How to get rid of AP (part 2): why AP is bad
In my last post on the topic of getting rid of AP, I talked about the need to change the conversation we have around education to look for deeper measures of quality and learning instead of focusing on scores, ratios and rankings.
In this post, I hope to enumerate the flaws I find in the AP program, beginning with a specific critique of the AP physics program and followed by an outsider’s critique of a number of other AP courses, and some final observations of AP’s role in the college process.
In the future, I will probably write an indictment of the entire College Board, but for now, I will simply say that the College Board, through its SAT and AP programs, acts as an unnecessary intermediary between most high school students and colleges. Because of this, it is slow to change, and its curriculum regresses toward the mean in order to please the greatest number of students and colleges. Thus, the College Board will always be a lagging indicator of educational best practices and never a source of innovation. But don’t think that will stop Gaston Caperton, the president of the non-profit College Board, from making close to $900,000 every year trying to convince you that the College Board is living up to its motto of “inspiring minds.”
The problems with AP Physics
Let me start with the subject where I am most familiar: AP physics. I have taught AP Physics for a number of years, attended AP workshops on the subject, and my students were successful on the exam.
First, I should clarify that there are two versions of AP Physics: Physics B (algebra based) and Physics C (calculus based). While I think both exams are lacking, the Physics B is particularly atrocious. It’s designed to cover an introductory algebra-based physics course, similar to the type of pre-med physics course offered at many colleges. It covers everything from 1-D motion to fluid dynamics, electromagnetism and very basic quantum mechanics, all to a depth so shallow you’d have a hard time bathing an amoeba in it. Many schools even teach this as a first year course, racing through the curriculum at near light speed to get to modern physics by April so kids can have time to review. The level of questions asked by the College Board on this exam, particularly in modern physics, has to be deliberately skewed to easily memorized facts and calculations that can be completed using the three page formula sheet that comes with the exam.
Here’s an example question from the AP Physics B course description:
The wavelength of yellow sodium light in vacuum is . The speed of this light in glass with an index of refraction of 1.5 is most nearly
Hmm, this question is terrible on most counts. All you need to do is use equation 2 on page 3 of the formula sheet you memorized: and plug in your numbers to arrive at answer (C). And of course, if you actually wanted to use some physics to think about this problem, you could realize that light must slow down when it enters any medium from a vacuum (eliminating choices D and E), but it certainly doesn’t slow down to 100 times the speed of continental drift, (although there are fascinating materials that have stopped light entirely (don’t worry—that’s not on the AP)), so your answer must be (C).
The awfulness of this exam is further exhibited when you find how hard it is to get credit or find an equivalent course in college to match the material in AP-B. Almost all colleges now cover much less material in a year of general physics, and in much greater depth. Many colleges do not even offer non-calculus based physics, and pre-meds are increasingly being steered toward calculus based classes, so often, students cannot skip pre-med physics even with a 5 on the AP-B exam. In general, physics departments look very skeptically upon the AP-B exam. At best, colleges will offer a general credit toward graduation for earning a 5 on the exam, but almost none that I know of will offer actual course credit or placement.
I should acknowledge that the College Board fully recognizes the awfulness of the AP-B exam, and that is why they are targeting it for revision. The current plans are to split it into two year long courses, dramatically slowing the pace. However, these changes keep getting pushed back year after year (they were just pushed past 2012 recently). Furthermore, there’s a decent indication that almost no students would sign up a two year physics sequence that had very little hope of earning real college credit, and many students and teachers would opt to continue to do the death march in 1 year.
Then there’s AP-C (what I used to teach). It’s your very traditional 2 semester calculus based physics course, offered in two halves, Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism (E&M). Because these courses are heavily calculus based, they tend to be viewed by students, teachers and colleges as the “marine corps training camp” of science—especially the E&M course, which is both mathematically and conceptually challenging. The two semester sequence AP-C, especially undertaken with students who are concurrently learning calculus, or have not yet achieved both a solid conceptual and computational mastery of the subject, can be one of the most harrowing intellectual endeavors for a high school student. Nationally, less than 15,000 students take the E&M exam, compared to 80,000 for Calculus BC. Some schools have managed to simply teach the mechanics half of AP-C, and then supplement it with topics in modern physics, projects and more, which can be a very healthy compromise.
