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New, deeper AP program

[This is my Local Living 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, 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. [See my new rankings of all Washington area schools, based on AP and International Baccalaureate test participation, this Monday on this blog and in the Post.]

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, the designers say. 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 test analytical skill, not 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?

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By Jay Mathews  | January 27, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  AP Biology, Advanced Placement, College Board, colleges resist AP changes, new AP program, new AP tests  
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All test changes today address the performance gap. All of them. Always.

Therefore, the changes almost certainly will make the tests easier.

Why can't the courses remain survey courses? What's wrong with survey courses? Have you actually studied American history if your teacher decides to focus only on reconstruction and civil rights (and believe me, that's a really popular subject among most history teachers)?

My guess, again, is that the tests have become slightly easier. That is, after all, what happened with the 2005 SAT changes--the test became easier, had fewer questions, took more time, and (of course) cost more money.

BTW, you really have to stop saying this:

"AP is better than the SAT or ACT."

It's like saying "Trees are better than rulers".

AP is for advanced students. While a high score in history or English confirms that a student can read or write, a low score indicates nothing about reading and writing skills. Similarly, a low score in AP Calculus or Stats indicates only that the student hasn't studied calc or stats.

In short, the AP can't tell you a thing about whether a student with a low score is prepared for college.

The SAT and the ACt, on the other hand, are excellent at identifying students who have solid reading, writing, and math skills, whether or not they had adequate AP teachers.

The APs are perfectly okay for their target audience of highly skilled students. But if you are underprivileged, underprepared kids sitting in AP classes they can't comprehend and are attending only because their schools want to rank on your Challenge index, the SAT/ACT is a much better friend with considerably more value.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 27, 2010 10:40 PM | Report abuse

Very off topic, Jay,
But where is Bill Turque's blog that exposed the writer of the Post education themed editorials:

I have an image of the page.
Maybe someone can find the cache of it.

Posted by: edlharris | January 27, 2010 10:48 PM | Report abuse

I have a copy of it, and had already sent it to Jay. There's no cache that I can find.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 27, 2010 10:52 PM | Report abuse

Well, Bill's blog is back up.

Original version:
Jo-Ann, on the other hand, sits on an editorial board whose support for the chancellor has been steadfast, protective and, at times, adoring

New, more sensitive version:
Jo-Ann, on the other hand, sits on an editorial board whose support for the chancellor has been steadfast.

Thanks, Cal

Posted by: edlharris | January 27, 2010 11:57 PM | Report abuse

I would be surprised if this results in an easier test. Certainly the example provided suggests that students will have to go a little further along Bloom's taxonomy to get a correct answer.
There is also a suggestion that the CB might be starting to change the way grading is done, moving from what is now largely norm referenced to more of a criterion referenced system in which a "3", for example, means that the student has certain specific competencies with regard to the material.
I also like the idea that the CB is taking these initiatives. They don't have to. The AP program is wildly successful and despite what IB's proponents might like to think, AP is really the only player in the market.
And to answer Jay's question... I don't really think State universities pay much attention to what is on AP exams. Unless they have some reason for believing that the AP exam does not represent "equal" academic quality, they won't bother with the specifics. And they will change their traditional 101's when they are pushed to do so.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | January 28, 2010 12:38 AM | Report abuse

Don't get too excited about AP classes anymore. Berkeley High is gearing up to eliminate AP lab classes so money can be funneled into programs for low performing kids. It's a well-known fact that the City of Berkeley has been cutting-edge for nearly a century, so get ready for other AP dominoes to fall.,0,4747506.story

Oh yeah, and have you seen the recent Kaiser Family Foundation report about the upswing in media use by kids?

"Black and Hispanic children consume nearly 4½ hours more media daily (13:00 of total media exposure for Hispanics, 12:59 for Blacks, and 8:36 for Whites). Some of the largest differences are in TV viewing: Black children spend nearly 6 hours and Hispanics just under 5½ hours, compared to roughly 3½ hours a day for White youth."

So now the AP lab classes of motivated, high achieving kids are being sacrificed because of the cumulative effects of Rothstein's Class and Schools things like that, and if one opposes the movement, then they are charged with being racist. Ah, our lovely slave-owning, Jim Crow, mutual hate-filled legacy. What a Big Mess.

