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NCLB Outrages

A Smart Parent Criticizes AP

Who would have guessed that NCLB has spawned this great push to overpopulate AP classes? A smart parent explains that--and lots more.

Another huge concern with AP classes, not discussed here, is that the current push is to get LOTS of kids into them, whether they take the test or not, whether they pass the test or not. Just what is the point of this? Might students be better off in classes that better suit their academic needs?

by Jay Mathews with Anne E. Levin Garrison

Last week Pomona College president David Oxtoby tried to educate me in this column about what he sees as the flaws of the Advanced Placement program, the college-level courses and tests given in high school of which I am American journalism's biggest supporter. This column will look at AP from the perspective of a well-informed parent in Anne Arundel County, Md., who thinks the program has fallen prey to the worst aspects of the movement to make public schools accountable through regular testing.

I was pretty aggressive with Oxtoby, since I know him well and figure he is used to being disrespected by self-important reporters. In the discussion below, I am much more polite to Anne E. Levin Garrison, since she is under no obligation to talk to me and has a very personal perspective that even a know-it-all like me has to respect. Part of this column's role as asource of information on AP, International Baccalaureate and other efforts to improve our high schools is my insistence that it be the most important forum for criticism of AP and IB. So I am thankful to both Oxtoby and Garrison for helping me fulfill that obligation and hope other critics will email me when they have something to say.

Garrison is a contributing guest editor at http://www.susanohanian.org, the Web site of one of my favorite tormentors, the irrepressible Susan Ohanian, and a freelance writer on issues in education and modern culture. Garrison has two daughters, lives near Annapolis and has been studying the impact of evolving local and federal policy on public schools for more than 14 years. Her areas of special interest include the effects of what she refers to as the No Child Left Behind-endorsed AP explosion on public school education; the destructive impact of NCLB policy on public school curriculum, teaching and learning; and the results and impact of NCLB policy on the emotional health and academic welfare of public school teachers and their students.

Here we go. Mostly I am asking her questions about her point of view, with a bit from me on my contrary opinions toward the end of the column.

Mathews: So, Annie, tell me what first happened with your girls that inspired your concern about AP?

Garrison: Thanks for inviting me into this conversation, Jay.

My eldest daughter signed up for AP European History, at that time still the first AP class a sophomore could take. The class was as large as every other class and included every kind of student. Over the summer, many weeks of reading and identification assignments (defining important terms and concepts and people) were required.

The teacher was newly recruited to teach the class to accommodate the school's expanded AP offerings. She had little knowledge of European history and little training prior to the class. I cannot fault this teacher for not being adequately prepared to handle this assignment. But the class, as you can imagine, was a very poor substitute for the lofty experience described on the College Board Web site.

The class did not satisfy our goal to provide our child with an "advanced learning opportunity" but rather operated in almost total devotion to the test. That meant that my daughter's desire to actually "learn" the content of a European history class was destroyed. In the process, while she juggled the painful demands of endless homework for this class, she struggled to meet similar demands of the rest of her schedule.

Mathews: Are you saying students did not suffer from having novice, under-trained teachers before there was AP and IB?

Garrison: Nope...But what I am saying is this: Since the NCLB-mandated AP expansion, the numbers of students "encouraged" to take AP classes and the number enrolled have both rapidly grown. The first year our county expanded AP, the number of students in AP in our school alone doubled. The push to expand has since grown faster and larger. The numbers in IB programs have gone from zero to 3 times that in our county in 3 years. With a mounting teacher shortage, the number of AP qualified teachers by the law of averages is compromised.

What I am also saying is this: The quality of the AP class is compromised by the amount of teachers recruited to accommodate the growth of the expansion who are not adequately trained nor experienced to teach a college level class. There might always be novice and untrained teachers, but a reasonable expectation would be to use experienced, trained and seasoned professionals to teach an advanced class.

By the way, when did AP or IB become the only game in town for advanced opportunity in public school? A hint: since NCLB. Again, you cannot dissect out the issue of quality; and there is a lot to question on the quality of many AP classes.

Mathews: And you think No Child Left Behind was one of the reasons why the AP course was so weak?

