Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008 | Eyeing a spot in a selective college, Poway High student Melissa Segil loaded her senior year schedule with tough Advanced Placement classes. By graduation day, she had taken eight AP classes — four in her senior year alone — all while juggling sports and student government.

Now bound for Middlebury College in Vermont, Segil said stocking up on APs “isn’t an extra thing” for seniors set on top-notch colleges.

What AP Means

  • The Issue: College admissions officers remain unconvinced that classes labeled “Advanced Placement” meet any uniform standards, as they have no fixed curricula.
  • What It Means: Colleges fear that schools are misusing the “AP” label to inflate the status of lesser courses — a concern raised by some Preuss School teachers amid its recent grade-changing scandal.
  • The Bigger Picture: If some schools label classes “AP” that don’t deserve the name, all students are ultimately shortchanged, either by their lessened educations, or by colleges that look less favorably on AP coursework.

“That’s the expectation if you even want to apply,” Segil said. “A few years ago, taking four APs at a time was unheard of. People thought you’d die a terrible, terrible death. Now, it doesn’t turn as many heads as it used to.”

At most high schools, APs are the gold standard for high-achieving students like Segil. The college-level classes are meant to prepare kids for year-end Advanced Placement exams, which translate into college credit at some universities.

Yet the classes have no fixed curricula. Until this year, any school could dub a class “Advanced Placement” simply by affixing two letters to its name, and claiming it prepared students for an AP exam. The prestige was big, and the risks slight. In rare cases, schools have even slapped the AP label on classes without a corresponding AP exam, cooking up classes such as “AP Study Hall.”

Colleges fear that schools have misused the AP name to inflate the status of lesser courses, bolstering their reputations without actually toughening classes. Teachers cited just that scenario during the recent Preuss School scandal, claiming that the school’s principal and counselor pressured them to make APs easier. If so, experts say Preuss isn’t unique.

“Schools wanted to look good, so they’d call the courses AP,” said Trevor Packer, vice president of the College Board, which administers the AP exam. The College Board is a nonprofit association made up of more than 5,400 schools and colleges. It also develops the SAT and PSAT exams, and offers guidance to college-bound students. “But then they wouldn’t have the right textbooks, or enough lab time.”

Others lagged behind new AP standards, such as AP Comparative Government, which now requires lessons on Iran.

To stop schools from trumping up their AP offerings, the College Board pored over syllabi from more than 16,000 schools this year to decide if they merited the AP label. The board asked schools to revise nearly one-third of classes. With the audit still underway, thousands of classes nationwide are being altered to meet the College Board’s standards.

“We wanted to make sure that schools weren’t using that label inappropriately,” Packer said.

Yet the gatekeepers to selective colleges — admissions officers — remain skeptical of the AP label, despite the College Board’s efforts. Syllabi are only a rough estimate of a course’s content, they said. Packer agreed that the audit has its limits.

“The challenge for us … is that the AP designation still isn’t subject to any kind of enforceable control,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Nassirian compared AP to International Baccalaureate, an internationally recognized program that includes exams — like AP — but also has approved curricula and teaching methods. To offer IB classes, schools must apply, train teachers, and pay an annual fee — between $5,000 and $8,000 — after undergoing an approval process that takes up to two years. Far fewer schools are aligned with IB: Only 800 U.S. schools offer the IB program, compared to 16,000 AP schools.

“You can’t just get out of bed one morning and designate a course IB,” Nassirian said. “There is no doubt that an IB course is an IB course. … But an AP course is in the mind of the beholder.”

Preuss Grade-Changing Controversy Centered on APs

By adding the rarefied “AP” prefix, high schools win points on college applications and approval from picky families choosing between schools. More students taking AP exams also boosts a school higher in Newsweek’s coveted high school rankings — a major factor in the sky-high rankings of the Preuss School, a San Diego charter school that ranked 10th in 2007.

Founded by University of California San Diego faculty, Preuss pegged its reputation on enrolling disadvantaged kids in advantageous APs to pave their way to college. All students are required to take a series of AP classes, whether or not they excelled in those subjects in the past.

Because all Preuss students take AP exams, the school has a lower rate of high AP scores than other San Diego schools, when compared to the number of students taking the test. But when the number of high AP scores is compared to overall enrollment, the school ranks eighth among the state’s public schools, according to an analysis by University of California, San Diego economist Julian Betts, a Preuss board member.

