The Future of Advanced Placement

July 19, 2010

WASHINGTON -- The future of Advanced Placement is changing, and the College Board is taking steps to ensure that AP classes more accurately reflect colleges' first-year curriculums and better prepare high school students to succeed in them and in further college work.

At the AP Annual Conference last weekend, College Board Vice President Trevor Packer, who is responsible for the AP program, talked to an audience of about 50 school officials about AP and about impending changes to the program.

Among Packer’s main concerns was that some colleges and universities are becoming too strict in their policies about granting credit for AP exams. This has become the case particularly among selective institutions.

“Further credit and placement policy erosion will negatively impact student participation in AP,” he said. “They need some incentive if they’re going to prioritize; they need to know that this stuff counts for higher education.”

Research has shown that AP students perform better and are more likely to graduate on time than "matched peers" who don’t have AP credit but who are otherwise academically equal. “There’s something about time management, work ethic, thinking skills that AP students learn,” Packer said.

However, trends among colleges and universities now show that while 30 to 40 percent of colleges have made their policies more stringent (not accepting a 3 for college credit, for example) because of the volume of students over the last 10 years, the majority have more recently made them more lenient to avoid losing students to peer institutions.

As a result, the College Board intends to adopt a new communications strategy to foster understanding between AP teachers and college officials, and to help those in higher education understand how AP can be beneficial. Packer said that when asked, many university administrators are simply unaware of what is being taught in AP courses. He also suggested establishing credit policy colloquiums to help administrators understand what each score means and how it compares with what a student would have learned in a college course.

“We want the decisions to be based on what AP is, so they can really find out what works for their institution,” he said.

Another issue Packer emphasized was the dynamic between breadth and depth in high school AP courses. Asked a series of questions via clicker devices, more than half of the attendees said they agree or strongly agree that AP courses require teachers to sacrifice depth to breadth to cover all the content before the exam. Packer sees this as a problematic area, and hopes to “enhance AP’s position as the capstone high school experience by articulating standards that merge updated college level content with 21st-century skills.”

“We can produce a stronger outcome in higher education than AP currently produces if we can structure AP courses around these skills that really are important in higher education,” he said.

The general idea, supported by much of the audience, was to move the AP curriculum away from learning facts and in the direction of learning themes. “What colleges really want and need is for students to come in and identify historical constructs or write an effective essay,” Packer said. “But if you’re spending all your time memorizing content, you’re not going to develop those fundamental skills.”

However, some members of the audience -- which included a mix of AP teachers, non-AP teachers, school administrators and AP coordinators -- spoke about the benefits of college-level instruction in a high school setting. Some teachers said that because of the smaller classes and more frequent meetings, the high-school courses are more rigorous and in-depth than those in college. They also mentioned that AP teachers may be better equipped than some college professors to engage with the students because they have been trained to work with smaller groups of students undergoing challenges specific to high school. Nonetheless, the teachers welcomed Packer's ideas to improve the AP experience and to ensure that what they are teaching corresponds as closely as possible with a college curriculum.

Packer unveiled a schedule for redesigning most AP courses within the next four years to ensure that students can develop the skills necessary to truly understand the subject and to gain all the knowledge that they would in a freshman course. New French, German and world history courses will be introduced at the beginning of the 2011 school year; biology, U.S. history, Spanish literature, and European history in 2012; and chemistry, physics 1, physics 2, and Spanish language in 2013. Art history, English language, and English literature are also slated for changes within the next few years to include more measurements of student writing and revision throughout the school year.

At the conference, Packer also discussed the availability and quality of professional development for AP teachers, which is lacking. Many teachers don’t have access to training beyond the required one-week course before they begin teaching AP, in part because their schools don’t set aside money for this purpose. Packer said that AP teachers need at least 20 more hours of training per year.

He introduced an idea College Board has in the works in which teachers download modules online throughout the year related to their subject and specific topics they’re covering. The modules will include “tools for a teacher to design, deliver, assess and adjust instruction.” Another online innovation Packer suggested was a formative assessment in which teachers can determine which areas of knowledge students are particularly struggling with and refocus their attention on these stumbling blocks. Audience members were enthusiastic about both of these ideas.

Packer also mentioned the need to modernize the AP program by making testing dates flexible, delivering scores earlier, eliminating tape-recorder dependencies, and enabling computer-based testing.

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