Saturday, September 06, 2008

Advanced Placement is Changing

One of the many interesting discussions in our staff development efforts revolved around the idea that many of the changes we've been discussing (a more student-centered and constructivist approach, students taking more control over their own learning, students developing personal learning networks, etc.) are very difficult to implement in Advanced Placement courses because of the very defined curriculum and the all-important "big test" looming at the end of the school year. The gist of the argument is that while this approach would be great for students, it's next to impossible to do with the time constraints and the amount of material that must be covered by a fixed date in May when the test occurs. That doesn't mean, of course, that the course has to be straight lecture and ours are not, but the general feeling from the AP teachers involved in our staff development was that there simply wasn't enough time for a more inquiry-based approach, and that - while they might value many aspects of that approach - they were concerned that it might actually hurt the students on the AP exam.

Now, being the radical I am (and also being completely unaccountable because I don't actually have to teach these courses or own up to the results), I often pushed back with my usual, "What's best in the long run for the students? What will help them learn and grow and understand history/mathematics/science/language/etc. at a more deeper level? Don't you think that if they truly develop a deep conceptual understanding that they'll do just fine on the AP exam and it will more than make up for any drop in their score from missing a few more multiple choice questions? Is our only goal to prepare them for one exam when they're 17 or 18, less than a quarter of the way through their lives? If so, we should stop the Super Bowl and hand out the Lombardi trophy just before the first quarter ends. Yada Yada Yada." (Yes, I'm pretty much always that obnoxious. But they love me anyway. I hope.)

I think I always acknowledged how difficult this was and conceded that realistically they might have to make some compromises due to the constraints the AP curriculum/exam placed on them. In any event, I think we always had some very good discussions and generated some great ideas, and the end result was better instruction and learning for the students in those classes (even if my radical self always hoped for more).

(As a side note, this discussion was also happening at the same time that my school was opening up our AP courses to many more students, meaning these teachers were not only being harassed by me but were also dealing with more sections of AP classes, and those sections had significantly more students with more varied levels of preparation. I actually think this was good, because it made all of us really question what we valued and what we wanted for students, but it also didn't make it any easier.)

So I read with great interest when one of our AP teachers sent me an email indicating that the College Board was in the process of redesigning the AP History and Science curricula and exams. And when I followed the links and did a little more reading, I was very interested in some of the changes they were proposing:
The review of the AP Exams in science and history has resulted in a recommendation to improve these exams, reducing the breadth of content covered and reducing the emphasis on memorization of facts, and instead requiring a greater depth of study among a smaller number of topics, emphasizing inquiry and scientific reasoning.
Okay, so far so good, but I wanted a little more detail. That article then linked to a couple of PowerPoints, one for science and one for history, that were in support of a live presentation given at the AP Annual Conference. Those PowerPoints referenced two books: Learning and Understanding (full text at that link) by the National Research Council and Understanding by Design by Wiggins & McTighe. I found that fortuitous (always wanted to use "fortuitous" in a blog post), as one of the early influences on our staff development was How People Learn (full text at that link), an earlier work by the National Research Council; and UbD is one of the books informing our current staff development work. So it appeared as though the AP review underway was tracking right along with the themes in our staff development these last three plus years.

What else did those PowerPoints say? Well, they both included a slide with recommendations "applicable to all AP course subjects:"
  • Courses should emphasize deep understanding rather than comprehensive coverage.

  • Programs should reflect current understanding of learning in the discipline.

  • Programs should reflect current research directions within the discipline.

  • Courses should include a deep emphasis on inquiry and reasoning.
Alrighty then. I was beginning to feel much better about some of the ideas we'd been discussing these last few years, as it appeared as though perhaps the AP curriculum and exam might change in ways that would better align with the approaches we had been talking about. If you download those PowerPoints (and I think you should), also pay attention to the "notes" section on each slide, as many of the slides have additional information and "talking points" for the folks that were presenting that give some valuable insight into their thinking (not as good as being there live, but still helpful). Here are some notes that jumped out at me:
History Presentation, Slide 4, notes: A very specific consistency is supported by evidence; there is too much content in the "science" courses.

History Presentation, Slide 10, notes: Need to create flexibility for teachers to select topics of their choosing. In identifying essential historical knowledge, goal is to limit historical detail so teachers are not required to "cover" everything.