AP is “almost part of the DNA of the school,” Betts said. “This external yardstick, the AP exam, is a way of showing students exactly the levels of rigor (in college). … They (also) give them a head start on university, helping them to save time later.”

Yet AP also lay at the heart of the recent Preuss School scandal. Investigators believe the San Diego charter school fudged students’ grades in AP courses and allotted AP credit for easier classes. Pressured from the top, some Preuss teachers watered down AP classes to help kids pass, according to a University of California audit.

In the scandal’s wake, AP faces new scrutiny at Preuss. The school’s chancellor is gauging whether its AP classes are sufficiently difficult — and whether requiring APs is best for “student outcomes.” Yet Preuss isn’t the only school to question whether AP classes are really AP. Nor is it the worst offender, according to the College Board’s audit. In fact, the school fared well, with 13 AP classes approved this year.

Few other schools have been reproached for diluting AP classes, largely because no yardstick has existed before. Ultimately, students’ work can be gauged by the AP exam, the traditional endpoint of an AP class. But colleges decide which seniors to admit and which to deny long before students take the test, turning the spotlight to the rigor of the classes themselves.

“Many universities value AP courses as evidence that a student is challenging himself or herself,” Packer said. “Universities are using AP as part of the admissions decision, much more so than in the past.”

In a tight race for college spots, Advanced Placement classes exploded in popularity in the past decade. Today, one of every three high school graduates takes an AP course, according to the College Board. To offer APs to disadvantaged students, many schools have dropped restrictions on AP enrollment, allowing any interested student to sign up.

“More and more students are taking more and more of them,” Segil said, speaking of Poway High. “And the class numbers are getting huge.”

A Quality Seal Some Schools Want, and Others Shrug At

But lower-achieving students need help to take on AP coursework — help that schools haven’t always supplied, argue experts such as Chrys Dougherty, director of the nonprofit National Center for Educational Accountability. That sets up students for failure, or can prompt schools to make APs easier; in Preuss’ case, it apparently propelled the school to alter students’ AP grades.

One recognized way to help disadvantaged kids succeed in AP classes is Advancement Via Individual Determination, an elective class that coaches underprivileged kids with average grades. AVID students take tough AP classes, but also learn study skills and get help during their AVID class.

“AP provides the rigor and AVID provides the support,” said Steven Baratte, the assistant director of marketing and communications for AVID Center, a nonprofit that helps schools host the class.

For students at low-achieving or lesser-known schools, AP classes serve as a recognized national brand when applying to colleges, Nassirian said — a quality guarantee, if an imperfect one. For schools with long-burnished reputations, that brand is less significant. A handful of selective private schools have dropped Advanced Placement courses, replacing them with tough courses that don’t conform to AP standards.

The Crossroads School in Santa Monica, for instance, jettisoned AP classes in 2005, subbing organic chemistry for AP Chemistry. It also fields the “Great Books” humanities sequences modeled on classes at St. John’s College. Teachers and parents at the free-wheeling school disliked the AP courses, described by director David Olds as “an inch deep and a mile wide.”

“We could afford to do this — we had a strong enough reputation to ‘get away with it,’” said Olds, acting director of Crossroads’ upper school. “… We simply felt that we had courses here at the school — and had had them for many years — that were recognized by colleges as being incredibly demanding, courses that had nothing to do with the APs.”

Olds’ criticism is echoed by the National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, which has argued that AP science courses often skim the surface, pushing students to memorize facts instead of thinking critically. Facts are equated with knowledge, said Jay Labov, who headed one study — a formula that doesn’t work in college classes. Prompted by Labov’s study, the National Science Foundation asked the College Board to revamp its science curricula, a process underway this year.

Similar problems surface in AP English and history classes, said Heather Lattimer, an assistant professor in the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences. Teachers must cover a staggering stretch of material, she said, including “a tremendous number of names, dates and facts.” Other student skills are neglected, such as dissecting a text or analyzing historical evidence.

“Their students don’t have the skills to really investigate,” Lattimer said. “They don’t understand what history really is.”

Ultimately, the College Board is trying to strike a balance, said Parker. After the audit, schools won’t be able to call any class AP, he said. But nor will the College Board monitor classes as strictly as International Baccalaureate.

“There need to be clear standards and commonalities” between AP classes, Packer said, “but also some freedom.”

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Trevor Packer’s name. We regret the error.

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