Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Where Are We Going With AP Classes?

In an article in The New York Times today, writer Jacques Steinberg examines teachers’ complaints about the rapid growth of Advanced Placement classes.

“More than half [of teachers surveyed] are concerned that the program’s effectiveness is being threatened as districts loosen restrictions on who can take such rigorous courses,” Steinberg writes. These same teachers are concerned that students take AP classes to pad their resumes not because they want the greater academic challenge.

Steinberg quotes some statistics to validate his point. “The number of high school students who took at least one college-level AP course increased 45 percent, to 1.6 million from 1.1 million, from the school year ended 2004 to that ended 2008.” He goes on to say that “the number of AP exams those students took…increased by 50 percent, to 2.7 million.”

Principals, as Steinberg discovered, often add more AP courses, and more seats for students in AP classes, to “improve their school’s ranking and reputation in the community.”

I teach all the honors and AP courses offered at my school for grades nine through twelve in English. Granted, I work at a small private school with each grade level consisting of about sixty-five students. My class size for each honors or AP section is seventeen to twenty students. If the class of juniors consists of sixty students, and I have twenty of them in AP Language and Composition, that is one third of the grade level. In a small private school drawing from a small community, it is highly unlikely that one third are qualified students in AP English.

So why are so many students in my class? My school administration and the College Board who owns and regulates AP classes and exams, support the philosophy that if a student wants the greater challenge, and can demonstrate a modest capability in the subject, she should be allowed a seat in the class. We allow students five weeks to decide whether or not they wish to remain in the course. After five weeks, if they continue enrollment, they are in the class for the year, sink or swim.

We offer two AP courses in English—AP Language and Composition for grade eleven students, and AP Literature and Composition for twelfth grade students. Over the last eight years, seventy-five percent of my students pass each of the exams on average. Considering that almost all of my students are English-as-a-second-language students, I feel this is an accomplishment we all can be proud of, but the road to passing is a difficult one.

The problems I have observed at my school are validated in Steinberg’s piece. Students want to take AP courses because their friends are in the class. Parents push their children into AP courses for a variety of reasons: competition with other parents and their children; desire for their children to have a better education, even though there are excellent teachers in the college preparatory courses; and some even over-estimate their child’s ability, thereby putting the student in a class where he may find his skills insufficient to compete at the AP level. Administrators want as many students in AP as possible because those statistics and good passing rates make the school look good. The problem is that such advocacy without fully considering capability leads to poor grades and poor results on the exams in May. If we push students who are not capable into a challenging academic course, it is a failure of logic to bemoan the results when they do not score well on the exam.

I also question what I must teach in AP English. I cannot avoid spending a considerable amount of time preparing students for the test. However, I refuse to make my class just about test preparation.

In college, in the real world, students need a greater variety of skills and knowledge than is represented on the AP exam. No real writer goes into a room and in two hours, emerges with three complete, final draft, quality essays. Journalists come close, but they work from notes and outlines and often hours or days of research and interviewing. We are asking fledgling writers to do on the AP exam what professional writers do not do. All writing books used to instruct students advocate writing as a process—notes to outline to first or rough draft to revision to proofreading to final draft. Writers write, polish, rewrite, think, reconsider, revise, and finally, publish.

A student on the AP exam must read a piece of literature, evaluate the author’s intent and ideas, and analyze how he uses stylistic elements like diction, syntax, and imagery to convey his intent and purpose. Then the student composes a coherent, final draft, polished essay where she presents her analysis using passages for support. Questions vary across the two exams, but that is a basic summary. AP work is, and should always be, challenging. If we are pushing kids into these programs to simply polish their resumes or make a school look good, we may be setting them up for failure.