Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

New, deeper AP program

[This is my Local Living section column for Jan. 28, 2010.]

If someone told you the College Board was about to rip apart the SAT and rebuild it, would that excite/surprise/aggravate/frighten you? Me too. It’s about to happen, not to the SAT, but to our nation’s second-most influential test series, Advanced Placement, with large consequences for our high schools and colleges.

The AP program has such a tight grip on the school curriculums of suburban areas such as ours that it has come close to inspiring the same fear and consternation as the SAT and ACT. I think that’s good. AP is better than the SAT or ACT. It is a challenging series of courses in three dozen subjects ending in three-hour exams, independently written and graded with many essay questions, that can earn college credit and encourage thought and analysis. Many experts say AP could be even better, and they are about to have their way.

The revised AP courses, beginning with biology, will put more emphasis on conceptual understanding and cut back on memorizing content. AP will become more like the International Baccalaureate program, which is also popular in this area. Teachers may go deep into some topics and rush quickly past others. Essay questions will focus on concepts, so students will be able to use facts from the topics their teachers choose without having to master every detail in every subject category. Multiple-choice questions will, the designers say, test analytical skill and conceptual understanding, not just memory.

Change means adjustment, and change in the angst-ridden college admissions process, of which AP is a vital part, can bring feverish resistance. Remember, they are tinkering with AP Biology, what some students and parents see as the first big step toward a top medical school.

Here is my question: What are the state universities going to do when they see AP abandon the fact-based, content-heavy approach of the standard college introductory courses that AP was designed to mimic? After biology and the other sciences, French language and culture, German language and culture and world history will change, and I expect other AP courses and tests will go the same route.

Spencer A. Benson, associate professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland and co-chairman of the College Board panel leading the AP Biology changes, said he expects the shift will be welcomed by colleges that have switched to the conceptual approach. He hopes others will follow. Maybe, say I. But there are big state schools with huge Biology I classes where the final is a few hundred old-style multiple-choice questions. I am not sure they are going to change just because some high school program says they should.

Ready for some mental exercise? Here is an AP multiple-choice question of the old type I borrowed from Science magazine: Which of the following physiological effects would likely occur first in a volunteer who was breathing air from which CO2 was removed? (a) Decreased blood pH, (b) Decreased respiratory rate, (c) Increased respiratory rate, (d) Increased pulse rate, (e) Increased blood pressure.

Here is the new type of question: H+ + HCO3- [arrow pointing both left and right] H2O + CO2.
The equation shows a reversible reaction that occurs in blood. An Olympic marathoner training at a high altitude in Colorado feels dizzy and begins hyperventilating while taking a run. Her blood pH is elevated, resulting in alkalosis. How will normal blood pH be restored? (a) An increase in O2 concentration in the plasma will lead to a decrease in H+ concentration, (b) An increase in CO2 concentration in plasma will lead to an increase in H+ concentration, (c) A decrease in sweating will lead to an increase in HCO3- concentration, (d) A decrease in respiration will lead to an increase in plasma O2 concentration.

Hmm. I am told that both answers are B. The new style requires the student to understand the formula, not memorize a specific case. But that’s hard. Hard stuff is often unpopular. Will the new AP survive?

Read Jay's blog every day at

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page,

By Jay Mathews  | January 27, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  Advanced Placement, new AP program, new AP tests  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: New, deeper AP program
Next: New, deeper AP program


What a lot of people aren't going to like is that an analytic test will be more biased against minorities and low-income students.

From my experience, the big gains that chater schools, TFA and the like make with minorities is based on rote memorization of algorithms and facts. They have much less success with teaching kids to synthesize information, analyze passages, evaluation options etc. which is why gains in reading are weaker.

An analytical test is bad for minorities but good for growth and possibly reducing income inequality. Sounds like more friction brewing among Democrats to me.

Posted by: steve10c | January 27, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

Part of the problem with the new AP model (which is also going to be employed for World History, French, and German) is that there are certain courses where both fact-knowledge and content-specific vocabulary is necessary to be successful in upper division coursework. One of the reasons why they are only using it in these courses is because they are (with the exception of Biology) capstone courses. In other words, you don't see upper division "World History" courses in most universities, and most students who take AP language courses have already had 4-5 years of the language previously. On a biology exam I suppose you could integrate the vocabulary in such a way that it would demonstrate content knowledge, but I think the question here shouldn't be whether students earn undergraduate credit for AP Biology, but rather how do Medical, Dental, and other science professional/graduate schools view the course. When I was an undergraduate I heard in no uncertain terms that if you were in the pre-Med track, even if you had earned a 5 in AP Bio (along with the associated college credit), that you still needed to take freshmen biology at the university because you would be looked down on by the medical schools if you didn't.

That being said, the bigger story for you Jay isn't that these particular exams and their associated course are being altered, but rather which courses aren't being altered. When this was first proposed three or four years ago, the proposal was that all AP history courses would go through this change (i.e US, Euro, and World). In the end the Euro and US people (but particulalry the US people) balked at the changes the College Board was asking of them, and refused to participate in this leaving AP World (a relatively new/unique discipline within history, and one that was first tested by AP in 2002) to be the agent of change.

Posted by: Rob63 | January 28, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company