Garrison: Absolutely. The expansion of AP classes was built into NCLB. That fact is no surprise as the overall impact of NCLB is a generalized devotion to high stakes testing. The focus of AP classes rarely varies from instruction on test content, test format and test preparation. AP classes, in the context of NCLB are more likely to teach basic skills, and underemphasize problem-solving and complex thinking skills that are not well assessed on standardized tests.

Understanding that NCLB has colored every aspect of how our public schools operate in five short years is key. The rapid expansion of the AP program is one more casualty of the act.

Mathews: Was there any Document-Based Question work at all in this history class?

Garrison: Keep in mind, Jay, that teachers who have been teaching AP classes for a while, especially if they started before the NCLB-precipitated expansion, have had the time and experience to prepare and execute a learning opportunity for a prepared classroom of students.

With the expansion came a rapid influx of teachers and students with varying degrees of interest, skills and preparation. Programs have been quickly developed to accommodate the impact of the expansion and one of the more successful ones is a parallel seminar to teach skills such as how to answer Document-Based Questions (DBQ.)

Mathews: Exactly how many hours did your daughters meet each week with their AP teachers, and how many of those hours were devoted, as you say, to test taking? And who was keeping count?

Garrison: In seminar, the students met two to three days a week for an hour and a half and my daughter estimates that nearly 100% of that time was spent on test-taking skills. On alternate days she attended the AP class where the class was devoted primarily to content, because nearly all of the students were in seminar.

Mathews: What does she mean by "test taking skills." Paint us a picture. Tell us exactly what was going on. Was the teacher putting up sample questions and asking for answers? Was she giving them DBQs and asking them to answer, then having students read their answers? One person's test prep is another person's well-thought out review, so we need to know what exactly happened.

Garrison: Simpler than that; they were primarily taking review tests from the College Board Web site. They do that all semester long.

Mathews: So they each sat at a computer and had the questions scored automatically, or did the teacher hand out printouts? Were the questions discussed in class, or was this all silent work?

Garrison: Mostly they worked on sample DBQ's. They wrote answers and compared them with already scored tests. This particular teacher does a good job of presenting discussion to increase test scores.

But again, the focus is on becoming better at answering tests in a manner that reflects the generally assumed style of the test scorer. What is taught is that content is not the priority if you can use a certain set of test tricks or methods that appeal to the test-scorers methods.

Mathews: Are you saying that a good answer to an AP Document-Based Question is nothing but a bunch of tricks, and requires no knowledge of the subject matter, no experience in writing clear sentences, and no practice in analyzing complex materials?

Garrison: A good answer on an AP test DBQ is more of a trick than you would like to believe. It requires little depth of knowledge of the subject, not too much writing ability beyond the basic BCR or ECR format that is taught almost universally in our public schools, and requires LOTS of practice.

The practice, unfortunately, in the current expanded version of AP is not really about learning to analyze complex materials. There is hardly time for that; it is rather about getting used to the style of testing and test scoring and making an effort to follow a formulaic response that is generally graded favorably by the scorers.

Mathews: So how would you like to change things?

Garrison: I will give you my ideal. In the best of worlds, without the pervasive interference of NCLB, AP classes would exist as an opportunity for students who desire an accelerated or advanced academic experience. It would not be built into a federal intrusion to triple enrollment in math and science courses or increase AP attendance in general. In this manner, AP would exist once again as one option of several and it could spark an interest by the College Board to improve on and fix some of the characteristic problems endemic to the expansion and monopoly.

The schools might consider an accelerated academic track for students wishing to take advanced classes. In this way, students would have the opportunity to become prepared with a foundation class. As it is now, and according College Board data, almost half of all AP physics test takers had no prior experience with physics before enrolling in the AP course. Thus, the AP course had to cover both a year of high school physics and a year of college physics, making in-depth examination of any topic nearly impossible.

Mathews: How would you change AP?

Garrison: The goal and purpose of AP should satisfy either college preparatory goals or college credit goals, not both. If the purpose is to provide college credit, the test should be aligned with the school year so that the last 2 weeks to a month of class time is not wasted. Accommodations should be made to realistically match the general graduation requirements of the school so that students are not taking an impossible load of classes. In college, students generally take a load of four classes, in high school, they generally take seven or eight. One or two college-level classes would provide an appropriate challenge for a high school student, and accommodations could include a separate study skills class to provide appropriate preparation and the skills for college-level mastery.

