Back to school night. Parents run around a large and familiar campus, but it’s nighttime and they have trouble locating the room numbers for each of their child’s classes. There are volunteer guides standing at every turn to help parents locate the science wing or the music room.
The parents have ten minutes or so to hear a presentation from each teacher about the goals for the year. They also learn about courses that are taught for the joy of learning, and courses that are taught for success on a standardized exam. Advanced Placement courses, designed by College Board, provide teachers with a set curriculum, a practice exam, study guides, and training in teaching advanced courses in numerous academic subjects, ranging from Biology to French.
Tonight, at a Bay Area high school, parents heard teachers explain the purpose and content of AP courses.
In an AP Science class, the teacher told the attentive parents that there was no flexibility in moving through the curriculum at a pace that matched the students’ understanding of the material. There was no time to take a few extra days, she said, to go over a difficult concept. The teacher explained that the pace of the class had to be fast in order to complete all the required components directed by College Board, and that there just wasn’t time for review. She showed the parents several AP Test Prep books from different companies, such as Princeton Review. She suggested that students test themselves each week, beginning now, in September, in preparation for the Spring exam.
In another classroom for Juniors taking Advanced Placement English, the teacher explained that the students were given a timed writing exam the second day of school. Grading was based on the rubric used for the actual AP Exam. She reported that so many students performed poorly or failed the exam that the grades would not be posted on the school’s teacher to parent website used to report student progress. She was very concerned that parents would become overly anxious although their students had not been taught even a single day of College Board’s curriculum.
The course final exam, the English teacher explained, would be the AP Exam given two months before the end of the school year. She told the parents that the students would receive college credit if they passed the AP Exam with a score of 3 or higher. After the final AP test, the course would include material that’s just really fun, such as a debate unit or reading a novel which would be performed by the school’s drama department in the Spring.
In sharp contrast was the presentation by a Pre-Calculus teacher. This teacher said he began each class asking students what was confusing from the previous day, and spent the time needed to review concepts until they were clearly understood. This teacher told the parents that each class ended with a walk down aisles of desks, providing individual instruction to those who needed help working on homework problems. He matched the pace of the course to the learning trajectory of his students.
While it is true that many colleges offer college credit for passing AP exams, it’s incorrect to imply or tell students and parents that the courses designed by College Board are uniformly accepted. Colleges may choose not to give any college credit for AP courses, while others have different rules for what constitutes a passing score, or which departments within a college give credit.
Stanford University does not request AP scores from applicants. AP credits are granted in some cases by individual academic departments, but can’t be used to satisfy General Education requirements. UC Berkeley, for example, does not accept any AP credit toward Chemistry. In English literature at Berkeley, only a score of 5 is credited toward a year of English 1A & B. Georgetown University’s pre-medical advising program cautions students to take all science courses on a college campus because most medical colleges will not accept pre-medical requirements if they were taken in high school AP classes.
At Harvey Mudd College, AP credits are not granted but the university may allow students to take the college’s own exams to determine placement in courses such as Physics, Biology, or Calculus. At Boston University a detailed chart shows which courses accept AP credit. Some courses give credit for a score of 3 or higher, others only for a score of 5, and some courses, no credit is given at all. The Engineering department doesn’t accept credit for Calculus and music majors in the College of Fine Arts get no credit for Music Theory.
All the labor the students invest in passing a single exam may be at the very high cost of a missed opportunity to be taught a creative curriculum designed by their very own teachers.