The College Board will soon require teachers to submit course materials before they can call their classes "Advanced Placement."
Up until now, the College Board has allowed teachers more freedom to design what are supposed to be among the most rigorous high school courses. But in recent years, some colleges have questioned whether AP classes, which can be a big help to an applicant, should really entitle students to either an admissions boost or college credit. The board said that the new "audit"  process will make sure that schools offering AP courses cannot toss the AP designation around lightly.
More than 15,000 high schools offer AP courses, an increase of 36 percent in the last decade.
Beginning in June 2006, each year, teachers will have to submit sample tests and assignments, as well as a course syllabus. Textbooks will have to be chosen from a list approved by the College Board. Some courses will be chosen at random to have a College Board observer sit in. "We're trying to inform schools everywhere about what it takes to give a college level experience," said Ayeola Boothe, director of equity and access initiatives for the AP program. "We want to give students what they signed up for."
College officials said the review system would not lead to significant changes at their institutions, where admissions officers and departments often individually evaluate appropriate rewards for AP courses and test scores. AP courses are sometimes seen as the gold standard in college admissions. A 2004 study conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley followed 80,000 students coming into college, and found that, while AP test scores were a predictor of future academic success, completion of AP courses, by itself, was not.
Many college officials see the new audit system as an attempt to bolster the Advanced Placement name. "I think that it's great to standardize AP classes across country," said Jayne Brownell, director of the University of Michigan's School of Literature Science and Arts Academic Advising Center. She added that some admissions officers might feel they have a bit better grasp on what a students' experience must have been, "but I don't think that will ever quite quell the concerns of most people at the university level. The curriculum may be standard, but it isn't created by faculty on the college campus."
Some high school teachers and officials, mostly at private schools, say course dictates will crunch teachers' creativity. "Our teachers feel like they can do better," said Susan K. Tree, director of college counseling at Westtown School, a private, independent high school in Westtown, Pa., which decided to stop using AP classes in June. "This audit thing was just the kiss of death. Like one teacher said, 'They don't call us independent for nothing.'"
Boothe said the board would like private schools to continue with AP, "but we value their independence," she said.
Board officials said they think only about 2 percent of high schools are not currently meeting standards, but that the audit process will help determine where problems arise.
Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and a frequent critic of the College Board, which runs the AP program, said mandating that college texts be used could be a step in the right direction. But, he said, as AP offerings have become tied to high school rankings, more courses have been offered for more students, and "I suspect that has diluted some of the rigor."
The University of Pennsylvania decided it will scale back the amount of AP credit it gives incoming freshmen, beginning in June 2006. Dennis DeTurck, dean of Penn's College of Arts and Sciences, said that the intellectual atmosphere of the college classroom cannot be created en masse in high schools. He added that AP courses are indelibly tied to exams, which, he said, is not the path to the optimum intellectual experience.