Jay Mathews of the Washington Post has an article today about the College Board’s audit of AP courses across the nation. You can find the article here.
The article focuses on the fact that some veteran AP teachers’ syllabi have been rejected by the College Board, despite these teachers’ stellar success in preparing their students to ace the exams. In some cases, even teachers who have been tapped by the College Board to train new AP teachers were told their courses were inadequate.
The article makes good copy, and points out to glitches in the College Board’s audit. But the audit makes sense, from two perspectives.
First, the rapid expansion of the AP program across the country has led to uneven delivery of those courses. Part of the problem is that some AP teachers simply do not have the content background to successfully prepare students for the rigors of the AP exam. A course can be labeled “AP”, but that does not mean that the quality is necessarily going to be excellent.
Therefore parents and students should be advised to dig beneath the label. Ask teachers and administrators about the teacher’s track record in helping students get passing grades on the exams.
What’s the pass rate? What percentage of the students get a 5, or a 4, as opposed to a mere 3 (the passing threshold)? What specialized training has the teacher received from the College Board?
Second, colleges have been worried about the AP program digging into their budgets. As more students take the AP exams and pass, more students are receiving college credit and advanced standing at colleges and universities. While admissions offices are eager to have more AP students in their matriculating classes, department chairs may feel a pinch as few students enroll in their entry level courses. And college professors are skeptical that high school teachers can do as well as they can (after all, those professors have doctorates and fancy titles–never mind that they have never–ever–taken a course in pedagogy or instructional methodology).
So the AP audit engineered by the College Board is meant to prove to the skeptics that the AP courses really are quality, college-level courses.
And that’s where the glitches reported by Jay Mathews today come into play: the professors don’t know about a particular teacher’s pass rate, or the fact that they have been tapped by the College Board to train other teachers. All they see is the syllabus. So goofy outcomes are likely.
Some AP teachers complain that their college professor auditors are not only ignorant of the teaching records of the people they are auditing but are alarmingly inconsistent in their judgments. Patrick Welsh, an AP English teacher at T.C. Williams who has been recruited many times by the College Board to grade AP exams, called it a “bureaucratic mess.” He said he and three other teachers submitted identical syllabuses for an AP English Literature course they are teaching this year. One syllabus was accepted. The other three, including his, were rejected. When three teachers in Fairfax submitted the same syllabus, one was accepted, one rejected with three suggested revisions and one rejected with eight suggested revisions.
My take is that AP courses, when taught by well-trained, content-oriented teachers, can be much better than introductory college courses taught by inexperienced college professors with a bevy of graduate student assistants. Though my colleagues in the professoriate would call me a traitor, I have found that some high school teachers are more knowledgeable about a broader range of content than their peers in academia. And they are often much better teachers.
Add to these observations that high school teachers may see their students every day for an entire year, while college instructors may see their students (all 200 or 300 of them in an introductory course) once or twice a week for a mere 15 weeks.
I think the AP audit is a good thing. Of course it is leading to some anomalous results–which the College Board and the affected teacher are swift to correct. Generally, however, it will lead to better uniformity in the way these courses are delivered from school to school, and it will do a lot to calm the skeptics that a 5 on the AP exam is an indication that the student really has learned something.