Most physics teachers and physics professors are very happy with the AP-C curriculum. This is because it looks exactly like the physics courses we took in college. Heck, it even looks like the courses that Robert Millikan (of oil drop fame(1868-1953)) took in college. This is because the curriculum stops dead at around 1860. For AP-C, electromagnetic induction, discovered by Faraday in 1831, is the pinnacle of intellectual achievement. I think that if you can raise James Clark Maxwell from the dead, and he can ace your test, you probably have not been keeping up with the times. I can think of few other subjects where this would be the case. Darwin would fail the AP Biology exam, and Newton and Leibniz would struggle on the Calculus exam, simply because of the number of questions that require you to be able to use a graphing calculator to visualize functions, to say nothing of the radical improvements that have been made in notation since their day, and heck, even Virgil wouldn’t know what to do with the English instructions on the AP-Virgil test.
In the past 150 years, phsycists have unlocked the subatomic world, developed a synthesis of thermodynamics based on statistical mechanics, discovered hundreds of planets beyond our solar system, discovered we aren’t the center of the the galaxy, discovered that our galaxy is only one hundreds of billions, discovered that gravity is a manifestation of the curvature of space, discovered that that space is expanding in all directions, at an accelerating rate, discovered that there too many subatomic particles to count, and then discovered “dark matter” that we know can’t be any of the particles we’ve discovered, and on and on. And none of it is on the AP test, despite much of it being fascinating and very easy to comprehend for high school students.
Moreover, modern-day physcists doesn’t stop with silly little problems that can be solved in closed form in 3 minutes, and really have little relation to the real world. If you want to see the type of physics that a real physcist does, when using little more than introductory physics, I can’t give Rhett Allain’s Dot Physics enough praise. He’s constantly taking on real problems, fact checking the mythbusters, and working out the physics of the latest crazy video on the internet.
Sure, some might say you are free to talk about all those cool Dot Physics lessons, and teach extra stuff as much as you want to. This is true, and many of the physics teachers I’ve met who teach AP do all this and more. But the only things that truly matter is what the AP exam tests, and when you’re in the race to cover all the topics on AP-B, the 3 day cool lesson on whether or not Kobe can jump the pit o’ snakes often loses out to the need for coverage. And this is the message I got loud and clear when I went to an AP workshop as a new teacher. The workshop was led by a veteran physics teacher who has probably coached his students to more 5’s than any other teacher in his state. And here’s his secret, as told it to me:
I give the kids every single free response question starting in 1975 on February 1, and tell them they’re due on April 1. Kids don’t do anything else outside of class other than these problems. By the time they’ve done all those problems, they’re fully prepared for the AP.
While this is no doubt a sure fire way to score 5’s, I’m not sure it really leaves the kids with a deeper understanding of what physics is about, especially if you have to sacrifice the laboratory work that should be at the heart of science to cram all that knowledge into their heads and solve all those free response questions.
Of course, the College Board is also well aware of the criticism they’ve taken for not testing real laboratory work, and so they’ve tried their best to offer an answer, in the form new and improved “laboratory free response questions.” The problem is these questions are such poor measures of laboratory work that they are almost pointless.
Here’s an example from the acorn book (click to embiggen):
You don’t need to know or have done anything with a spring to be able to solve this problem. And while it’s great that the problem talks about non-linear springs (all springs are non linear at some point), the problem goes off totally off the reality rails when it gives the force law , just so that you can make the required calculus relatively easy to do. Furthermore, in the real world, you would never be given a a set of data and then given a force law from some magic deity—you’d have to use the data to find the force law! Why not instead ask about a real, non linear spring whose force vs stretch graph looks something like this, and turns out to be pivotally important in why bridges collapse.
Bottom line is you’re going to have a near impossible time writing a good set of questions that really test whether a student understands laboratory physics that can be administered using pencil and paper to 100,000 high school students in 90 minutes.
So my criticism of AP Physics in a nutshell is—AP B isn’t even worth discussing, especially as a first course; for most students, it boils down to a extended exercise in formula hunting and memorizing. AP-C, while better, seems to pay no attention to most of the physics that has transformed out world in the past two centuries, and shows little desire to empower students to solve real world problems. Both of these test undermine the two most important ideas of physics, namely, that you can explain a wide range of phenomena with a tiny set of ideas (nothing like a 3 page formula sheet to kill that notion), and two, that you can use physics to make and test predictions about the world around you (no way to test that on the AP, so it often falls away in favor of solving more free response questions).
