AP Tests: Changes are a Comin’

Changes are coming.  The College Board, the parent of the AP (Advanced Placement) line of tests that allow high school students to test for possible college credits in subjects like Biology, American History, Music Theory, and Calculus, is making significant changes in their AP US History (APUSH) and AP Biology exams.  The January 7, 2010, New York Times notes the changes, which will be reflected in the 2012/13 school year, with more emphasis on depth of thinking and somewhat less on rote memorization of facts.


As my older son approaches traditional high school age with several high school level classes under his belt, homeschooling high school and what happens after what we’re calling “high school” weighs heavily on my mind.  Should he take classes at our local public school?  If so, which classes?  Should we just skip ahead to a conveniently located, welcome-to-homeschoolers, affordable university for dual enrollment classes?  Should he do Advanced Placement courses, and, if so, should he study on his own, online, or in a classroom?  Caught up in the desire to assure that he has myriad options open, these questions swirl around my brain at inconvenient times, such as 4 am.

Despite the Advanced Placement fever that consumes much time, energy, and pixels on some of the homeschooling high-school related list serves, I’m not an AP fan myself.  I took the AP Calculus BC some 20-plus years ago, received a 4 and commensurate college credit, and pursued a highly desirable in the want-to-be-unemployed set English degree.  My high school AP calculus class was well-done, not rushed, and inspired me to work hard, think thoroughly, and enjoy math.  I have no complaints.  I still hold that AP, for math at least, is of value in the right circumstance.  I feel markedly differently about many of the other AP offerings, especially outside of math and physics.  Especially in literature, history, and biology.

The 8th edition of Campbell's Biology for AP is 1393 pages long.  And any of it could be on the test.

The 8th edition of Campbell's Biology for AP is 1393 pages long. And any of it could be on the test.

History and biology at the college level do require a fair amount of rote memorization of facts, dates (for history), and terminology (for biology).  Unfortunately, facts alone aren’t sufficient for a college-level understanding of these subjects.  When treated as vast memorization projects, I think the bigger picture is missed.  Biology is, after all, a science of living systems, operating together, influencing one another.  Last year I taught high-school level biology to my older son, then 12 and his 13-year old peer.  Both are exceptionally bright boys, ready for higher-level content.  Both learned a vast amount of terminology and facts.  But they never could have taken the AP after my class alone, and that’s fine with me.  Unlike the rather cookbook-like labs required for AP Biology study (one doesn’t have to actually do the labs but they are fair game for the test), the boys did largely inquiry labs.  Inquiry science involves asking questions or being posed with questions and designing a suitable lab to answer those questions.  Such work takes a fair amount of factual knowledge, but additionally, it requires critical thinking, planning, and (what is, in my opinion, missing from the current AP Biology courses) true scientific thinking.  In real life science, there isn’t a plan set in front of you.  There are questions, often self-designed, but no recipe to follow.  It’s up to the scientist to design the experiment, report results, and, generally, ask more questions and design more experiments.  And if that’s what scientists do, that’s what we should be teaching our children in schools and at home from the start.  To quote Ms. Frizzle,”Take chances! Make mistakes!  Get messy!”  Hopefully the new AP Biology will allow for more of that philosophy.

While experimentation with history is not yet a possibility, thinking critically and relating historical events to each other and to present day happenings is mental equivalent.  After all, why do we study the past?  The fascinating tales of events of centuries and millennia ago is a compelling reason, but the best reason to study history in-depth is to better understand our world now be seeing where we (and everyone else) comes from.  Through history study, we gain appreciation for the sheer variety of ways to approach living in society, along with each way’s strengths and weaknesses.  Certainly some memorization of dates, names, and events is necessary, but far more important (in my opinion) is the ability to explore the past with the aim to improve understanding of the present.  When so much teacher and student time is dedicated to memorization of facts,  the forest is easily missed for all the trees.  While little of the NYT article discussed proposed APUSH exam changes, the move to categorize history into nine time periods and seven themes hopefully will aid students (and their teachers) in thinking more holistically about history.

APUSH for Dummies? I doubt the new exam changes will make that true.

I’m not against memorization, but I do hold that learning a subject well involves far more critical thinking and “playing” with information than rote learning.  A class dedicated to pushing mass amounts of facts into a child’s head is likely to have little time remaining for these same facts to be explored in-depth and chewed over.  As with of American education, the AP system perhaps sacrifices depth for in favor of breadth.  American education is often said to be “a mile wide and an inch deep”, and my take is that many AP classes (which, like or not, teach to their corresponding AP test) are largely about breadth.  I’m sure there are exceptions (even beyond math and physics), but biology and US history, very popular AP classes, are so broad that deep thinking is likely a casualty, at least for most students.

