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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