Criticism of other AP science courses
In many ways, physics is the least content-intensive of the 4 AP-science offerings. A good AP physics teacher can teach students that most of the formulas on the formula sheet are redundant or special cases not really worthy of memorizing or writing down. This is not at all the case in the other science courses.
I can remember how honored I felt, when as a sophomore, never having studied chemistry before, I picked up my copy of Brown and Lemay and dove into AP chem at my public school. One ‘5’ and an ‘800’ on the achievement test later, I thought I was in love with chemistry. Today, I can barely remember a single thing I learned in the course.
From my outside perspective, The AP Chemistry curriculum seems to be about 2 miles wide, and 2 molecules deep. In the race to memorize dozens of soluibility rules and flame test colors, calculate mole ratios and and pKa’s, students never learn what they are actually doing. This is because most of the things you are studying in chemistry are things you can’t actually see, and so it is naturally more abstract, and furthermore many of the fundamental ideas of chemistry, like orbitals and bonding, are hidden behind a impenetrable layer of quantum mechanics, so high school students really can’t achieve a full understanding of these ideas.
And while the AP chemistry curriculum, unlike AP Physics C, does seem to acknowledge some of the 20th century breakthroughs in the science like the discovery of the nucleus, it is far from what you would call modern chemistry. To get a sense of that, all you need to do is compare a problem from a true modern introductory chemistry course at MIT to one from the AP course description.
Here’s a problem from MIT’s 5.04: principles of inorganic chemistry II:
Here’s another of my favorite questions, which I like to ask students after they’ve studied the gas laws:
Why is it that it gets colder as you climb a mountain? One could make an argument you are getting closer to the sun, so shouldn’t you get warmer?
You won’t find anything like these questions on the AP exam. And sure, it probably isn’t fair to compare chemistry at MIT to the AP exam, but this is more of an effort to show how you can bring modern discoveries and current research into the chemistry curriculum, something that I find missing from the AP curriculum.
If you’ve heard any college student complain about their 4 hour chem labs, you’ll probably pretty quickly realize that this is an experience that is hard to replicate in high school. Some AP chem teachers I know, forgo the lab altogether.
When I attended the NSTA conference in early 2008, I remember a presentation by a representative from the college board outlining proposed changed to the AP Chemistry curriculum, which included dropping a number of topics. I can remember my chemistry colleagues at the time complaining vociferously about the changes as watering down the curriculum, and it seems they must have gotten their way, as there are no mentions of changes to the curriculum that I can find on the internet. If you know of something different, please let me know in the comments.
I’ll spend the least amount of time criticizing the AP biology curriculum, since the college board has recognized its whale wide and virus deep curriculum, and scheduled it for complete revision in 2012. The college board has even published a draft framework for revision. However, the fact that the course isn’t being revised until 2012 further reinforces my point that the college board is very slow to change, and cannot be relied upon to serve as a beacon for innovation in science teaching.
Though it seems it didn’t turn out to be as big of a deal as originally thought, how many AP biology courses were able to stop the “march through the phyla” and talk about the recent discovery of (not) aresnic based life?
Criticism of AP science courses in general
I’m not the first to make these criticisms of the AP science courses. In 2002, The National Academies of Science wrote a press release titled “Advanced Study Math, Science Programs in U.S. High Schools Should Offer Greater Depth and Be Available to More Students” along with a 300 page report detailing the inadequacies of the AP science curriculum. Here’s a quote from the press release:
WASHINGTON — High school courses for advanced study in mathematics and science should focus on helping students acquire in-depth understanding rather than the more superficial knowledge that comes from covering too much material too quickly, says a new report from the National Academies’ National Research Council. Educators also should work to make such courses available to more students who could benefit, especially minorities and those attending rural and inner-city schools.
Four years later, the NSF gave the College Board $1.8 Million to study High School Advanced Placement Work in Math and Science.