Science Presentation, Slide 18, notes: The Chemistry Commission recognized the need to replace the emphasis in the current exam on calculations and descriptions with an emphasis on the conceptual foundations of the discipline and on the ability of students to express the reasoning that underlies the calculations and descriptions.
Now it was getting just downright scary, as this could've been the summary of some of our staff development sessions (and a few of my Fischrants as well). There's much more in the PowerPoints, but I felt like I was probably still missing some pieces since I hadn't seen the live presentation. So I decided to read the executive summary (pdf) of Learning and Understanding (again, the full text is online, but I've only read the executive summary so far).

Some lengthy excerpts in case you don't want to read the executive summary:
This book takes a fresh look at programs for advanced studies for high school students in the United States, with a particular focus on the Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate programs, and asks how advanced studies can be significantly improved in general. (introduction)

. . . its primary motivator was the improved, research-based understanding of teaching and learning that has emerged recently, and its application to advanced study. (p. 1)

The committee found that existing programs for advanced study are frequently inconsistent with the results of the research on cognition and learning . . . Students learn best from teachers with strong content knowledge and pedagogical skills . . . High school teachers . . . have little opportunity to work with colleagues to improve curriculum or instruction . . .Research indicates that constrained curricula are more effective and equitable in helping students pursue advanced studies. (p. 2)

The goal of advanced study is to promote development of deep conceptual understanding and the ability to apply knowledge appropriately . . . Effective instruction is focused on enabling learning to uncover and formulate the deep organizing patterns of a domain, and then to actively access and create meaning around these organizing principles. (p. 6)

Seven research-based principles of learning can provide a framework . . . (p. 6-7)
  1. Learning with understanding is facilitated when knowledge is related to and structured around major concepts and principles of a discipline.

  2. A learner's prior knowledge is the starting point for effective learning.

  3. Metacognitive learning (self-monitoring) is important for acquiring proficiency.

  4. Recognizing differences among learning is important for effective teaching and learning.

  5. Learners' beliefs about their ability to learn affect learning success.

  6. Practices and activities in which people engage during learning shape what is learned.

  7. Socially supported interactions strengthen one's ability to learn with understanding.
Successful implementation of advanced study that promotes learning with understanding also depends upon creating opportunities for teachers' continual learning . . . It treats teachers as active learners, builds on their existing knowledge and beliefs, and occurs in professional communities where there are opportunities to discuss ideas and practices as colleagues. (p. 8)

The committee's analysis . . . yielded the following findings: (p. 8-9)
  • Excessive breadth of coverage (especially in 1-year science programs) and insufficient emphasis on key concepts in final assessments contribute significantly to the problem in all science fields . . . . [assessments] frequently focus on procedural knowledge at the expense of conceptual understanding.

  • Except for mathematics, these programs do not specify clearly what prior knowledge is needed for success.

  • Many programs and courses do not help students develop [metacognitive] skills.

  • The single end-of-year examinations and summary scores, as found in AP, do not adequately capture student learning.

  • Teamwork and collaborative investigation are especially important in advanced study . . . Better use of the Internet and technologies for collaborative learning is needed.

  • Students need opportunities to learn concepts in a variety of contexts. The AP and IB programs currently do not emphasize interdisciplinary connections sufficiently.
Students can study topics in depth and develop conceptual understanding only if curricula do not present excessive numbers of topics. Currently, AP and IB programs are inconsistent with this precept . . . Additionally, the College Board models AP courses on typical college introductory courses, rather than on the best college courses or educational practices based on research on learning and pedagogy. (p. 9-10)

A striking inadequacy of the AP and IB programs is the lack of detailed research about what their examinations actually measure, including the kinds of thinking that the examinations elicit. (p. 10)

At present, neither the College Board nor the IBO supports systemic and continuing professional development for teachers. (p. 10)

Recommendations (p. 12-13)
  • The primary goal of advanced study in any discipline should be for students to achieve a deep conceptual understanding of the discipline's content and unifying concepts. Well-designed programs helps students develop skills of inquiry, analysis, and problem solving so that they become superior learners. Accelerating students' exposure to college-level material, while appropriate as a component of some advanced study programs, it not by itself a sufficient goal.

  • Course options in grades 6-10 for which there are reduced academic expectations . . . should be eliminated from the curriculum.

  • Programs of advanced study in science and mathematics must be made consistent with findings from recent research on how people learn. These findings include the role of students' prior knowledge and misconceptions in building a conceptual structure, the importance of student motivation and self-monitoring of learning (metacognition), and the substantial differences among learners.

  • Curricula for advanced study should emphasise depth of understanding over exhaustive coverage of content . . . Because science and technology progress rapidly, frequent review of course content is essential.

