Thursday, December 13, 2007

Adventures In The AP Audit

In a letter dated December 4, 2007, I was informed that my second AP class, formally AP Literature and Composition, had been “authorized to us the AP® designation for the 2007-08 academic year.”

That Santa Ana wind you hear is my sigh of relief.

“The AP Course Audit was created at the request of secondary school and college members of the College Board who sought a means for the College Board to: 1. provide teachers and administrators with clear guidelines on curricular and resource requirements that must be in place for AP courses; and 2. help colleges and universities better interpret secondary school courses marked ‘AP’ on student transcripts.” (from the AP Audit website)

I did not buy this for one minute. The AP Audit was instituted to try to control and prevent teachers from teaching to the test rather than offering a truly challenging college-level course. Students were doing well on the exam, so well that many colleges were no longer taking the passing score of three for course credit. Once they hit the actual college classroom, the deficiencies in their training became evident. A student could do well on the test because that was what he had been trained to do. But when it came time to demonstrate wide and deep reading, superior process writing and editing skills, the fa├žade crumbled.

The College Board does not change its procedures easily. Just a few years ago, when the University of California system announced they were considering dropping the SAT test, a benchmark for college admission for decades, the College Board promptly rewrote the test to UC specifications. The UC system has decided to continue to use the test after all.

The real joke in all of this is under the website section labeled “Benefits of the AP Course Audit for Teachers.” These benefits include “A clear definition of elements required in a college-level course; support materials for developing or refining a college course syllabus, such as sample syllabi that illustrate the variety of ways a course can meet the curricular requirements of your course; validation of curriculum through external review by college faculty; a means for AP teachers to receive updates, new materials, and the latest information about course/exam updates; leverage to ensure students have the resources, such as college-level textbooks, that the course requires; defense of college/university admissions benefits for AP students.” Some of these items are clear; others are meaningless jargon.

If the goal of the AP Audit was to ensure a measure of quality control in the classroom, examining what is on paper can differ from the reality of day-to-day instruction. The only way to know what is going on in the classroom and ensure a college-level educational experience for students is to be in the classroom for several days, or maybe even every day, and observe the class in action. Reviewing a syllabus means little. Without being present in the room, how do they know that what is on paper is what happens in the class?

The College Board has added simply more paperwork to an already bureaucratic situation. When we should be prepping to teach, we are instead typing up syllabi to fit a uniform standard that has only marginal application. My school already demands a certain syllabi format, so now I am writing up two documents instead of just one.

I spent six months, from January to June of this year, writing and revising my syllabi to follow the suggested format provided to me by the College Board. My actual course syllabi did not have the required information included on it because students need just the facts: what do they do when absent? How is their grade determined? What is my policy for late work? The AP Audit wanted so much more.

By June 1, 2007, the College Board’s deadline, I submitted two course syllabi over the Internet to the College Board. By the end of June, my AP Language and Composition course (Grade 11) had been approved.

At the end of August, I received an email announcing that my second course, AP Literature and Composition (Grade 12) had not been approved. Evidently, there was not enough evidence presented. I needed to show exactly how the students learned what I said they were learning. I also neglected to show how the writing process was utilized on every assignment. How did students learn from their mistakes? In addition, there were not enough American authors included on the reading list.

The whole evidence issue was not clear. They read a book, they took a test or wrote a paper, and then possibly did a project or some activity to extend the learning. That was the lesson plan. I was not sure what else to add.

As for the writing process, the test in May does not allow them to use the writing process. They go in blind to an empty classroom, receive a topic and passage, and create an analytical essay of some detail in forty minutes. There was no time for drafting or revision. I utilized those skills when students wrote papers in my class. I taught them how to reduce the process down to one step for AP writing.

Finally, the American authors were part of the eleventh grade course. Twelfth grade focused on British and world writers.

I made what I thought were the required revisions and resubmitted the syllabus. Sometime in October, I received another missive, this time from a live person. My draft had yet again been rejected, but now he would help me. I sent my information to Paul by email, and he contacted me back by email within twenty-four hours.

“You need to include more American authors,” he wrote.

“But Americans are covered in the eleventh grade course.”

“Well that needs to be mentioned somewhere on the syllabus.”

“Let me get this straight,” I wrote him. “You want me to add the eleventh grade reading list to the twelfth grade syllabus?


“And then it will pass?”


So right there in the course description, without any rhyme or reason, I have listed the books students read in eleventh grade. I have also listed the required reading for twelfth graders. All of this on the twelfth grade syllabus. Within the month, the class was approved.

The students who pass the AP exams in English almost always top out at 50-75 percent of my class. It is not a great average, but for a class with almost 100 percent English-as-a-second language learners, I feel this is a solid achievement. Considering this is a private school that draws from a small community in a Los Angeles suburb, I feel the passing rate is even more impressive.

I do not think the AP Audit will make a difference in my passing rate. It has not made a difference in the way I conduct my classes. It just required more paperwork.

Are my classes college-level courses? I model them after my undergraduate courses in English, so I would say yes. But the skills required on the AP exam in May are not what was required of me in those classes all those years ago. So I recognize the inconsistencies. In a sense, a teacher has to teach a little of the test. That is the benchmark.

