Toward Deeper Learning: The New AP

New and improved AP exams introduced beginning next month reduce breadth and stress depth.
Christopher Drew, The New York Times, wrote an extensive piece outlining College Board’s plans for improved Advanced Placement exams.

As A.P. has proliferated, spreading to more than 30 subjects with 1.8 million students taking 3.2 million tests, the program has won praise for giving students an early chance at more challenging work. But many of the courses, particularly in the sciences and history, have also been criticized for overwhelming students with facts to memorize and then rushing through important topics. Students and educators alike say that biology, with 172,000 test-takers this year, is one of the worst offenders.

The potential to earn college credit while in high school or to build a transcript that will interest a selective university has lead more students to enroll in AP courses–the number of test taken has doubled since 1997.  But AP exams are widely criticized by authors like Tony Wagner for promoting memorization over thinking and problem solving.  To some extent, that will change:

Next month, the 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. In biology, a host of more creative, hands-on experiments are intended to help students think more like scientists.

The Hewlett Foundation has been advocating this direction, calling it deeper learning:

• Mastery of core academic content.
• Critical thinking and problem-solving.
• Working collaboratively in groups.
• Communicating clearly and effectively.
• Learning how to learn.

Barbara Chow, Education Director at Hewlett, says:

The real world rarely offers us multiple-choice questions. Employers clamor for staff members who can solve problems by designing their own solutions and then telling co-workers how they did it. To thrive in an increasingly complex and dynamic world where routine manual and cognitive tasks are being assumed by machines, those emerging from school must be able to think analytically, find reliable information, and communicate with others.

Drew points to an NRC report for further support for College Board’s overhaul:

A committee of the National Research Council, a part of the National Academy of Sciences, called attention to these problems in 2002. It criticized A.P. science courses for cramming in too much material and failing to let students design their own lab experiments. It also said the courses had failed to keep pace with research on how people learn: instead of listening to lectures, “more real learning takes place if students spend more time going into greater depth on fewer topics, allowing them to experience problem solving, controversies and the subtleties of scholarly investigation.”

College Board builds and scores exams. Through a partnership with EPIC, College Board certifies alignment of high school syllabi so they can be labeled “AP.”  But they don’t build curriculum and they don’t provide instruction.
Mind-numbing tests are no excuse for mind-numbing teaching.  It’s clear that AP exams have historically promoted coverage over competence.  The new exams are a welcome change that should promote deeper learning.  But the quality of learning is really up to those of us constructing learning experiences, leading schools, and teaching courses.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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