  • Instruction in advanced courses should engage students in inquiry.

  • Teachers of advanced study courses should employ frequent formative assessment.

  • Schools and districts offering advanced study must provide frequent opportunities for continuing professional development.
Changes in the AP and IB Programs
The following substantial changes in the AP and IB programs are recommended: (p. 14)
  • The College Board should abandon its practice of designing AP courses in most disciplines primarily to replicate typical introductory college courses.

  • The College Board and IPO should evaluate their assessments to ensure that they measure the conceptual understanding and complex reasoning that should be the primary goal of advanced study.

  • Both the College Board and IBO should take more responsibility for ensuring the use of appropriate instructional approaches.
Okay, I'm convinced. Our staff development efforts are pretty much directly aligned with the changes that are coming to the Advanced Placement program. While these won't occur any earlier than May 2011, they appear to be serious about these changes. Which implies that we need to be serious about implementing these changes in our Advanced Placement courses beginning right now.

I also firmly believe that what's good for students in AP courses is good for students in all courses. I'm not suggesting that all courses be AP courses, different students have different needs. But the essential idea of what constitutes understanding in any given field is applicable to all students, and the basic design elements of a course/learning environment should apply to all our students, not just the ones deemed "advanced."

So, Advanced Placement is changing. Are you?


  1. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. While I don't teach an AP course, I am concerned by the amount of memorization required of my freshmen students who are taking AP Human Geography.

    I look forward to seeing the implementation of these changes.

  2. I know that I am asking my students to memorize fewer "facts" in AP chemistry. However, I am teaching them where to find the information and how to evaluate the source of the information. We are looking at trends in research (both to the study of AP and chemistry in general) and I have been wondering if the changes that are proposed will be carried through. I enjoy most of the content that the course includes. I do not care for the pace sometimes. I do a lot of assessment (formal and informal) and I am trying to get the students to write in the content area. Like Jackie, I am excited to see the changes to the courses and the test. I do worry about what the "scores" will look like since that is how society judges the successfulness of a program. If the college board makes the changes then they better make sure they help us teachers understand them.

  3. Looks to me like AP is morphing more into the IB philosophy of exams, using the teacher's experience and expertise in the classroom instead of blanketing the US with the same content no matter where they live, what they teacher has studied, or what may of be of interest. Hopefully that will allow the teacher some flexibility and the students the opportunity to learn and study topics in depth instead of loading up on facts to pass the exam.

  4. This is great news. I spent two years as a very frustrated AP Biology teacher - with SO much content, as well as 12 major labs to complete, I felt like the class needed to be double-blocked. I brought this idea to my school director, only to be told that it was an impossibility.

    If you estimate that a high school instructor sees a student for approximately 180 hours each school year, and about 50 of those hours are needed for labs alone, you are left with 130 hours to lecture, have class discussions, offer interactive learning opportunities AND assess the students. With 50 chapters of material, this leaves less than 3 hours in class to study, for example, the ins and outs of cellular respiration!!!

    I can't imagine a college professor trying to pack all of this content into one semester, and I would bet that none of them do.

    Cheers to the college board for recognizing that synthesis and skills are more important than memorization!

  5. What the best colleges do is expect students to establish PLNs, either through on-campus sources (library, lab assistants, grad assistants, friends, classmates, upperclass students, ANYONE) or any extended reach they may choose to establish. They also expect students to be able to WRITE about anything, and to write WELL. Any movement toward these two goals, both in AP classes and in the assessment of AP students, is a most realistic implementation of scholarship and "college level" work.

    Back in the dark ages when I took AP exams, we wrote and wrote and wrote-- all day,it seemed -- so the preparation of constantly writing was the best assurance of success on the exams (and later in college). By shifting away from a prescribed list of memorized content, AP/IB are best replicating what scholarship means in the 21st century, a far broader reach of the same principles as before, with more sifting, sorting, and prioritizing).

  6. Karl,
    What you are describing is good teaching especially when you reference "seven research-based principles of learning." Why should they be confined to those students who are taking AP courses only? Why isn't that the basis for all teaching/learning?
    And I still don't get why we have AP courses anyway. Who benefits besides the company that charges the big bucks for students to be able to take an exam?

  7. @hatak - Well, according to those PowerPoints I linked to, they are well aware of having to support teachers and are planning to. But, of course, we'll have to see and - even if they do - will our schools/districts allow us to take advantage of them (i.e., give us the time and money to pursue those training opportunities).

    @karen - well, I think some folks would say that kids and parents benefit from AP by not having to pay so much in college tuition.