Thursday, April 30, 2009

The AP Argument

Sure, parents want their child(ren) to take as many AP courses as possible while in high school, it can only improve their college applications and high school transcripts and can only better prepare them for college. Right?

Well, according to a lot of recent research, including a piece played on NPR a day or two ago, there are other reasons, and the effects of these intentions aren't as benevolent and heroic.

There were somewhere around 1,000 AP students questioned for the study, as well as 1,000 teachers and a much smaller proportion of district administrators.

The study found that the majority of students took AP courses to pad their college applications and high school transcripts. They had little to no interest in simply striving for more challenging/thought-provoking academic schedules, and many admitted their parents were the prime reasons they chose to take the courses; they urged and even forced them into the courses without questioning whether a students was truly mature and prepared enough to handle such rigors and tests. They believed that taking these courses would guarantee them a spot in college, no matter their grades on the AP exams, so long as they put in enough time and effort to be given satisfactory to good grades by their teachers.

The study found that the majority of teachers felt students were unprepared for the coursework, overestimated their own intelligences, expected the same level of coddling/trial & error as in other courses, and saw their classes' or district's scores decrease over the past five-to-ten years.

During this same five-to-ten year period, the amount of students taking AP courses nationwide has grown by 50%, making AP appear closer to Honors, and Honors now closer to 'the norm.'

The danger, teachers felt, was that many students would now feel that standard courses would be thought of as 'remedial,' though that word has a totally separate stigma about it. They also worried students who should be enrolled in truly 'remedial' courses would be clustered with those in standard courses, as more and more AP students sign up. I don't even have to outline the problems with this approach.

One teacher admitted in 2002 to teaching one AP US History course for juniors, with 20 students in the class; today the same teacher teaches 5 courses of AP US History with 25-30 students in each class. She admitted the scores, as an average, have decreased over the past 6 years, student enthusiasm after several months declines dramatically, student preparedness is deplorable, and she finds herself doing more and more extra work to help the students through the courses to save their grades and college hopes.

With more students taking AP courses, perhaps the argument for American academic superiority is gaining traction. Maybe it's the first or second of many needed steps in the right direction to reaffirming an intelligent, prepared and educated population.

With more students taking AP courses, what differentiates one from the other on their high school transcripts (when colleges weigh who to admit), will come down to extracurricular activities, other courses, and, sadly, the reputation of a school/district. Schools known for no-nonsense teachers who promote sheer autonomy in their students, will produce AP students of a 'higher caliber' when it comes to completing the rigors of AP work (and in turn college work), than say a district where the teachers offer lots of extra help, try to pad or fluff grades to assist the students on their transcripts, or stray from the prescribed curriculum at times in favor of lessons and activities that will truly break through the walls many students put up.

Also, I think it also paints a grim picture of what will happen at the other end of the spectrum. With so much focus coming on special education and now on AP, where are the standard courses left? Will a student interested in math who takes standard English now be grouped with students who have no career aspirations? Simply because they are not 'AP' or 'Special Ed.'? And what happens to those non-special ed. students who need extra help in reading and writing...will they not 'fit in' with the other 'remedial and standard' students, and therefore be pushed in special education courses? It has happened before and it seems like it could happen again.

The solution isn't pretty. For districts (and a globe now that I think about it...) strapped for cash and unwilling to make any unnecessary hirings and expansions during this time (and for the most part, ever), the solution is scary from a financial standpoint, but rewarding, liberating and correct from the standpoints of: considering our children's future, offering the best individual education possible, and not allowing students to be 'grouped,' 'transferred,' or 'forgotten.' (Yes, 'forgotten.' The Times did an incredible story on the forgotten students of The Bronx a few years back. Dozens, even hundreds of kids, allowed to graduate over a number of years without having learned even basic multiplication and writing skills. They were thrown in special ed. resource room because of class sizes or needed remediation, or were allowed to create their own assignments because of a lack of staffing.)

Districts must hire more teachers and expand school sizes. Creating classrooms of no more than 20 students is the only real and viable solution to truly solving the crisis of overcrowding and unfair grouping. Hiring more teachers helps solve it, as does creating more classrooms. Only in this way will students other than AP and Special Education not be forgotten, grouped, transferred, or cheated in any way out of the best education possible for them.

Of course, almost no district can afford to do this, and until we emerge from The Great Recession, and reevaluate how much we allocate towards schools and education in this country, little will change and the result will be this vicious circle of ill-enthusiasm and dangerous tendencies of skimping, conservation, and streamlining when it comes to education.

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