The College Board will soon begin research in an effort to make Advanced Placement courses and exams more closely resemble the best first-year college courses.
Traditionally, the College Board surveyed colleges across the country and used responses to generate its curriculum. “For Advanced Placement U.S. History, we asked things like: ‘How much time do you spend on the Civil War? Or the Industrial Revolution?’” said Trevor Packer, the AP executive director. “Then we structured courses and exams accordingly.”
In its new approach, the College Board will consult experts, both inside and outside colleges, to determine which first-year college courses across the nation are held in highest regard, and then model AP courses and exams after them.
In the last few years, the number of high school students taking AP courses has ballooned -- 1.2 million, or 21 percent, of students in the Class of 2004 took at least one. But also in recent years critics have attacked the AP program, saying the classes often bear little resemblance to actual college courses.
Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said that in the last two years he has noticed a recurring theme on an e-mail list of college admissions officers. “Because of their test driven nature, AP courses have become a mile wide and an inch deep,” he said. “What colleges are looking for are people who can do analysis, think in-depth, problem solve, not just memorization or regurgitation of memorized facts.”
Schaeffer added that the essay response sections of AP exams are better, but that the multiple choice sections encourage rote memorization. “In that way, the multiple choice could be analogous to some large survey courses in college, but that’s not necessarily what colleges want.”
Many institutions, he noted, have increased the minimum score a student must get on an AP exam to get credit. Some institutions, like the University of Pennsylvania, have decided to give AP credit in fewer situations. Beginning in fall 2006, Penn  will only grant AP credit in foreign languages to undergraduates.
“In the college classroom, the intellectual environment is very different from even the best high school,” said Dennis DeTurck, dean of Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences. “At the end of the day, [AP classes] are tied to exams, which almost always ends up being an unhealthy situation. That’s true in college too, but when you’re grading en masse, there’s this whole culture of gaming the exams. [In a university] you can develop exams that are more consonant with your goals for the course.”
Still, nearly all institutions grant AP credit in at least some cases, and the majority of those give credit for scores beginning at three, out of the possible five.
Rather than resembling a large lecture course, the College Board wants the new courses to look like the best first-year courses. David Conley, a University of Oregon professor, will lead a team from the university’s Center for Education Policy Research  in hopes of finding ideal first-year courses to serve as “best practices” models for AP classes.
Packer said that the move is not a response to “the breadth versus depth issue,” adding that the essays are a more important part of AP test than the multiple choice. The impetus for change, he said, came from educators who suggested that AP courses should strive to resemble the best college courses, not simply typical survey classes. Conley said, however, that even in a typical intro course, “there’s more emphasis on critical thinking, reasoning, dealing with ambiguity, and rational argumentation. Even entry-level math, though it covers the same material, it requires more applying of concepts as a means to an end.”
Beginning this year, Conley’s team will work with national organizations like the American Association of Colleges and Universities and the National Research Council, as well as disciplinary associations, to identify the best introductory courses in the nation. The team will also use faculty opinions about ideal introductory courses, and finally will visit the classrooms that make the grade, in hopes of finding new models for AP courses. “Through this process, we’ll identify the most important parts of a course,” Conley said.
“Obviously cell theory is important in biology, but within that we want to find what key knowledge about the cell is most important, and then what are the broader skills of thinking like a scientist that come across.” Conley’s team will evaluate seven AP courses each year for the next five years. In order to give textbook authors and high school teachers time to adjust to the revamped courses, Packer expects changes to hit the classroom in 2008-9.
Many institutions currently allow faculty members to determine how and when to give AP credit. At Kalamazoo College, faculty members are encouraged to compare AP courses with their own courses. “[Giving credit] is totally up to the department’s discretion,” said Carolyn Newton, associate provost, who added that the college is always interested in AP courses with regard to admissions, even if credit is not granted. Newton said faculty members will have to see the revamped AP curriculum to know if changes are in order. “It’s possible that some courses would match better,” she said. “But, for example, our introductory biology course is in evolution, and it is unlikely that a high school course would cover the content in that class.”
Michael Bergren, assistant dean for academic and research initiatives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said his departments behave similarly, often requiring placement tests in addition to AP exam scores. Some of MIT’s departments, like chemistry, and computer science, offer no AP credit under any circumstance. “The first-year offerings here are taken very seriously,” he said. “Any change with the College Board will absolutely be reviewed by the departments. They have to be comfortable with it.”
Several studies have shown AP courses and exams to be good indicators of success in college. But, for now, most institutions seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach. “The content may improve,” said DeTurck. “But college courses have a different atmosphere, and, there are exceptions, but there’s a difference between having a teacher, and someone who is a practitioner in the field.”