Posted by: pondoora | January 28, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Patrick--I hope you're right, I really do. But if they make the test more difficult, they will exacerbate the performance disparity, and they can't afford to make it any worse than it is.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 28, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I realized the allure was over for any program in high school awarding college credit based on a single high stakes test when last year I heard the state legislative testimony of a student about Washington state's Running Start program.

The program releases high school students to take college courses at local community colleges for free and for full college credit. Increasing numbers of students receive both a two year associates degree and high school diploma at the same time.

The student pragmatically stated the better ability to know and control the grade/credit outcome based on classroom coursework than the risk of taking a one-time test.

Students have taken to heart our society's proffered maxims that academic credentials and financial security are linked, and that we place a higher value on money over knowledge. I believe our local high school's AP classes are probably more rigorous than the community college coursework. But scholarship has become less relevant to today's student than the importance of the credential and the high cost of acquiring it. Our society will pay a price for leading impressionable young minds down this road.

Posted by: speakuplouder | January 28, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

For speakuplouder---so those community college courses don't have final exams with a heavy impact on the student's final grade?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 28, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Jay--As with any college course I expect it would depend on the instructor.

The purveyors of AP and IB are selling us (and yes it is a business after all) their credibility as experts on academic content and objective summative assessment, along with the notion such tests are valid indicators of student learning.

College instructors might also claim that credibility along with their ability to teach and evaluate student mastery of the subject with various assessment tools. I don't know any teachers who support a single high stakes test as a valid indicator of student learning.

I cannot fault students for choosing a path of least risk when we place so much emphasis on the goal and not the journey.

There is also the question of curriculum articulation between secondary and post-secondary institutions. Who mandates that what are deemed necessary concepts in a high school or AP course are valued at the college level? No one. And college instructors are noted for their own course idiosyncracies.

My son got a 4 on his Calculus AP test, enrolled one level down his first math class at university from what he was entitled by virtue of the AP score, and still elected to repeat the class because he felt his AP class had failed to prepare him adequately. (BTW-He's now about to get his engineering degree.)

The problematic details of AP and IB are inconsequential compared to the bigger issues facing public education.

Posted by: speakuplouder | January 28, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

I posted this earlier on a second version of this page, but I presume that this is the accurate place to post this:

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 6:03 PM | Report abuse

I had the same reaction you did when I read the headline about the Berkeley HS proposal. However, if you get beyond the banner, you see that the AP labs (and it's only two a week) aren't being eliminated altogether but will be held during the school day. Yeah, it's a cutback but let's face it cuts are occurring everywhere in Ca. education. As this one goes, it doesn't sound particularly harsh.
I'm always amazed when the AP thread comes up and people don't seem to get it. AP courses get college credit b/c the program is test run by college profs with college students and grades on the exams are then equated with how those students do in the equivalent college courses. As Jay wrote, this isn't going to work for all courses at all universities but as a general proposition, (and remember these are introductory level courses generally) it's just fine. Somehow, I'm guessing that an outstanding student who does well on the MCAT's who chooses to skip an intro Bio class in college b/c she got a "5" on the AP exam isn't going to be passed over by the med schools.

I didn't respond to your original thread about the performance gap. While everybody is certainly aware of it, I don't know of specific instances where national tests (I'm guessing it happens all the time on things like statewide exit exams) are being dummed down. The SAT you cite isn't necessarily any easier than the old test- higher level algebra, I think, even if some things like quantitative comparisons and analogies have been eliminated. In any event, the gap has not shrunk so putting in more reading comprehension or whatever hasn't made a difference- in fact it's about 300 on the new 2400 as opposed to 200 on the old 1600. Then again, I'm not sure that making a test easier would narrow the gap anyway. Do you know of other national tests where this has happened? GRE. GMAT, LSAT, ACT?

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | January 28, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse

Two observations that I believe go hand in hand:

1. Jay's conclusion that AP exams are being written to be more like IB

2. The new AP version (which we now know is more like IB according to Jay) is dumbed-down.

Clearly all of the flowery descriptors in the "new" version are unnecessary for a student to understand the scientific concept. It just makes it a lot easier to "guess" which one makes the most sense.

Posted by: lisamc31 | January 29, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

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