Home > Uncategorized > Diane Ravitch Raises the AP Debate, and Finds the Exams Wanting… But SOMETIMES They Serve a Purpose

Diane Ravitch Raises the AP Debate, and Finds the Exams Wanting… But SOMETIMES They Serve a Purpose

One of Diane Ravitch’s posts yesterday reacted to a blogger David Kristofferson’s post titled “What everyone needs to know about AP exams”. I read Kristofferson’s post which described the method the College Board uses to score the AP tests. Basically, the AP tests are graded on a curve. The cut scores defining the one-through-five ratings are determined after the test is administered. Consequently, students can get a low percentage of the questions correct and attain a “passing” grade of “3” and few if any students get a high percentage of questions correct. In the physics test, for example, Mr. Kristofferson learned that the highest grade on the AP test, a “5”, required the student to only get 71% of the questions correct. Unlike a mastery test, that would yield a “J” curve, the AP tests are more akin to achievement tests that yield a bell curve. They are, therefore, designed to sort and select. As Mr. Kristofferson’s blog post emphasizes, despite their reputation, AP Exams are not mastery tests. They are summative examinations that measure the ability of students to rapidly ingest and regurgitate facts and, as such, do not really require the special training or prescribed curriculum the College Board requires of teachers to offer a bona fide AP Course.

Jay Matthews and US News and World Report gave these tests a huge boost when they used them as their primary metric in rating schools. AP results give journalists they a cheap, easy and fast way to provide seeming mathematical precision to something that is clearly elusive: the overall quality of a school. But the percentage of students taking an AP test (Matthews’ favored metric) or the percentage taking the AP test and  passing at least one of those tests (the US News and World Report’s algorithm) fails to take into account the breadth of a school’s curriculum and extra-curricular offerings or the quality of instruction in it’s highest level courses.

In two districts I led in NH this led to a modest degree of pushback from parents and some school board members who wanted “AP courses”. Teachers adamantly opposed the courses because they felt they imposed a curriculum on them that the AP curricula were too prescriptive. The teachers realized that top tier colleges cared more about the GPA and the student’s “resume” than they cared about AP scores. Most importantly for college bound students attending these high schools, they both had reputations for academic excellence in the admissions’ offices of colleges in New England. And the teachers also realized that their students were free to take the AP exams even if they did not take an “AP course”. Unsurprisingly, the students who DID take the AP exams did well since they were well grounded in the content and could, therefore, score high enough on the exams to “pass”.

On the other hand, in other districts I led, where the high schools were not “known quantities” to college admissions staff and college attendance was valued as highly, it made sense to offer AP courses so that high performing students would find their way into the acceptance piles in competitive colleges or into competitive programs within state colleges. The teachers in these schools saw the offering of AP courses as a means of demonstrating that their students were capable of college work and demonstrating to the college educated parents in the community that their schools were the equal of nearby private academies.

On balance, then, the AP examinations CAN help individual students get the attention of competitive colleges. But they but the debate about school “quality” because they serve as the “tie-breaker” in US News and World Report rankings and the “deal breaker” in Jay Matthews’ rankings and continue to reinforce the notion that in teaching and learning time is constant and learning is variable.

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