Monday, May 07, 2012

Thought On AP Classes

I just finished reading this article about AP classes and, for once, found myself in total agreement with something in the media.

AP classes are something I feel qualified to write about.  I began teaching AP calculus at Packemin in 1995 and did so until the day I retired.  I attended week long workshops and day long seminars whenever I could.  While I am not the brightest person around, teaching AP made me a better teacher.  Over the years, I learned how to get my students to not only learn the material, pass the exam but to apply these thinking skills to other academic areas and to real life.

Here are a few things from the article I feel pertinent that I would like to comment on.

If math teacher Jaime Escalante could lead low-income Los Angeles students to AP calculus glory in the story that became the 1988 film "Stand and Deliver," why not others?

This is a sentence I have been saying for years.  True, none of us are going to dedicate our lives like Mr. Escalante did, but we can succeed with more if work with an adminstration ready and willing to help.  Mr. Escante was able to weed out students who were not motivated and did not belong.  Another problem is that we don't start early enough with our students.  I always felt  ninth graders should be nurtured, especially when they come to high school showing some ability to succeed. At Packemin, too many minority students are relegated to four term (slow) algebra classes.  Too many are branded early on because of a placement test that does not accurately show their ability.  Because of this sequence, they never have time to move up to AP level.  These classes are riddled with kids who have behavior problems and severe academic issues.  There are too many kids in classes like these who are held back.  With the proper help they could make it too.

Passing an AP exam means demonstrating college-level skill, so a high failure rate isn't necessarily surprising or alarming. Many educators insist the AP coursework preceding those exams is valuable regardless.

I have to agree with this one as well.  Former students who did not do well in AP have written to me about their success in college calculus and pre-calculus and credit the AP class they took in high school for their success.  They got "A's" easily and watched classmates who had not taken AP struggle and fail.  The AP class gave them a much needed foundation and prepared them for college, something their other courses failed to do.  So, while the failure rate demonstrates that students are not performing at college level, the course has more than succeeded in preparing them for college level which is, after all, the job of high school.  One teacher wrote that taking AP kept his students out of remedial classes in college.

Sean Martin, who helped start an AP literature program at Heritage High School in Baltimore before moving this year to another school, said some of his AP students read at a seventh-grade level.
"I knew for a lot of them ... it was going to be very difficult to get them even to the level of a 2," he said. Still, he said, simply putting students who want to push themselves together in a class with a goal is valuable.
"We set a higher bar and we could do things a little differently, and really have meaningful class discussions," he said. Classes "take on a different feel when every student in the room is success-oriented."

My sentiments exactly and one of the reasons I fought so hard to let kids who wanted to take the class in, even if their grades were not up to Mr. AP's standards.

"It's kind of an easy reform — plunk in an AP course," said University of Northern Colorado scholar Kristin Klopfenstein, who edited a recent collection of studies on the AP program. But without accompanying steps, it's not clear AP does much good, especially for students scoring 1s and 2s. "What I've observed in a lot of cases is AP programs being helicopter-dropped in with the hope that the high standards themselves would generate results."

Another valid point.  Without the proper background and support system, AP classes are useless.

For many years, Newsweek Magazine used the number of AP exams a school takes as the basis of judging the best American  high schools.  A new formula counts these exams 40 percent for this category.  It costs the schools lots of money to offer AP classes.  Packemin restricted the number of kids eligible to take math because of money.  But, every kid is required to take government and English so it cost nothing to put students in AP classes in these areas whether they were prepared or not and these classes became dumping grounds.

AP classes will help many, but not all.  Kids who can't multiply or can't write a coherent sentence belong in high school readiness classes, not AP classes.  Standards are needed and more kids need access but this alone will not solve the problems many high school graduates are facing today.

Good luck to all students taking AP exams now.  I know their teachers will breath a sigh of relief now that they are over. 


Ricochet said...

I wish our AP Calc teacher was inclusive instead of seeing herself as a gatekeeper.

james boutin said...

Not that you said otherwise, but I worry that there is a notion (especially among parents) that AP and IB equal rigor while non-AP and non-IB must be the opposite of that. There are plenty of teachers who manage to be very rigorous in their instruction of all students, regardless of their level and regardless of whether their course is approved by the college board.

Pissedoffteacher said...

I agree than many teachers keep their courses rigorous but there is something about the way you must think in an AP course that makes them even more so. In AP you have to appy what you know. Memorization doesn't work. In the end, in NY, memorization is all that matters when it comes to passing a regents exam.