Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Right Questions about Advanced Placement courses

Following up on the previous post relating to the Independent Curriculum Group and the Advanced Placement program, here is a list of questions I generated a few years ago for a presentation on the subject for the National Association of Independent Schools:


1. What resources—people, time, space, materials—do AP courses require?
2. What are the opportunity costs of directing these resources at an AP program?
3. Does the AP curriculum challenge your students in the most appropriate possible ways?
4. Is your AP program built on barriers? Do your policies exclude students from certain high-level courses that are proclaimed to be the “best” or most desirable in the school?
5. Given a roomful of motivated and curious students and a passionate, expert instructor, does an AP curriculum offer the best possible learning experience that could be devised?
6. Does the AP program offer courses whose content and methodologies embody your school’s particular values and mission?
7. Do the content and methodologies of AP courses reflect your school’s commitment to diversity?
8. Is the “vertical team” approach to AP instruction in certain disciplines consonant with the philosophical and developmental nature of your departmental curricula?
9. Do you use a winnowing or sieving process to make AP classes the apex of a pyramid of achievement or of aptitude?
10. Who is “winnowed” out of taking AP courses? Do you track this, both individually and by group membership?
(Click the link below for Questions 11 through 35)

11. Do you have the confidence to promote students for college matriculation based on the internal standards established by the faculty at your school?
12. What is your school’s philosophical and practical commitment to curricular depth over breadth?
13. To what degree does the existence of an AP program at your school reflect the anxieties of constituents other than your faculty and students?
14. Is the AP program at your school designed to provide a challenging advanced curriculum or just to help your more ambitious students get into college?
15. Have you developed your policies around students enrolled in courses labeled “AP” taking the Advanced Placement examination based on the individual needs of students, or on anxieties around perceived institutional integrity?
16. Does your faculty have the expertise to design highly challenging and engaging advanced courses on their own, or does the use of an externally driven curriculum serve in lieu of helping them gain that expertise?
17. When was the last time you heard that a graduate of your school had used an accumulation of Advanced Placement credits to “place out” of a year of college?
18. Do you track how often graduates of your school use Advanced Placement credit to place up into, rather than place out of, courses in college?
19. How are students assessed and evaluated for their work in existing AP courses?
20. Are your AP teachers teaching a subject, or are they teaching to a test?
21. Does your school weight the grades given students in AP courses in computing GPA or class rank? Have you collected and analyzed data to assure yourself that this weighting is equitable?
22. Is teaching AP in your school considered a prestigious assignment? Because it’s “AP,” or because teachers truly believe it is the best curriculum?
23. Do you believe that having an AP program adds luster to your entire curriculum? If so, do you then offer AP course enrollment to every student?
24. Who pays for students to take Advanced Placement examinations at your school?
25. Where would you begin in the development of an internally designed program that would replace Advanced Placement courses?
26. If you do not already have Advanced Placement courses, are you afraid that not having them will jeopardize your students’ chances at college admission?
27. If you do already offer Advanced Placement courses, are you afraid that discontinuing them will jeopardize your students’ chances at college admission?
28. If you do already offer AP courses, what do you anticipate the public costs would be of supplanting them with internally designed courses?
29. What data or evidence would be helpful to your school in your circumstances in deciding to discontinue or not implement an AP program? How would you collect the data?
30. To which constituencies would you be most answerable if you were to consider either discontinuing or not implementing an AP program? How would you address their concerns?
31. Do the concerns of Advanced Placement teachers in your school inhibit movement toward schedule reform that would otherwise benefit all students?
32. Do public schools in your area offer a more established and broader array of AP courses than your school is able to? If so, are your efforts to maintain your own program underplaying your school’s unique strengths and values in an arena where it may be difficult or impossible to establish a competitive advantage, anyway?
33. Does the perceived pressure of “having” to have AP courses on the transcript drain good, excited students away from arts, electives, and other challenging courses that don’t carry the AP label?
34. What would your school do when faced with the dilemma of having a sign-up for an AP course that was very small (and thus “expensive” to staff) or very large (and thus necessitating either paring down or adding a section)?
35. Does the calendar of Advanced Placement examinations in May impede the development of meaningful end-of-year programs for seniors at your school? Or does it otherwise interfere with other worthy or potentially valuable programs at your school?