I applaud the College Board for trying to introduce some consistency in the coursework from school to school, but if they were trying to introduce some uniformity into what the grades in an AP course mean, I believe they have largely failed. The only way to know for sure what is happening in the classroom is to be in the classroom and keep your eyes open. Every teacher is unique, therefore the meaning of the grades will vary, maybe even dramatically.

If the College Board was simply trying to keep the AP exam viable and please their college and university constituents, then my work on the syllabi was an exercise in futility. The work has not led to better instruction. The AP Audit was simply much ado about nothing.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Words Like Feathers In The Air

Once words are out there, it is very difficult to gather them all back, as Brian Christopher Wilcher, age 38 discovered recently. According to the Los Angeles Times, Wilcher, a teacher at Brea Junior High School, told a twelve year old student in his class that “next semester you’d better find another teacher because if you’re in my class I’m going to kill you.” Easy there, Tiger. We have all been there.

More and more, in this age of cell phone cameras and tiny digital recorders, teachers and students need a list of words and phrases that are appropriate and acceptable for classroom interaction.

The first thing that happened once I had been hired by the Archdiocese way back when was that I had to attend a workshop on proper classroom etiquette according to the law. We were instructed that a teacher never told a parent “your child is lazy.” He is “unmotivated.” A teacher never threatened a student with bodily injury or death. Detention or time out after school, or a face-to-face meeting with parents were the most potent threats a law-abiding teacher could make.

Still, words slipped out. During a parent meeting I was involved in at one school, the father turned to me and said, “If my kid gets out of line again, just beat him. You have my permission.” When I insisted that no one would be beaten, and that to raise a hand was against the law, the parent reiterated that it was okay. “Everyone needs a good smack now and then, and you got my permission to just lay into him. I don’t care if you leave him black and blue!” The principal and I spent the rest of the lengthy meeting trying to convince the parent that if we saw any “black and blue” marks on the child, the police would be called. I am still not sure he got the message.

Years ago, I made the comment to a high school class I was teaching that a certain student was absent “every other day.” It was only a slight exaggeration. For months, the student had attended school barely three out of the five days each week. Within twenty-four hours, I had the parent in the office telling me that it was just such comments that made his son stay home all the time. This discrimination had become unbearable. He never denied that his son missed at least one day per week. He was upset because I had verbalized it in the classroom.

In the course of heated exchanges in the crucible of the classroom, things can often be misconstrued and misinterpreted. I do not know if that is the case with Wilcher and his student, but a misunderstanding is possible. Still, a death threat is serious stuff in this day and age. People threatening to kill others can’t be taken lightly. The news footage of Columbine haunts our dreams. How many times have such incidents been repeated. Just yesterday, the shooting at the mall in Nebraska became a perfect example. By killing a number of people, the shooter thought that at least he would have some notoriety. As one of my students reminded me, the situation was similar to Meursault’s, the main character in Albert Camus’ The Stranger. After he murders the Arab man, he feels his life has meaning. Why else would so many people hate him?

What I am most concerned about is that there is equality of punishment for teachers and students when they make dangerous threats in the classroom. Students are often given more leeway than teachers when making statements. Would a student who threatened Mr. Wilcher be thrown in jail for a felony? I would hope so. I know that the one time a student threatened my life, it was a far different story.

I had handed back some papers to a junior class. The bell rang, and one student who was upset with his grade walked passed me at my podium and said “I’m going to get a gun and come back and shoot you.” He was staring right into my eyes. The comment and to whom it was intended were very clear.

Since I met this particular class twice each day, and this threat was made in the morning class, I went to the dean of students and the principal and demanded that action be taken immediately. I wanted the kid suspended from my class pending possible termination, as the school rule stated. The principal told me that the student did not mean the threat as stated. “So what does ‘I’m going to get a gun and come back and shoot you’ actually mean?” I demanded to know. He did not have an answer.

We called the student into the office where he promptly admitted making the threat in exactly the words I related. “I’m sorry,” he said to me, not making eye contact. “You made me mad with the grade.” That was his defense. His punishment? He was removed from the afternoon session of the class, but the next morning, he was back in his seat. I was not satisfied, but I had no other recourse. I did, however, drop in to see the principal.

“In the future, if that student, or any other makes a threat against me,” I told him, “neither you nor anyone else will stop me from going down to the police station four blocks away and filing a police report. This might be a private school, and you may control this world, but even on this patch of ground, no one gets away with making death threats.”

I consider it my “Clint Eastwood” moment, probably overheated and overblown in my assessment all these years later. At the time, I was very emotional about it.

What I have come to realize is that language is a weapon. It is sharp and dangerous. Just like a firearm, if its use is not controlled, it can lead to disaster. Once the words are out there, like the ruptured feather pillow, one cannot put the words back where they came from, and the only recourse is to deal with what was said. Wilcher now faces such a situation.

The pen and language itself, is mightier than the sword. Words can be hurtful. Words can introduce fear and intimidation into a situation. That whole thing about sticks and stones breaking bones, but words are harmless has been refuted. Words are dangerous.