I know AP courses are necessary for applying to some colleges.  I know students count on AP credits to lower their college bills or just create more room for advanced or interesting material in college.  I am aware that, for the brightest students, these courses hold the only challenging material in many high schools.  Fine.  But for my home schooled, gifted, and inquisitive learners, these aren’t a priority as we map out our years before college.  We’re more likely to use college courses for dual enrollment (and I know controversy about that abounds) distance learning, and self-designed coursework, assuming both stay home through high school.  I realize that as they grow and the AP tests evolve, I may change my stance.  Also, since this is their education, not mine, they’re welcome to take AP classes and tests if it suits their needs and wants.

I’m encouraged by the changes in AP proposed by College Board, and encouraged for what those changes could mean for high-ability high-schooled aged learners learning in and out of school.  Changes are coming.  May they encourage our brightest children to think critically and deeply.

Have an opinion about AP testing, the new or the old?  Share away!


7 thoughts on “AP Tests: Changes are a Comin’

  1. Hi Sarah,
    I have not been following the discussions at the PG lists or my local gifted lists,..and I know this is exciting news. My two kids are going to be taking two different paths…my oldest though has taken several APs, she believes strongly that the course and the test are no way connected…and to her the depth of learning she got from spending time on an AP book and self designed course was something more rewarding than the AP exam…She still debates about full time EC and do not know what she wld decide….My ds actually plans to take those courses in the CC….and he thinks the prep for the exams are not worthy of time….

    We belong to the group wherein AP courses are views as challenging material with meaty offerings and as means of getting credits for the courses…which all the more makes sense to ds not to spend the time on AP exam prep but spend the time on experimenting with advanced variety of learning…he is also not interested in EC either….. I am only hopeful that the changes ‘do’ take place…

    Good post as usual..

    • Hooray for leaving that decision to your children! If a child wants to go the AP way (and I can see where self-study would be far more appealing for many kids, especially in their domain), great. If not, that’s fine, too. I doubt my older will select early college. He simply desires to stay young and have time. As for my younger, I’d not dare guess. He’s determined as they come!

  2. Sarah, could you inform me on Champbell’s Biology? Is the 8th edition the last edition?
    For what age/grade is it aimed? You need the full 1393 book as well as study guides?
    Thank you, Paula

  3. That’s really interesting. Thanks for posting that. But I think I disagree. It’s harder for me to comment on the science tests because I never took them and I’m not formally trained in science. But dumping a lot of the memorization for the history exams strikes me as a bad idea in most ways. Yes, I remember the insanity of memorizing the entirety of European history for the AP exam, but I also know that it gave me an incredible grounding in facts for my history studies for years to come that I might never have gotten if the class had spent more time on depth and skills. I learned those history analysis and writing skills mostly in my freshman and sophomore years. And if I hadn’t had them, I wouldn’t have been able to go at the pace that the AP history classes required – I wouldn’t have been able to whip out a DBQ, and I wouldn’t have done very well on the exams. I guess I’m just thinking that AP classes should help hone those skills, but if kids don’t have them to a great extent already, they have no business in an AP class. And if the AP exams cut the level of memorization required, which, when I reflect in particular on the US history exam just isn’t *that* great, then they’re devaluing the exam. I guess to me, education in general should focus on that sort of in depth thinking that you’re talking about – for all levels – and I would say they should focus on it over memorization for the most part. However, if you want college credit, you should have to do both depth and breadth. That’s certainly what was required of me in AP classes when I was in high school. I think if they want to make the class more relevant, then they would put more emphasis on recent history instead of letting everyone get away with basically stopping in the 1950’s.

    • Thanks for your sharing your thoughts. I doubt a bunch of fact-learning will be done, but rather that it will be reorganized with some of the info eliminated. The APUSH seems to have the largest amount of memorizing, if what I’m reading online and hearing from young students taking the course say can be used as evidence. My reading of the NYT article wasn’t that the goal was to make the exam easier but to make the exams more reflective of the learning that one should expect in a high-level classroom.

      In Bloom’s taxonomy, remembering(memorization of facts) is at the base of the pyramid. Without facts, the rest of the pyramid has nothing on which to build. So I’d agree that learning facts is necessary.

      But if one is to move up that pyramid to higher learning (understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating), there has to be the time and space for that to happen as well. And I’m all for decreasing the myriad of names, places, and dates (APUSH) and definitions and terms (Biology) in favor of some more time for higher order thinking. In our day, facts are easy to come by. Taking those facts to understand upward to creating the new isn’t available at the flick of a mouse or the stroke of a key.

      Decreasing the amount of factual content doesn’t mean making an exam easier. If anything, it separates those who can simply memorize from those who truly can manipulate data and ideas to more deeply explore the world. The latter, I’d hold, are the stronger thinkers.


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