I'd really like your thoughts and comments on these questions. To engage more deeply with this issue, visit and perhaps even join the Independent Curriculum Group Ning.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Independent Curriculum, High Stakes Testing, and the New Progressivism

A few years back educators at a number of independent schools, many but not all of them with Progressive roots and New Progressivist leanings, and a handful of public ones became concerned that the College Board's Advanced Placement program was exerting a dead hand on their curricula, especially at the upper levels. For many students in selective schools who intend on applying to the most competitive universities, the number of AP courses listed on a transcript (regardless of actual AP examination scores) has become a true measure of worth. By this standard, a student with six courses is three times as good as a student with two. In some schools the competition to enroll in AP classes, which at many schools are limited in enrollment and essentially "by invitation only," has become a mania.

Enter the Independent Curriculum Group. The brainchild of executive director Bruce Hammond, a former college counselor at a progressive school in New Mexico, the ICG "has declared its independence from standardized tests that dictate curriculum. We are part of a growing movement of nationally recognized college preparatory schools that have either dropped or de-emphasized the College Board Advanced Placement Program." (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Independent Curriculum Group's board.)

Click the "Read more" link to learn more about the Advanced Placement program and the Independent Curriculum Group.

The Advanced Placement program began a few generations ago largely as a way for the best students at competitive schools (many of them independent) to get a leg-up on first-year courses at Ivy League and other selective colleges. Over time, the program has evolved into a vast program in which public and private schools alike have piled Advanced Placement courses into their curricula as a way of demonstrating rigor and quality. The more AP courses a school offers, the better, and the more students who take AP examinations (regardless of results), the higher the school will be ranked. Politicians, the media, and local school boards have embraced the program as the answer to their prayers for a one-stop solution to all their educational image problems. In 1987 the film Stand and Deliver, whatever its message of hope for the prospects of inner-city students, glorified the AP program as the last bastion of hard-nosed, old-school, teach-to-the-test instruction that public has long equated with educational excellence (at least when it applies to other people's children).

We know what has happened with regard to standardized testing since then. We also know what has happened to the Advanced Placement program: burgeoning growth that has actually required the College Board to institute course audits to protect the integrity of its Advanced Placement and AP trademarks even as the number of kids taking the $86-a-pop examinations has skyrocketed. If you're sitting in a nice office at the Board, you have to feel good.

But if you're at a school where teachers are receiving continuous training in curriculum and assessment design and where teachers are educated as subject matter specialists--that is, if you're at most New Progressive independent schools--Advanced Placement courses can look like a large step backward. Add to this the various strange and mostly undemocratic policies that have grown up around access to Advanced Placement courses, and you have a program that

1) tends to be built around certified, teach-to-the-test methodologies and content (although to be fair the best AP teachers manage to make their courses fresh and exciting), limiting opportunities for students and teachers to take advantage of teachable moments, multiple points of view, and spontaneous thought and curiosity;

2) is offered only to students who have already jumped through some hoops to achieve enrollment and who tend not to represent the overall demographic of American secondary students; remember that the "conflict" in Stand and Deliver comes when the College Board refuses to believe that an entire class of Latino/a students could score at a high level on the test; and

3) is often taken by students far less interested in learning the content than in having the AP label scattered generously over their high-school transcripts.

The Independent Curriculum Group exists as a resource for all educators and all schools interested in returning to a world in which their own teachers and their own departments are free to design and deliver (standing or sitting) high-standards, high-level courses. Gone from this model is the fear of a class's poor performance, which might reflect badly on the teacher and the school and which is a major motivation for limiting AD class enrollment. Instead, schools are free to believe in the potential of all students to succeed and to allow students to take on any challenge they feel up to. As the ICG website states, "Students [in schools where the AP program does not reign supreme] retain more knowledge, probe more deeply, and have more motivation when learning is not subordinated to test preparation. Students who graduate from ICG schools attend the nation’s best colleges, and some of them take AP exams. But each school’s curriculum reflects the passions of its faculty and students." And, it should be added, the curriculum can reflect the school's mission and values, something hard to do when an external body in New Jersey is certifying what are perceived as your "best" courses.

Time will tell what influence the Independent Curriculum Group has on education as a whole, but as a step forward toward a set off principles that we New Progressives stand for, it's a pretty good thing.

As a post-script, it is exciting to me that not all the member schools of the ICG would necessarily spring to mind if you used the word "progressive." To me this indicates what I have been trying to get at all along in this blog: that New Progressivist ideas aren't about progressive-versus-traditional but rather an evolutionary stage to which many schools are arriving largely because the ideas are common-sense, proven, extremely compelling, and ultimately good not only for kids but for the kinds of adults these kids will become because of the education they are experiencing.


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