Ways AP is Bad--Not!", pleases me because it mirrors the relationship Bruce Hammond of the Independent Curriculum Group and I have had as we have debated this issue the last several years. I would like to add a few thoughts and answer some questions posed by readers.

First, I am not paid by the College Board. They have always treated me professionally, answering my questions in full and providing me research relevant to what I have been writing. But they have only liked half of what I have been saying. My support for AP has been a plus for them. My disdain for the SAT, a much more important product in the College Board catalog, has made them unhappy. Our relationship began with my reporting on Jaime Escalante and his AP calculus classes in East Los Angeles, which in many respects made the College Board look bad. You could also surmise that my writing about the AP's rival program, the International Baccalaureate, including a book that made clear I think the IB is even better than the AP, might not have been received warmly.

As an education columnist, I remain skeptical, even doubtful, about most of the proposed solutions to the problems in our schools. But in a few cases where I have had years to sift all the data, do hundreds of interviews and visit scores of schools, I have concluded that certain approaches do work. AP and IB are on that short list. Having reached that conclusion, I think I have a responsibility to go after distorted and inaccurate portrayals of those effective programs, like Hammond's AP is bad list, while at the same time giving those critics a great deal of space to make their case.

No other journalist writes as much as I do about the strengths of AP, but at the same time no other journalist writes as much as I do about the weaknesses and criticisms of AP. My editor was not happy that I devoted 4,000 words, even in the infinite reaches of the Internet, to Hammond's latest AP critique, but I felt it was my responsibility to do so. I think if you count up the words in that column you will find that Hammond had about as many as I did. That allowed readers like commentator12 to get a good look and conclude that I was wrong.

I hope poster Chris Lorrain noticed that at the beginning of the column I strongly endorsed the view that both AP and ICG have good points. As I said, "good teachers should be able to challenge their students in any way that works best for them, AP or not." I also share the concern of Buckystown that travisormsby's post is a recipe for bad teaching. I am sure travisormsby did not intent it to be so, but from my point of view it underscores a lesson of this debate. ANY approach---AP, IGC, IB, DI, SFA, you name it---can be abused and diluted and rendered ineffective by bad teaching. Any of them can be elevated by good teaching. We should let good teachers do their stuff, and not pick at them as Hammond did in his piece.

You notice I never said anything bad about the inventive courses produced by ICG teachers. My one complaint was that Hammond showed so little respect in return for AP teachers, who have been patiently explaining to me what works, and what doesn't, in their classes for the last 27 years.

I also acknowledge that AP may be overused at schools like Thomas Jefferson, as wwc4g says. But such schools are very very rare. Only six percent of US high schools make Newsweek's annual Challenge Index of high schools. To make that list, all a high school has to do is have half of its juniors and half of its seniors take one AP course and exam each. That strikes me as a very modest standard. The sad truth is that the vast majority of US high school students are doing very little academic work, and regretting when they get to college that their high schools did not make them do more.

By editors  | March 6, 2009; 2:53 PM ET
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My post last week was intended to point out the serious flaws in your argument that AP exams require in-depth essays that showcase complex understanding. They do not. I explicitly stated in my response that the essay my students contrived did not meet any reasonable person's standard of understanding, and yet it would have garnered a perfect score by AP graders.

I understand that you are a busy man, Mr. Matthews, but I expect that you would actually read and understand my post before you call me a bad teacher in front of your national audience. That's especially true because I post under my actual name as opposed to the anonymity that someone like Buckystown hides behind.

My students need to understand how to pass the AP exams in the most efficient way possible. That's because my view of what constitutes a complete understanding of US Government is substantially different from the College Board's. I teach the students shortcuts and cheap tricks to pass the test so that I can spend more time focused on things the AP doesn't think are important.

One quick example: I have been given explicit advice through the official AP Listserve for US Government that using a supplemental reader is a bad idea because the issues brought up in supplemental readings are extraneous to the exam. That's unacceptable, and an irresponsible abrogation of my responsibility to make sure that students learn as best as I can teach them.

Posted by: travisormsby | March 9, 2009 7:30 PM | Report abuse

Travisormsby: As an AP reader, albeit in biology rather than in your subjects, I will say that if a student can convince me in just a few sentences that he/she really understands the material, that would be great! However, a student who just mentions the key terms or phrases without demonstrating that he/she really knows what it means won't be awarded points. While some AP Biology teachers lament the fact that students can access more than twenty years worth of essay rubrics on the web, others of us know it's not a problem assigning those essays for homework because students can't write a coherent high scoring answer without actually understanding the topic.

Posted by: Thinking123 | March 9, 2009 11:01 PM | Report abuse

Any educator worth his or her salt knows that every teaching method will work for some kids, and no teaching method will work for all kids. AP is great for some students, downright lousy for others, and essentially a wash for everyone else; the ICG approach is likewise wonderful for some, awful for some, and simply average for the majority. As has been previously pointed out, a quality teacher will succeed with his or her students regardless of the educational theory implemented by his or her school.

