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Domestic News | October 29, 2012

The learning curve


Despite its popularity with college-bound students, critics say the AP program doesn't offer adequate preparation

©iStockPhoto/Bart Sadowski

Alyssa McNaughton laughs as she remembers her first day of college classes. She felt anxious and excited as she picked out an outfit, snapped a first-day-of-school photo with her roommate, and walked out of her dorm into a new world of academia.

"All the people in my classes seemed so much older and wiser," McNaughton said. "I remember thinking 'Oh my gosh. I'm in a college class.'"

Three years later, as a senior at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., McNaughton believes she was prepared for college academics when she stepped into class that first day-thanks in part to the rigor of her high school Advanced Placement classes. But many experts dispute the value of the program, which is designed to prepare high school students for the more difficult college courses.

Although high schools typically promote College Board's AP program as an authority on college preparatory learning, critics say the correlation of AP and college classes is minimal at best.

"AP courses are not, in fact, remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate," John Tierney, a former college professor and high school teacher, wrote in a recent article for The Atlantic. The high school AP course for American government doesn't begin to hold a candle to any of the college courses he has taught, Tierney wrote.

College Board, the not-for-profit organization responsible for administering the SAT test, launched the AP program in 1955 to give students an opportunity to earn college credits while still in high school. To earn their credits, students must pass an exam at the end of the class.

Despite questions about their effectiveness, AP programs remain popular for students who plan to go to college. About one-third--30 percent--of students who finished high school in 2011 took an AP exam at some point before graduation. But not all of them got the college credit they were hoping for.

Because colleges interpret the value of AP classes differently, credits may not perfectly transfer. McNaughton received college credit for most, but not all, of her AP classes.

Even though she lost some of the credits she thought she would have, McNaughton still has the intellectual value of the AP classes she took, she said. With or without transferrable credits, the time and effort McNaughton had to invest in her AP classes challenged her level of thinking and taught her how to study, she said.

For teachers, the AP program provides training and a standardized curriculum that Dixie Ross, AP Calculus teacher at Pflugerville High School in Pflugerville, Texas, said encourages teachers to participate in a community of learners.

Students benefit equally from being a part of an ambitious and hardworking community, Ross said. Aside from intellectual fruits, the AP program allows students to earn college credit at a low cost that enables them to finish their degrees in a reasonable timeframe-a benefit that Ross's students definitely take into account: "Everyday we go to class, we are working towards saving money on college," said senior Morgan Monzingo.

But critics, like Tierney, counter that the AP program stifles true learning because of its emphasis on teaching to standardized tests, which smothers creative approaches to teaching and learning.

Although her AP teachers taught towards test success, McNaughton said they were still able to cover material comprehensively. Teachers went into more detail than they would have done in a regular class, and they didn't leave something out just because it wouldn't appear on the standardized test, she said.

Of course, students' experiences with the AP program vary based on the teacher--which is one of the main drawbacks to the program, said John Barnhill, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Florida State University in Tallahasse, Fla: "Everything is dependent upon the teacher."

The AP program has grown, but it's hard to say whether the quality of the teachers has grown with it, Barnhill said. Critics say quality doesn't particularly matter to College Board, which rakes in $89 per test and earns more than half its revenues from the AP program.

Although he believes College Board does more for student success and access than any other organization, Barnhill recognizes that there is an inevitable gap between high school-level and college-level learning.

"If you are asking will a student learn as much in an AP class as in the same college class, I think college professors would tell you no," he said.

College learning certainly goes beyond class content. In high school, you don't have the available distraction of friends down the hall, McNaughton said. Her high school AP classes didn't teach her time management or how to balance her academic and social life, crucial skills for success in college. Even so, she believes they offered her a positive experience as she prepared for college.

"I wasn't unprepared, but it wasn't exactly the same," she said. "There's still a learning curve."