Here’s a quote from the then director of the NSF:
“The challenge is not to find better ways of teaching facts,” said Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation. “Rather, it is to find better ways of teaching students how to observe, imagine, frame questions and learn by experimentation. These are the fundamentals of science–the principles that can prepare students for a world in which change comes faster than any course or test could ever change.”
In 2007, the College Board released this wonderful Powerpoint presentation outlining the plans for future changes in the broadest possible terms.
Here we stand almost four years later, with only a draft framework for one of the four AP science disciplines. This is a tiny amount of progress, which is to be expected when you are trying to craft a curriculum to please everyone. If you are a strong science teacher now, who is keeping up in his or her field, what do you think the odds are of you designing a curriculum on your own (borrowing from the good parts of the AP here and there) that would be more flexible in allowing you to teach the practice of science to your students, expose them to current discoveries, and help them to dig deeply into your discipline? Pretty high, I’d say.
The problem with other AP subjects
Now, I’m going to step way out on a limb and offer some very cursory criticisms of APs in other subjects. I feel I’ve earned this a bit, since I took 8 of ’em back in high school (yes, I am a survivor of the Race to Nowhere), but please let me know if I completely mischaracterize your pet AP subject, or miss the wonders of its curriculum.
Long ago, way back in 1999, I taught AP computer science for one year. There’s a special place in my heart for this curriculum, since my former professor, Owen Astrachan was part of the committee that designed the curriculum and the test. Back then, JAVA was all new and shiny, and I thought the course was pretty terrific since it matched a lot of what I’d seen in college (imagine that), and it pushed students to work with a very large code base (bigint) from the get go. Now, ten years later, almost nothing has changed except for the case study, and oh, the college board killed Computer Science AB because it wasn’t making enough money.
Today, with computing shaping more and more of our world, mastering the arcana of various sorting algorithms seems less relevant, while an understanding of the big ideas of computer science seems more necessary than ever. Again, the College Board seems to be catching on, and they’ve tapped Owen again to lead the charge to creat a new CS Principles course. This is wonderful. The course is being piloted in colleges in 2011, which given the pace of the College Board, means we’ll see it implemented in high schools right about the time skynet comes online.
In many ways, the AP Calculus and Statistics curricula are among the most forward thinking and up-to-date. The AP calculus exam has long emphasized conceptual understanding over shallow content coverage, and has a good habit of dropping arcane topics like delta-epsilon proofs and trigonometric substitution. Still there are problems, calculus has been made the ultimate mathematical destination for high school students at most competitive high schools radically distorting high school math curricula in the process, integral calculus on most college campuses tends to have a very high failure rate, and data seem to indicate that students who do well in AP calculus in high school do not go on to pursure further study in mathematics. Here’s a somewhat damming quote from an article by David Bressoud on Meeting the Challenge of High School Calculus: Evidence of a Problem:
those who do well in high school calculus are no better prepared or motivated than those students of a quarter century ago who began their study of calculus in college.
History and Economics
When I was in high school, I loved history. I took both AP US and European History, earned my 5’s and traipsed off to college confident that I would be the next Howard Zinn (not that I knew who he was, since he wasn’t part of the AP US curriculum). I was shocked to find that my first History course in college (Intellectual Life of Europe from 1250-1600) wasn’t just a teacher lecturing on and on about the the past, and tests weren’t just an exercise in me regurgitating facts with an occasional DBQ tossed in. I was overwhelmed by the vast reading list of this course, the expectation that I was to make meaning of most of the texts on my own, the complete disappearance of multiple choice questions from my exams, and the 15 page papers that were required.
Now I know that there are many good AP history courses out there that stay away from fact regurgitation, but again, having to cover everything from Jamestown to Vietnam in 160 days, doesn’t allow you the time to dig deeply into primary sources, or to devote lots of time to learning how to do historical research. Recently, I listened to Berkeley’s History 7B, a survey of the US History from the Civil War to Present, and found it to be radically different from anything I remember in AP US History. Here was a course that wasn’t about dates and facts, but instead focused on long running themes throughout the course, analyzed from a variety of viewpoints, paying particular attention to those most often left out of the history. How many AP US history courses are like this? Where is the AP curriculum making room to teach students about the ideas of social history, historiography and the larger themes that run through history?
