Monday, May 3, 2010

On the AP Program

Students across the country began taking their AP exams this morning. This got me thinking about the value of these exams. Earning a score of three or better on an AP test offers three general advantages. First, it is a highly sought after credential for college applications. The lower-tier schools are eager to gain students who have performed well on these tests to pad their marketing brochures and to increase the intellectual diversity and firepower of their student body.  Meanwhile, the elite schools admit only the finest students who have demonstrated excellence not only on standardized tests and extracurriculars but also in college-level courses such as the AP program. In short, it is a prerequisite for admission to the top-tier schools. No matter what the name recognition or status of a school may be, these institutions crave students who exhibit diligence and maturity in a class on par with many introductory level courses in a college. Success in the AP program, then, augurs well for students making them very attractive candidates for admission to the school of their choice.

Second, it saves students a considerable chunk of change. College tuition is shooting through the roof these days for both public and private colleges and universities. It is not uncommon for students to graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and that’s before they begin their graduate studies. An ambitious student could cut out a semester or even a year with the right AP course load and an institution that awards college credit for these tests; in effect, the net savings could total somewhere between a few thousand and tens of thousands of dollars, depending on where a student enrolls and what the institution’s policy is regarding these tests. Typically, public universities have more generous policies regarding these policies than private institutions, but that is not a hard and fast rule by any means. Furthermore, a strong AP score (3-5) allows students the opportunity to bypass some of the core requirements in their chosen institutions. This enables them to move at an accelerated pace in their chosen major and also affords them the luxury of taking more elective courses.

Leaving aside the admissions issue and financial incentives, AP courses are rigorous and demanding. AP classes push the envelope of normal high school instruction to its maximum threshold and thereby expand the students’ horizons. Students who take AP courses benefit from high quality instruction that prepares them for college, but more importantly, it educates them for life. AP courses school scholars in discipline, work-ethic, and the essential critical thinking skills that will aid these young pupils in the long years of work and life to come.

So you’re probably scratching your head wondering what there is to criticize about the AP program after all my encomiums. Well, like with any test-based approach to teaching, you always run the very real risk of teaching to the test rather than focusing on the fundamentals of your discipline. Ideally, if a teacher does a credible job with the material, there should be little or no need for test preparation because the normal classroom assessments and instruction should take care of that. However, the fact of the matter is that there is a very real potential for many teachers to direct less of their energies to the vital teaching of their craft and more to what the AP graders or readers expect of them. I am not a general fan of teaching to the test, whether that be state testing, SAT, AP, or whatever else might be required for admittance to a school.

I have some reservations about opting out of introductory courses as well. For starters, these classes are often foundational in nature not just to a liberal arts education but to the overall culture and intellectual climate of particular academic establishments. The AP exam seems to assume a cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to college-level work which may not be compatible with the philosophies of many schools that have their own intellectual predilections, quirks, and idiosyncrasies, not to mention divergent theories of what an education should be. This probably explains why a not insignificant number of colleges and universities do not give credit for AP courses.

Instinctively, I cringe at bubble tests. I think the appellation well deserved and self-evident. Call me skeptical, call me crazy, call me whatever you will, but I am just not 100% sold on the notion that a single test can indicate the caliber of a student in a specific discipline. Some people just do not test well. The incredible pressure to perform just crushes some students. Everybody has bad days. What if one of those bad days is the day of the AP Exam? Sucks to be you, I suppose. I think the dual credit approach is perhaps better for students who simply cannot test well, but have the talent to do well otherwise. Unfortunately, not every school has the dual credit option open to it.

At the end of the day, I believe in the value of an AP program. Heck, why would I teach the AP English Literature course if I didn’t? I absolutely love teaching a genuine college-level course to hyper-intellectual (I’m blessed at STH!) students whose alacrity for the material is sometimes nothing short of astonishing. I am more often than not inspired by the tenacity and work-ethic of my students. I think the coursework is a great boon for their intellectual maturity and personal enrichment. Given the pros and the cons, I would have it no other way than for our boys to pursue such a rigorous and challenging battery of studies such as the AP program provides.

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