Will Proposed Changes to AP Courses Save Them From Becoming Obsolete?



This past October, the College Board announced that they will be overhauling more of their AP courses to better emphasize college-level critical thinking. The work will involve looking at all of its 36+ courses in order to cover fewer topics and aim to address charges that the old courses prized rote memorization over imaginative thinking. The announcement comes out just as the College Board introduced a revised AP US History course that is more closely aligned to the Common Core that has been described by some as “un-American.” It would be unfair to bring the Common Core debate into the new AP US History test. The reality is, the test was overhauled for some of the same reasons that other courses will be overhauled – the College Board has come to recognize, almost too late, that it needs to better support instruction that leads to higher-order critical thinking and problem solving, college readiness skills that are essential for all students to develop while they are still in high school.

The College Board needs to play some catch up with an educational community that, through a trend known as competency education, has become hyper-focused on developing college and career ready skills for all students at the secondary level. Just last month, New Hampshire elementary principal and Competency Works blogger Jonathan Vander Els forcasted what competency education may look like in a K-16+ world. He asks, “Are we instructing and grading the way we always have because that’s the way it’s always been done? Or are we willing to provide each other with the encouragement to innovate and to learn about different ways of helping ALL students learn at high levels?”

Over the last several years, AP tests have come under scrutiny because many colleges have come to realize that they may not be the best indicator of college success. Back in 2011, HuffPost Education blogger Alex Mallory talked about the Real Reason that Private Schools Drop AP Tests. Mallorey argued that private schools have come to realize that AP courses have become “superficial and mechanical” survey courses. AP teachers often work at a frenetic pace all year to “cover” the material that might be presented on the AP exam. Little, if any, time is left for teachers to help students hone their deeper-level college skills like critical thinking and problem-solving.

In a 2012 Mind/Shift article, Katrina Schwartz reached a similar conclusion in her article Is It Time to Reconsider AP Classes. She quoted Robert Vitalo, Head of School at Berkeley Carroll, a Brooklyn prep school that decided to completely do away with AP courses in the 2011-2012 school year. Vitalo stated: “Our major complaint with the AP courses was that it was a race for breadth against depth.” Schwartz went on to suggest that another reason many schools are moving away from AP tests is that AP courses just don’t carry the same level of significance anymore on a high school senior’s transcripts. Twenty years ago, perhaps, a student who took three AP courses in high school was looked at quite favorably by colleges as an elite student. By today’s standards, with the rise in popularity of the AP program in high schools across America and the world, having three or more AP courses has become “the norm” for many seniors applying to college. This has led to a decrease in the number of colleges awarding credit for high AP scores.

In a 2013 Marketplace article, writer Sabri Ben-Achour acknowledges that more and more colleges have stopped giving credit for AP exams. The article goes on to talk about colleges like Brown and Dartmouth who have recently announced that students who take AP exams will no longer be given the opportunity for early graduation. Ben-Achour referenced a statement made by Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities: “Three out of four students who get to college come lacking in foundation and strong skills that a good college education requires.” Schneider says the general problem of college readiness “raises questions about whether the courses students took in high school, that might’ve been labeled AP or dual enrollment, were really providing students the preparation in writing and research that college itself will emphasize. Different institutions are making different judgments about that.”

With the apparent shortcomings of the current AP program, many high schools have started to foster other college-credit opportunities for their students. These involve overhauling their own high school courses to allow teachers to better develop the rigorous college readiness skills and developing dual-credit partnerships and agreements with colleges and universities that are unique for their schools. Certainly no one wants to give up on the AP model, but changes are long overdue for a system that is losing pace with the education reform movements that are sweeping through our country as secondary schools look to better prepare their students for the rigorous demands of college and beyond. Is the College Board too late to save the AP program? Only time will tell. 

This article was written originally for MultiBriefs Education.

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