Advancing the Placement Test

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The Advanced Placement program is getting a face lift. This year’s prospective freshmen will be among the last high school students to take the old form of the Advanced Placement (AP) exams. AP, a well-established program by College Board that offers students the opportunity to take college-level classes in high school, has come under fire for its alleged inability to adequately prepare students for college level work.

(ERIC KOFMAN/The Stanford Daily)

“Frankly, while AP is good preparation and a strong foundation in general, many of our faculty and departments do not view it as comparable to courses here,” wrote Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission, in an email to The Daily.

Shaheen Jeeawoody ‘14 admitted that there is a big gap between high school AP classes and the courses offered at Stanford.

“There are plenty who have taken AP Physics, and are going into Physics 41, then didn’t do so well at all because they didn’t know the material, [even though] they aced the [AP] test,” she said.

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer in the Stanford School of Education, recognizes this lack of preparation as a big problem. Pope has been working with schools in the Bay Area that have decided not to offer certain AP exams because of concerns that the tests do not reflect college level work.

“Anything AP does to make students think more critically, write better, I am for,” she said.

The old AP tests were criticized for attempting to cover too much material and encourage rote memorization. One of the proposed reforms would reduce the course content to a more manageable amount. The new tests would also place increased emphasis on free-response questions that promote critical thinking and analysis.

Brandon Garcias ‘15, a prospective freshman, has had experiences with both AP and its counterpart, International Baccalaureate (IB).

In comparing the AP and the IB programs, he noted that IB emphasizes writing and short responses while AP’s use of multiple-choice stresses regurgitation.

“Synthesizing information in an essay is more demonstrative of your grasp of the knowledge,” he said.

Garcias did not think that stress on memorization in AP exams would prepare him for college-level work.

While Pope thinks that the reforms to the AP program are steps in the right direction, she has uncertainties. She has suggested an exam with one or two big questions based on real scenarios and a recalibrated point structure.

“The program fundamentally needs a way to look at an individual as an individual in preparing them for college,” she said. “But at the current scale of standardization and numbers, that [problem] isn’t going to go away.”

Still, standardization and numbers do offer a general measuring stick — unlike GPAs, it is easy to compare AP scores across different high schools. The standard that AP sets is particularly relevant, according to Shaw and Pope, in the program’s growth at schools where resources are tight. In these cases, the standardization is particularly beneficial.

For topics like calculus, AP does manage to teach the essential concepts, Pope said.

Shaw agreed that the AP test has praiseworthy aspects.

“AP does set a national standard and the content is very well thought out,” he said. “Further, it does assure with rigor of expectation that students will be given well thought out academic material which against a [regular high school] curriculum is more accelerated.”

While many schools rely on the AP program, it is not the only college preparatory curriculum.

“If a high school does not offer AP, they can have a structure that is comparable to AP’s difficulty,” said Randall Williams, associate dean of Undergraduate Advising and Research.

In fact, only 857 out of 1674 students in the current freshman class received AP credit for one or more AP test, according to Associate Registrar Celeste Nguyen.

Shaw said that Stanford considers any student and “will try to understand the system in which he or she is being educated.”

While uncertainty over the specific changes for AP remains, Shaw nevertheless approved of the new initiative.

“We want students to have strong analytical skills and that is a goal of our curriculum,” he said. “So to the extent that goal can be initiated at the secondary level, it is good.”

Pope emphasized that the problems associated with AP stem from the fact that the program is serving a whole spectrum of colleges and high schools.

“That’s a problem with tests like these,” Pope said. “You can’t please everyone.”

 

 

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