For me, AP was wonderful. I took six AP courses in high school: English Literature, Spanish Language, Biology, Calculus AB, European History, and U.S. History. I passed each of the tests with a score of four or five. Those classes were by far superior to most of my non-AP courses, in terms of both content and presentation. The teachers I had did not "teach down" to the test, and indeed taught us far more than the test covered in terms of both breadth and depth.

I actually learned more from those classes than I did from many of my college courses (and to clarify, my college courses were anything but easy or superficial). And thanks to those test scores, I was awarded a full year of college credit by my college, enabling me to graduate in only three years and with no debt. I even had some money in my educational account left over, which I can now apply toward a graduate degree.

As for Mr. Ormsby, simply because you are inclined to believe that the three-sentence "essay" composed by your students would pass muster with AP graders (who, unlike you, are not biased observers) does not mean that it actually would. If, as you assert, the composition "did not meet any reasonable person's standard of understanding," then I for one highly doubt that it would have received a passing grade, let alone a perfect score. Since you have not submitted the composition on an actual AP test, you have no evidence to back your assertion that "it would have garnered a perfect score by AP graders" except for your desire to believe so. And as your anti-AP postings illustrate, that desire is highly biased.

Posted by: Elsinora | March 11, 2009 6:42 PM | Report abuse


On March 6, you wrote:
“The scoring guidelines can be met with a very simplistic essay. As a class exercise, I had my students try and come up with the shortest possible essay that would garner full points from a previous government exam. They managed to create a perfect "essay" in 3 sentences. Any knowledeable person reading the "essay" would have doubted that the students really understood the complexity of selective incorporation, but every single thing the College Board deemed necessary was there.”

Take your own challenge:

Have all of you students write three-sentence essays during their AP exams this year. They’ll find that it’s much harder to do without the rubric in front of them. I assume you’d loose your job or at least the loose the privilege to teach AP when school administrators saw your overall class scores.

The point of the rubric is to provide a consistent scoring framework for the exam readers. Perfect scoring essays don’t happen without a significant amount of in-depth writing by the student. All the people reading the essays know this, and know that their work is being cross-checked by reading supervisors. It’s not a perfect system but it works well.

I’m all for teaching students effective test taking strategies. It makes them more confident test-takers and confidence improves performance. You seem to have crossed an ethical line by teaching your students that it’s ok to attempt to subvert the scoring system. And, you seem to have lost sight of the reasons why we test students in a timed exam, under pressure with three separate questions. We rate everyone in professional society by the quality of their expression. Rarely is the answer sheet in front to you to make that so easy and efficient.

--Concerned AP Reader

Posted by: professor70 | March 11, 2009 7:54 PM | Report abuse

Concerned AP Reader,

I would disagree that I am teaching students to "subvert" the scoring system, although I would agree that it is substantially more difficult to write an extremely concise essay without having at least seen the scoring guidelines (my students did not actually have it in front of them while writing the essay, but they had seen it).

I can only speak for the subjects I teach (Macroeconomcs and US Government), but I continue to maintain that the exams in these subjects do not actually require much depth of analysis. Government is especially egregious in this regard, as the FRQ's typically require no more than one or two sentences in order to answer each part of the question. Questions are typically broken down into 3 or 4 constituent parts whose answer is pretty clear. For example "Describe the fundamental goal of interest groups in the political process" can be answered for full credit by saying "The fundamental goal of interest groups is to influence public policy" 1 point out of 6 total just for that.

Macroeconomics is a little better on the FRQ's but since 2/3 of the total score is based off of the multiple choice, you can earn a passing score based almost exclusively off of that.

As far as taking my own challenge, that is precisely what I do. I teach my students to identify the exact nature of the question they are being asked and answer it as succinctly as possible, typically with a single sentence or graph.

Replicated below is the answer my students came up to answer question 3 on the 2005 AP US Government and Politics exam. The scoring guidelines are available at I encourage you to judge for youself whether this essay is "in-depth" or "shows complex understanding", but I feel confident that you will determine it would earn full points based on the scoring guidelines. (That, by the way, Elsinora, is where my evidence that the essay would earn a perfect score comes from):

"Selective incorporation is the Supreme Court's application, on a case by case basis, of the Bill of Rights to the states using the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. In Miranda v. Arizona the Court incorporated the rights of criminal defendants by ruling that a failure to inform people of their rights before interrogation represented a violation of their due process rights under the 14th Amendment. In Roe v. Wade the Court incorporated the right of privacy by ruling that a state's restriction of abortion in the first trimester represented a violation of a woman's 14th Amendment due process rights."

If the College Board thinks that essays like this are unacceptable (I certainly do), then it needs to start asking more in-depth questions. That has been my very simple claim from the beginning. AP exams (at least in US Government and to a lesser degree Macroeconomics) don't actually require that much complex understanding.

Posted by: travisormsby | March 12, 2009 5:43 PM | Report abuse

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