AP Course Revisions

January 10, 2011

A couple of days ago, I posted a note about some changes that the College Board was making in the scoring method for the Advanced Placement [AP] exams.   The New York Times further reports that the College Board is also in the process of revising the content and focus of the AP courses themselves.

Next month, the [College] Board, the nonprofit organization that owns the A.P. exams as well as the SAT, will release a wholesale revamping of A.P. biology as well as United States history — with 387,000 test-takers the most popular A.P. subject. A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like. The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking.

The basic idea of the AP program is to allow capable high school students to take courses more challenging than the standard high school curriculum; the idea is that an AP Chemistry course, for example, would cover roughly the same material, at the same level of rigor, as an introductory college course.

The AP program began in 1955, and has grown steadily since, in both the number of subjects offered, and the number of students participating.  The exams are given in the spring of each year; students who get satisfactory results on the exams may be granted college credit toward their undergraduate degrees.

In recent years, the amount of factual material to be covered before the exam has grown considerably.  (The article cites an AP biology text of 30 years ago with 36 chapters and 870 pages; its current counterpart has 56 chapters and 1,400 pages.)  Some of this growth, of course, is a result of new developments in the sciences and other fields.  It’s hard to attribute all the growth to this, though; the history courses have experienced a similar growth, and the total amount of available history has not increased all that much.  Some of it seems to be an effort on the part of textbook authors, publishers, and course developers to make the material more interesting and sexy; some of it seems to be a corollary of the recent enthusiasm for widespread standardized testing.  Some people seem to feel that the command of a body of facts is the overwhelmingly important objective of education.

This manifests itself in non-AP courses, too.  I recently had the occasion to look through a current introductory algebra textbook for high school students.  It was very impressively produced, printed on coated paper, and contained many photographs.  (It also weighed several pounds.)  It occurred to me to wonder why an algebra book needed photographs at all; I mean, what are they of, famous equations written on blackboards of historic significance?

The article contains links to some of the new material that is proposed for history and biology, and there is a noticeable change in emphasis from the current program.  The aim is to reduce the emphasis on amassing facts, and to spend more time on developing critical thinking skills.

For biology, the change means paring down the entire field to four big ideas. The first is a simple statement that evolution “drives the diversity and unity of life.” The others emphasize the systematic nature of all living things: that they use energy and molecular building blocks to grow; respond to information essential to life processes; and interact in complex ways.

From my own perspective, this seems like a very positive step.  The biggest criticism I might make of my own high school science education (in a very highly rated public school) is that it was long on specifics and short on the unifying ideas that tied them all together.  From what I have seen of current high school programs, this has, if anything, gotten worse.  As I’ve written before, perhaps the key challenge in learning science and mathematics is that one is, in essence, learning a new way to think.  Doing that takes work, and takes practice, no matter how many pictures you have to look at.


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