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Fundamental Misconceptions About AP Courses

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Patrick Mattimore, a former Advanced Placement (AP) teacher and now a Fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism, wrote an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which he debunks 5 Fundamental Misconceptions About AP Courses (note: registration required)

Actually, it’s only four misconceptions. But nevermind. Technicality. Kind of funny, though.  Anyway…

Here are the four misconceptions:

1.  AP is about memorization and does not require students to think critically. Mattimore points out that critical thinking is predicated on a certain amount of domain knowledge, and that some memorization is necessary to get to higher order levels of thinking.  But the AP program is not purely about memorization.

2.  High-school teachers lack the expertise to teach college-level classes. Mattimore says this is sometimes true, but the College Board does try to ensure only qualified teachers deliver the curriculum through training and monitoring of syllabi.  I think the College Board could do a heck of a lot more, but the costs would be prohibitive, adn the quality of American teachers is not their problem, frankly.

3.  Awarding college credit reduces students’ chances for wider intellectual exploration in college. Mattimore debunks this by saying that you have to start somewhere, and the AP is a good foundation.  “When we become proficient in a subject,” he writes, “our tendency is to delve further into it.” .

4.  Colleges courses provide greater intellectual breadth and depth than AP courses. Having hung out in the halls of academe for a good part of my life, I can tell you that many college courses are stultifying, taught by horrid professors who may themselves be smart, but who cannot teach their way out of a paper bag.  Mattimore also points out that students in AP classes get a heck of a lot more instruction in the material than in any college course.

As I have written elsewhere with regard to AP courses and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, both can be fantastic preparation for college when taught by highly trained, capable instructors.  (See more on Advanced Placement and PSEO here).

Mattimore defends the program, but also reminds us that the quality of the AP program is not consistent from state to state, school to school, or classroom to classroom.

Parents should be very cognizant that they play an important role in monitoring the quality of the AP program in their schools.  Just because the label says “Advanced Placement” is no guarantee of quality.

Mark Montgomery
College Consultant

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