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Weekend Reading: "Advanced Placement Is A Scam"

Here are some of the best stories I tweeted out from over the weekend, plus the picture of Matt Damon wearing a Chicago Teachers Union hat:

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Think education isn't getting attention in the debates? The Atlantic looks at other topics with even less ow.ly/esyt4

Advanced Placement is a scam -- John Tierney in The Atlantic http://ow.ly/erNJu

The power - and peril - of outcome-based penalties (for Congress or teachers) -New Yorker nyr.kr/Tomxjc

The Irrational Allure of the Next Big [Education] Thing - Slate bit.ly/UU1rQW 

Why education reform may be doomed  Salon.comow.ly/erPaJ Richard Rothstein's takedown of Joel Klein

Marshmallow-ology: Delaying gratification only makes sense in an orderly environment, notes TIME ow.ly/erTeN

Juking the stats: Nearly half of SPED kids in CA taking easier form of state test, says EdSource ow.ly/erRva

Teen Bullied During Anti-Bullying Interview - TIME - ti.me/QwbipG

Now parents are "greyshirting" their middle school children to improve chances to become a D1 athletenyr.kr/X51mHk

He wasn't her first honors student to end up being a hit man - New Yorker's Nadya Labi nyr.kr/TomOmr

French President outdoes Obama with plan to hire more teachers AND eliminate homework ow.ly/1OX09x

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John Tierney's reflections on the College Board's AP program strongly reflect my own. I remember an article in the Los Angeles Times, the year before I started teaching AP at Locke, called "AP Classes in Name Only". It told of a second-year teacher given an AP Chemistry course without any lab equipment and having to teach fractions! (The school was much worse then than anything you ever witnessed at Locke, Alexander.) The counselling department was absolutely cynical in its AP placement policies; and while we were improving the situation in the middle of the last decade, it got worse after Green Dot took over, for a different reason: the civil rights orientation of the new counsellors, who were by no means cynical but who appeared to swallow the College Board's marketing hook, line, and sinker, led to low or no standards for admission to the courses, which degraded their quality for those who belonged in the courses (and for all of the other, less advanced courses in the departments, which had been drained of earnest, sincere students who did their homework without being by any stretch of the imagination advanced, and whose young teachers apparently couldn't distinguish truly advanced students from others because they had so little experience).

The Advanced Placement Program® invites AP® teachers and students to examine multiple sides of an issue — thinking critically, examining evidence, and then arguing with precision and accuracy —and this invitation extends to their views of the AP Program itself. Accordingly, AP evolves from year to year, thanks in no small part to insightful and incisive feedback from educators and youth.

So when I read a recent blog post by John Tierney, I was disappointed that he hadn’t demonstrated the same critical thinking skills we see so effectively deployed by AP students, who recognize that hyperbole and overstatement should be used sparingly, that intellectually honest arguments must be grounded in evidence, and that complex issues require careful thinking.
On behalf of the tens of thousands of AP teachers and students whose classroom experiences Mr. Tierney so unilaterally condemns, I’m writing to provide some evidence intended to describe a much more diverse set of AP experiences than Mr. Tierney allows.

Mr. Tierney says AP courses don’t “hold a candle” to the college course he taught. I have no data about the quality of the course he taught, so can only compare AP courses to the introductory college courses at institutions like Duke, Stanford, University of California–Berkeley, University of Texas at Austin, and Yale, which are among dozens of institutions that each recently piloted AP Exam questions among its own students to confirm comparability of content, skills and rigor. In fact, 5,000 college professors from the nation’s leading colleges and universities participate annually in the review of every AP teacher’s course, the writing of each AP Exam question, and the scoring of the AP Exams. These professors consistently attest to the overall quality of AP teachers’ work and its comparability to the best outcomes of introductory college courses. These professors recognize that just as there is much variability among the thousands of instructors who teach introductory courses on college campuses, there is variability among AP teachers. And these professors express a wish that there were as much support for quality across the instructors of introductory college courses, many of whom are graduate students teaching their first courses, as there is for AP teachers, let alone a consistent external examination to serve as a reliable and valid measure of learning in such coursework.

After castigating AP teachers, Mr. Tierney condemns AP students as well, claiming that “two thirds” of his own AP students did not belong in his course and “dragged down the course” for students who did “belong there.” Again, I will not claim visibility into his own experience with his own students, but I can say that nationally, there has been a great victory among educators who have believed that a more diverse population could indeed succeed in AP courses. In 2012, AP scores were higher than they’d been since 2004, when one million fewer students were being given access. These outcomes are a powerful testament to educators’ belief that many more students were indeed ready and waiting for the sort of rigor that would prepare them for what they would encounter in college.

Despite educators having doubled the number of underrepresented minority students participating in AP over the past decade, we do share Mr. Tierney’s concern that “large percentages of minority students are essentially left out.” Our data show that among African American, Hispanic and Native American students with a high degree of readiness for AP, only about half of these students are participating, often because their schools do not yet offer the AP course. We call for continued commitment to expanding the availability of AP courses among prepared and motivated students of all backgrounds.

This is not at all the same as claiming that all students, here and now, should be enrolled in AP courses. These are, indeed, college-level courses. The data show this irrefutably. But just as all American students are not yet prepared for college, all American students are not yet prepared for AP course work. We must be vigilant about fostering greater readiness for AP, and then we must care for students within AP courses by providing support, mentorship and encouragement.

This also includes investments in addressing the balance of the breadth and depth required by AP courses. We engage professors and teachers regularly in the review of AP course content, and we find that in most AP subjects, AP teachers and students have significant flexibility to tailor the AP requirements to topics and issues of deep personal interest, while developing a rich understanding of the key concepts and skills in each discipline. But in science and history, two subject areas that, by their very nature, expand the amount of possible content with every passing day and new discovery, we have recognized a need to implement a significant redesign effort that frees teachers and students from the pressure to cover superficially all possible topics. This redesign has been embraced by higher and secondary education alike as the new “gold standard” in introductory college science and history curricula.

Finally, Mr. Tierney’s financial claims are inaccurate. Contrary to Mr. Tierney’s statement, schools do not pay to offer AP courses. Instead, the not-for-profit College Board incurs the costs to register a school to offer AP courses and to authorize each locally developed AP syllabus, and we subsidize teacher professional development for schools unable to afford to send a teacher to one of the dozens of U.S. universities that train new AP teachers each summer. The AP Exams themselves are optional (80 percent of students opt to take them), and we cover all of our operating costs (developing, printing, shipping, scoring the exams) with the $89 exam fee, which is less than the cost of a typical college textbook, let alone the credit hours for that college course. For students unable to afford the $89 fee, the College Board partners with federal and state and local agencies to reduce the fee (historically to $0–5 per exam). After paying for our expenses with the exam fees, decisions about the use of any remaining funds are decided by our Board of Trustees, which is composed of educators from colleges, universities and secondary schools. Unlike a for-profit entity, where profits privately benefit investors, the College Board is obligated to reinvest remaining funds in educational programs, specifically because it is a not-for-profit organization. The College Board Trustees ensure these funds are used to improve educational opportunity and quality for a diversity of students. This year, they have approved the use of such funds to provide, for example, scholarships to teachers; increased subsidies to low-income students; creation of online score reports for AP students; and online learning supports for students.

The AP Program is not a silver bullet. It is not a simple cure for all challenges we face within our education systems. But as educators use AP standards to help a diversity of students engage in rigorous work worth doing, I find myself inspired daily by what they are achieving.

Trevor Packer
Senior Vice President, Advanced Placement and SpringBoard Programs
The College Board

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