I’ve also recently discovered a new love for Economics, thanks to the incredible resources for the subject on the internet like Marginal Revolution, Econ Talk, and the sublime Planet Money. But as I look over the syllabus for AP Macro/Micro, I wonder how much time the harried AP teacher has to stop everything and talk about what a CDO is, or the Irish Debt Crisis? Something tells me that they feel just as pressured to cover the curriculum as everyone else, and these topics, get pushed aside to work more supply and demand problems.
A general summary of my critique of the AP curriculum
The AP curriculum seems to provide a near perfect snapshot of what the introductory university curriculum must have looked like in 1950. Nicely separated disciplines, focused on the canon of western ideas, offering a solid foundation in the big ideas for future in-depth study. Too bad most colleges have abandoned this model, and now offer in-depth introductory courses that bring you right up to the edge of current scholarship and interdisciplinary thinking.
You can also see this in how colleges are getting more and more stingy when it comes to awarding AP credit. Now a number of schools only offer you credit if you intend to graduate early, in the form of elective course credit, rather than credit for the AP course equivalents.
Again, I don’t write this to knock any particular teacher or professor associated with the AP program. Owen Astrachan knows a hell of a lot more about computer science than I’ll ever know. My problem is with the need to fire up a gigantic College Board bureaucracy to make changes. This inevitably takes too long, and drives the end result toward mediocrity. When Owen Astrachan saw a need to create a course to the technical and social foundations of the internet (which seems to cover many of the ideas you’d want in a CS principles class) he created it, got it approved by the Duke bureaucracy (no small feat) and now it’s one of the most popular courses on campus. Why can’t we free up teachers to innovate?
The problem with AP in the college process
Here’s why we can’t free teachers to innovate. Give a high school student a choice between a innovative, flexible teacher designed course on a in-depth topic (let’s call it “history of immigration” or “astrophysics”—the title doesn’t matter too much), and more often than not, that course’s enrollment will suffer at the hands of other AP courses.
AP has been turned into a currency of college admissions. Go on any college tour, and you’ll hear platitudes about how they “want you to take on the most challenging curriculum you can.” Ask what that means, and most admissions officers default to saying AP. Ok, so it’s simple—if you want a challenging curriculum, take AP. This surely makes the admissions officer’s job much easier to do. Now rather than having to compare the relative merits of an Advanced Chemistry course to Latin IV, all the officer needs to do is count up your APs to get a numeric measure of your strength of schedule. And often, they turn to further shortcuts (that I’ve heard before) when comparing various AP sciences and math courses, that go something like this
AP Physics C > AP physics B > AP Chemistry > AP Biology > AP Environmental Science
AP Calculus BC > AP Calculus AB > AP Statistics
Of course, these subjects aren’t really comparable—the student who is interested in biology and statistics shouldn’t have to take a hit in strength of curriculum because he choses to study those subjects over Physics and Calculus.
Two other factors have come along to throw this process even further out of whack. First, in 2007-8 the college board, worried that its AP brand was being diluted, decided to require all AP teachers to pass a course audit by submitting a syllabus and answering a few questions. This pushed everyone a bit further along the road toward standardization, and made teachers worry that something my happen if they didn’t pass the official audit. To the best of my knowledge, nothing did.
One misguided reporter at Newsweek also decided that it was too hard to try to get a handle on the quality of all the high schools out there, so the best thing he could think of to measure the quality of high schools would be to devise a new metric, the Challenge Index, which is the total number of AP tests given divided by the total number of seniors, and bingo-you get high school rankings. Which, as any college will tell you, leads a fast and furious game of “gin the rankings,” where administrators try to push every single student into AP. While I am 100% behind the idea that every student can achieve, and we should make our most challenging curriculum open to all, I don’t think AP is the curriculum that we want to be holding up as most challenging, given the many limitations I’ve listed above.
The good news is that most of these problems go away if you can drop the AP labels and free yourself from its curriculum constraints. Students become much more free to choose courses that interest them, instead of chasing the AP. It also becomes impossible to boil the quality of your school down to a challenge index ranking, which is a very good thing.
But won’t this destroy a school’s reputation, or hurt students chances for college admission? No, plenty of schools have abandoned AP with no change in college placement, and there are many ways to demonstrate that a school’s curriculum is still rigorous and meaningful without AP. That’s a subject I’ll save for my third post.