Jul 28, 2014

Advanced Placement as the new college entrance exam

Hamilton College actually substitutes AP's for SAT's or ACT's

While the SAT steadily loses money and market share to the ACT as “industry standard” for college entrance exams, one bright spot in the College Board’s bottom line is the popularity of its Advanced Placement (AP) program among high schools and students anxious impress the most selective colleges in the country.

Thanks to masterful marketing, together with a total hands-off approach to school/school district implementation and use of both classes and scores, the College Board has squarely placed the AP program at the center of the college admissions “arms race.”  And it’s producing some solid revenue, as high schools add more AP courses and students sign up to take exams originally conceived as vehicles for conferring advanced credit at the postsecondary level.

In its brief historical overview of the Advanced Placement program, the College Board suggests that the impetus for the creation of the program came from educators recommending that “secondary schools and colleges work together to avoid repetition in course work at the high school college levels and to allow motivated students to work at their capabilities and advance as quickly as possible.”

But as the program has evolved in recent years and some colleges have stepped back from offering credit for passing AP exams, the College Board re-branded slightly to place more emphasis on the former rather than the latter part of the original AP mission.

In other words, instead of pushing students forward to complete college faster (an expensive proposition for institutions losing tuition revenue from early graduates), the AP has become the “gold standard” for proving academic excellence in high school and for measuring college readiness.

And colleges are buying into the game—lock, stock, and barrel.

At the core of what colleges say they care most about—GPA and course rigor—the AP insinuates itself in both grading and curriculum in many high schools.  Colleges look closely at GPA’s which are fed both by inconsistently applied weighting practices providing solid bump-ups for students taking AP classes and/or exams as well as individual school-based policies linking grades to test scores—most frequently (although not always) resulting in an upward push for students scoring at the highest levels.

With regard to curriculum, colleges use AP’s as a measure of course rigor.  In schools where these classes are offered, high-achieving students are expected to go to the top of their programs and put together a healthy roster of AP classes across the disciplines. More is almost always better than less in this arena.

And of course, the Jay Mathews Washington POST ranking of high schools based on number of AP (and IB) classes offered, how many students take the exams and how well they do, feeds this frenzy by suggesting to school administrators that AP’s need to be increased—sometimes in place of more appropriate honors classes—and students need to be pushed into taking these classes earlier in their secondary school careers.

These practices sometimes result in dismally low scores which students are loath to report on college applications.  Yet, if the AP course appears on a transcript, most application readers will expect to see a self-reported score on the application.  Absent a score, the assumption will be that the student received a score of 1 or 2 out of a possible 5, with 3 labeled “passing.”  And this is almost always the case, although many students hate to report a 3 out of concerns that the college will not look favorably on them.

Outside of the classroom and in a measure of self-motivation as well as academic excellence, colleges reinforce the message by appearing to reward students who appear to go beyond course offerings at their schools by studying for and taking AP exams on their own.  As a result, a cottage industry of online classes and specialized tutors has developed targeted to preparing students to take AP exams without going through the rigor of taking the AP class.  And colleges seem to really like this.

To further underscore the influence of the AP program in college admissions, a number of “test-flexible” colleges officially allow AP scores to substitute for the ACT or the SAT.  Used together with Subject Test scores (another College Board product), a handful of colleges are drifting toward using AP’s as college entrance exams.

None of this has much to do with getting advanced course credit from colleges, but it has everything to do with providing the College Board with a steady stream of income as the SAT teeters.  If the SAT is unable to get back up on its feet with a revised test, watch for the College Board to shift gears and place increased emphasis on the role AP classes and exams can play in the admissions process.  

In fact, the College Board is already positioning AP to take on the International Baccalaureate (IB) program by offering AP Seminar and AP Research through a new AP Capstone diploma program.  If successful, the College Board will have addressed criticisms of Advanced Placement for falling short on teaching research and writing skills—strengths of IB.

So as colleges complain about the value of AP courses as credit-earners and consequently withhold credit for successful completion of classes and/or passing exams, the AP program is gaining traction as a key component in college admissions.

And the College Board is banking on it.

Jul 23, 2014

A new factor in the Advanced Placement 'arms race': are grades being tied to AP scores?

Last September, students in two different Advanced Placement (AP) math classes in the same local high school received intriguing offers from their teachers.  If they received 5’s—the highest score possible on a grading scale of 1 to 5—for the AP exam administered in May, they would receive A’s for the year, regardless of the grade actually earned.

A score of 4 would earn a B, and a score of 3 would earn a C.  

In these classes, the offer would only work in one direction.  In other words, grades would not be “lowered” should the relationship between test score and grades happen to come out the other way.

Because AP scores are not usually provided until the second week of July, the teachers promised to go back into their grade books and make appropriate adjustments—long after doors closed on the last day of school.  

The final grade appearing on the transcript would be as promised.  No one would know the difference between a student who worked hard to earn the A and a student who managed to win the AP lottery by pulling a 5 on the test.