I would like to see the offerings at our high schools reflect the real needs of the students, not the artificial needs of a business or corporate ideal. Flexibility is key for any good high school program. If students left out of the college prep programs are to be encouraged to participate, these students deserve accommodations targeted for their level of skills and preparation. AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is a good example of such a program. Students are given the skills and support to effectively encourage them to rise to higher levels of mastery and can ultimately participate in advanced study.

Not all high school students fit the model of preparation or readiness for a college-level class, but all students could be given the opportunity in high school to prepare themselves for the experience of future college classes.

Mathews: I was at an AVID conference on Sunday. They were delighted to hear that the strengths of their program, now in 3,500 middle and high schools across the country, is something you and I agree on. AVID could be called, in a way, AP prep. So how would you improve the teaching of the actual AP courses, given your daughters' experience?

Garrison: The current AP class, since expansion, necessitates superficial treatment of most topics, with the emphasis on memorization of terms and facts rather than in-depth exploration and understanding, and the AP exam tests rote memorization more than in-depth understanding. This is a liability for teachers as well as students. Teaching is reduced to a race to prepare students with a limited scope of content prescribed by the test. Teachers require adequate training, experience, and preparation, as well as ongoing support in order to provide the best quality college-level or college-prep experiences for their students. Appropriate decisions should be made on a district or county level to deal with the overall shortages of teachers as well as the rarity of specialized teachers with an advanced degree in subject areas. It is common sense that an advanced or college-level course should be taught by a thoroughly prepared teacher. If the school does not have the ability to find appropriate resources, such as credentialed teachers, the menu should reflect that reality.

Your concept of raising the bar to encourage growth could apply here. If schools want to become premier institutions for early college-level credit, administrative dedication to a quality program could create an inspirational opportunity for appropriately trained teachers to take these positions. And if the College Board wants to continue to be the premier provider for quality academic advancement in high schools, it would benefit them to make adjustments to their existing programs to reflect both the reality in the high schools and the quality of these courses. The possibilities are endless.

Mathews: Thanks very much. Many of these are good ideas, but I am afraid you are wrong, based on not having the time or opportunity to see how AP works in other schools, on two points. First, the rise of AP has almost nothing to do with NCLB. Indeed, the Bush administration put some AP incentives in the act, but Democratic senators like Jeff Bingaman had won approval of similar legislation years before NCLB. The vast majority of high school principals would laugh at you if you suggested their AP numbers were climbing because the Bushies told them to pump up AP. They are climbing because AP teachers are welcoming more kids into their classes, having seen the good their classes do even for average kids, and because the most selective colleges are virtually requiring some AP or IB. Once you have time to visit other schools that will be clear to you.

Second, I am sorry that your daughters had such a poor experience in their AP classes, but based on visits to more than 100 AP schools over the years, and interviews with hundreds of AP teachers, what happened to them is very uncharacteristic. The teachers I have seen in action are imaginative, thoughtful and would be as angry as you are at any teaching style that promoted memorization rather than understanding. The college professors and high school teachers who write and grade the AP exams would reject your notion that those exams are all about rote memorization, and that writing a DBQ is little more than learning some tricks that have not much to do with content and concepts. The way the European history exam is set up, for instance, a student can get the highest grade, a 5, if she does well on the free response questions, even if she misses more than half of the multiple choice questions which are thought to be so dependent on memorization.

Garrison: Don't misunderstand me. My daughters have had wonderful teachers in high school. What students and teachers are experiencing here since the AP expansion is not rare or unique. Misuse of statistics and false presumptions are tools used to support the current implementation of NCLB policy. The general compromise of quality and the narrowed focus on test-based accountability changed our classrooms. Our experiences are the reality behind the statistical "measures of progress" in our schools.

NCLB is at the root of this expansion. AP has suffered in quality, as every aspect of teaching and learning has suffered.

My daughters have had some good experiences in AP classes too. The problems are built into the structure of the AP class and worsened by expansion. These teachers do rally to give students an advanced academic experience despite the shallow breadth, broad scope, and prescript format of these courses. Teachers struggle to prepare hundreds of variously capable students to pass tests which dually function as data for "accountability" as well as for college admission. The teachers are angry at the quality of these advanced classes but they have no control, no flexibility and no alternatives, so they do the best they can.

Thank you for this opportunity to contribute.

— Jay Mathews with Anne E. Levin Garrison
Washington Post


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