“What happened to class participation, homework assignments, and the kids that are slugging it out every day taking notes, quizzes, and paying attention—how are they rewarded?,” commented a counselor in response to the practice of pegging grades to AP scores.  “And what about the kids who can afford hiring tutors vs. the kids who can’t?  Isn’t there already a large enough divide with the other standardized test scores and the discussion of ability to pay?”

At the local high school, students reacted to the challenge differently.  Some worked hard to earn top grades.  Others, feeling confident in their abilities to score well on the exam, neglected homework, performed poorly on quizzes, and otherwise dismissed the class.

“I knew I would get a 5 on the AP exam, so why bother?” shrugged one.

And at the end of the school year, the student earned a C- minus for his troubles.  Lucky for him, he did in fact receive a 5 on the AP test, and his final grade was adjusted upward.

Another student wasn’t so lucky.  Although practice tests suggested a 5 was easily attainable, this student had a bad day and the 3 she received didn’t change the C+ she earned in math—a core academic class.  The resulting bad grade forced a major overhaul in her college list. 

“If I had it to do again, I would have worked harder,” she sighed.

So why are teachers being allowed to tamper with grades this way?  

The incentives vary.  In some school systems, bonuses are available for teachers whose students receive 4’s and 5’s on the AP.  There are no grade-based financial rewards.  So teachers offer rewards to students who score well and make them look good. They don’t really care how they achieve the score.

“In private schools here, many of the schools award cash bonuses/incentives to teachers for a set number of 4-5 AP scores,” commented an educational consultant in Texas.  “This seems like a huge conflict of interest.  Aren’t the teachers in essence ‘bribing’ students as motivation, either for their own personal gain or the school district’s financial gain?”

Another incentive is less obvious.  While the College Board doesn’t say it out loud, there is the presumption that there should be a correlation between grades and scores.  Students with strong grades should score well.  Students with lower grades shouldn’t. Otherwise there is something wrong with the system.
If the score is all that counts for assessing the quality of a class, a teacher has every incentive to try to align grades with scores.  And although it wasn’t the case in the local examples, teachers do in fact lower grades in some schools when the score appears out of alignment.

“With enough history from students, I try to appeal to students who are in classes with this policy to do their best with the class grade and not count on the test scores,” commented a California-based independent counselor.  “That did backfire with a student last year who got A’s in the class and a 3 on the test scores.  Her grade was lowered.”

Since Jay Mathews began using AP tests as measures of excellence for the high school ranking he publishes each year in the Washington POST, high schools and principals have been under pressure to increase AP offerings, force students into Advanced Placement classes, and improve scores on AP exams. 

For some, the ends justify the means and they simply look the other way from the use of AP scores as bribes to boost grades.  They too go along with a system that rewards students displaying poor work habits and brazenly flaunting less-than-scholarly attitudes in class.

“It makes no sense for a score on a one-shot test to outweigh an entire year's worth of classroom performance (which usually includes a variety of teacher-designed assessments),” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.The practice of educators or administrators retroactively altering grades (generally after school is out for the summer) is bizarre if not outright unethical—would they take similar action if the student performed well in some other competition, say boosting a grade in Biology for a science fair blue ribbon winner?”

While the practice of retroactively changing grades for AP classes isn’t the norm, there is evidence that in some schools and school systems it’s standard operating procedure.  In fact, the practice may be spreading as teachers at College Board-sponsored conferences learn that others are freely changing grades to reflect performance on AP tests.

In Orange County, Florida, the issue recently came up as a matter of consistency across school systems, and a committee was assembled to study inequities in grading in AP classes.  Complaints were coming from parents whose children did not have grades changed to reflect outstanding performance on AP exams while children from neighboring school districts did.

Defending the practice, Doug Guthrie, principal at Apopka High School said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, “If students could show that mastery on the AP exam, they deserve a better grade.  Mastery, that’s our goal.”

But not everyone agrees.  When asked about a system that would provide for altering grades after the fact, counselors used terms like “appalling,” “dishonest,” “inappropriate,” and “unethical.” Others pointed out logistical problems retroactively changing grades that were already sent to colleges requiring year-end reports on seniors they admitted for the fall.

Laurie Weingarten, an independent college counselor in New Jersey reacted, “This sounds inappropriate to me. And it seems misleading and deceptive to the colleges.”

An admissions officer at a top-ranked public university agrees, “…I am not happy to know it’s happening."

At the center of the controversy, the College Board appears very much aware of how Advanced Placement scores are being used by some schools and school districts.

“The College Board believes that all students who are academically ready for the rigor of Advanced Placement (AP) have the right to fulfill their potential,” said Kate Levin, associate director for communications, in a statement from the Board. “To that end, we support efforts at the state, district, and school level to ensure that all students have access to the opportunities they have earned, and we respect the rights of individual schools and districts to consider how AP course participation and exam performance factor into high school course grades and GPA.”

In other words, schools and school districts should not be looking for guidance on the matter from the College Board any time in the near future. 

Jul 21, 2014

Summer reading starts the conversation for incoming freshmen

Salisbury freshmen will read the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Each year, hundreds of colleges and universities assign a book as “common reading” to incoming freshmen.

And since 2010, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) has been studying these assignments to find out what books are selected, how many and what kinds of colleges have such programs, as well as how these books are integrated into academics.

Used as popular vehicles for introducing the all-important freshman first year experience, freshman reading programs provide interesting sneak previews of what colleges consider important, controversial, or just plain interesting.

And they often set the tone for wonderful things to come, as freshmen make life-changing transitions from high school to college.

Unlike traditional “required reading” assignments designed for students to get a little ahead or keep in the practice of reading over the summer, college programs are more targeted to helping “start the conversation” during freshman orientation.

“Common reading programs may seem at first glance peripheral to campus life because they are extra-curricular...But the choice of a single book for this for this purpose can be a powerful signal to students (and to faculty members) about the college’s educational priorities,” suggests NAS researchers in their 2013 Beach Books report. 

And even the most benign “first year experience” assignments can spark controversy.  

In April 2011, 60 Minutes ran an exposé on Greg Mortenson, whose books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools had become wildly popular freshman reading.  Shortly after, the books were quietly jettisoned from summer 2011 reading lists and invitations to speak were withdrawn.

So what have freshmen been reading since? Based on an analysis of 390 colleges and universities, the NAS found the most frequently-selected book (31 institutions) for 2012-13 was the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (ethics in research) by Rebecca Skloot. 

The second most assigned, chosen by 18 colleges and universities, was The Other Wes Moore:  One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore. Outcasts United:  A Refugee Team, an American Town, by Warren St. John, was the third most popular book, assigned by nine schools.

Other frequently-assigned books were Litle Princes, by Conor Grennan; Wine to Water. by Doc Hendley; Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn; Never Let Me Go, by Kazou Ishiguro; The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer; and Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers.

A quick review of reading selections for the Class of 2018 suggests quite a bit of diversity:
  • Clemson University:  Machine Man by Max Barry
  • Columbia University:  The Illiad by Homer (the College) and The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner (SEAS)
  • Cornell University:  The Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous
  • Marquette University:  March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
  • Millsaps College:  Half the Sky by Micholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  • North Carolina State University:  Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak
  • Occidental College:  The Speech by Gary Younge
  • Princeton University:  Meaning in Life and Why it Matters by Susan Wolf
  • Rice University:  Photography as Activism by Michelle Bogre
  •  Smith College:  Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele
  • Tulane University:  Hope Against Hope by Sarah Carr
  • University of Massachusetts Dartmouth:  The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
  • UNC-Chapel Hill:  The Round House by Louise Erdrich
  • University of Idaho:  Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
  • University of Wisconsin:  I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Not to be left out, many local colleges and universities are incorporating summer reading into their 2014 freshman orientation activities.

For example, students at the University of Richmond will read The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community, by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis, while Georgetown University's summer reading program will feature Dinaw Mengestu and his latest novel, All Our Names.

Taking a cue from one of last year’s most popular freshman assignments, Longwood University will be reading The Other Wes Moore, and first year students at Johns Hopkins University will read Happier, by Tal Ben-Shahar.

At American, freshmen will read The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone. Not only will Gladsone visit AU to discuss the book on September 3, but students will also have the opportunity to win $200 in an essay contest following the presentation.

Further to the east, freshmen at Salisbury University will read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Members of the Lacks family will participate in a moderated question-and-answer session and sign copies of the book on Thursday, August 21, in Perdue Hall’s Bennett Family Auditorium.

Established in 1998, Virginia Tech’s Common Book Project is designed to enrich the first-year experience and create “sense of community for undergraduate students.”  This year, Tech students will be joining students at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Saint Louis University, and Wingate University in reading Little Princes by Conor Grennan.

Going in a slightly different direction, first year students at Virginia Commonwealth University have been assigned The Circle, by Dave Eggers.  The University of South Carolina is also assigning the Eggers book to freshmen.

Goucher students will join freshmen at Bucknell University in reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a psychological thriller by Mohsin Hamid.

George Washington University requires all incoming freshmen students to participate in a summer reading program, the book for which will be The Good Food Revolution, by Will Allen. South Dakota State University is assigning the same book to freshmen.

But it's at Catholic University where the most innovative, multimedia summer reading program may be found.

Departing from traditional freshman assignments, Dr. Todd Lidh, director the CUA First Year Experience, created In a Sense All things: A CUA Primer.  In this web-based assignment book, he links a wide range of authors, genres, time, periods, and media to exemplify questions, themes, and ideas students will encounter in freshman classes. 

It’s a wonderfully innovative summer-long project designed to provide students with an entertaining introduction to college in general and CUA in specific.