AP Loves Me, AP Loves Me Not

I lapsed in judgement, yet again. I accepted  an AP (Advanced Placement) student  for tutoring after February. Once again I fell for the line, “I just need a bit of help with test taking skills.”

I had to be the person to explain in May, ten days before the exam, how the student lacked the depth of familiarity with the content (Biology) and their writing did not meet the minimum a reader would seek for a college level survey class.  I had to do this so the student and parents could set realistic expectations: (1) Student will get credit for high school science. (2) Student could suddenly have a burst of understanding regarding photosynthesis (light/dark reactions), Krebs Cycle and other known subject areas of the test AND construct short essay answers which would demonstrate understanding, interpreting, prediction and application, if not synthesis of information – although this was highly unlikely.

Based on two tutoring sessions a week apart (after the first one I was pretty sure the student lacked the depth of knowledge), and wishing to give the student the benefit of the doubt, I met for the second session. The first session could have been nerve-wracking by expecting the student to get through at least two to three of the ‘six short free response questions’ pulled from a series of release questions on the College Board website…. At our first meeting, I had to provide the student with sticky tabs to label sections of the book. By the second session, the student could not locate the section of the book with the pancreas, insulin (hormone) and the feedback process. I knew I had to be honest.

Section 1 lasts 1 hour and 30 minutes and contains 63 multiple choice questions and 6 grid-in questions.

Section 2 lasts 1 hour and 20 minutes (plus a 10 minute reading period), and contains 8 questions consisting of 2 long free response questions and 6 short free response questions.

I am not sure who was more sad or relieved. The student and parents clearly had no clear understanding of what an AP class was about or they would have done things much differently during the school year. I was able to ask a few questions and prove this out easily.

The AP exam, for any subject, is not an easy class. AP classes allot a student college credit for the basic  level 101 English, U.S. History, Biology, Psychology, etc.  upon the student demonstrating by exam they have college freshman level skills in the subject. This means the high school course is a ‘survey’ course of content the student should have already had one exposure to and/or it is a subject area they are passionate about (example: student interested in med school will LOVE the content in Biology and/or Chemistry and eat, sleep, dream about these subject areas so the AP course will be pure joy).

AP does not mean intelligence or smarts. The most common misnomer by parents is the one which is something along the lines of, “College prep coursework in high school must be the lowest track. Honors is for smart students. My child is brilliant and going to college so they must take AP courses to demonstrate. beyond a doubt, they are brilliant”.

For whatever reason, no one bothers to ask and read about http://www.totalregistration.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=494&Itemid=118  or https://www.collegeboard.org/releases/2014/class-2013-advanced-placement-results-announced which has the numbers of students who register for the test and the percent of students who pass with a 3, 4 or 5 score (1 and 2 ratings are not applicable for college credit).  No high school counselor managed to have a meeting with families to explain the actual rigors and expectations of an AP course and what the actual outcomes look like, in numeric form.

The reality is, upon reading past the College Board marketing, approximately 50-80% of students PASS the AP exams each year in any given subject area (achieving a 3 or higher). This indicates not all students pass with college credit, even though all students are allowed to register for the class.  20 -50% of students who apply for the exam (Not all students in the class apply for the exam!), take the AP course for the year and show up for the exam(s) do not pass….This is truth in numbers. It depends as much on subject content as study habits as persistence. The numbers tell a story no one pays much attention to regarding what types of classes students should be taking in high school.

Sometimes the student has not had a previous in-depth exposure to the subject area and is surprised by the sheer volume of information involved in a college level course. Sometimes the AP course teacher is not an experienced teacher and neglects to get students WRITING (for the courses which require this portion of the exam) in October so students have time to practice and/or determine if they want to put in the effort necessary to pass the AP exam.  Sometimes peer and parental pressure make the student persist.  Sometimes students actually believe they can handle two or three AP courses and sports and some other activities and work themselves to a frenzy where the spring season is hell in the form of not feeling well, not being rested and definitely not successful at something as something has to ‘give’ in a manner of speaking.

The genuine issues students and parents should think about have more to do with outcome than the numbers demonstrating an ‘increase in students taking the AP exams’. Is your child best suited for the level of rigor required to be successful in an AP class AND can you accept not passing the exam while getting high school credit for the class.

Students who have the ability to pass the AP exams have four significant and important skill sets.

  1. In depth exposure to the content area at least once prior to the AP class. This can mean reading _________ for Dummies in August preceding the AP class and/or a general love of the content area.
  2. An understanding of study skills  including flashcards, Cornell notes, multiple sources of media, study groups and practice.
  3. Obtaining a tutor early on so they can adequately review content and practice writing over a long horizon line.
  4. Specifically deciding the one or two things they can commit to for eight months AND will not flip out if one of these items does not work out exactly as planned.

I have given up trying to think through why parents would expect something from their children so extreme as AP coursework. I believe in some ways it is parental narcissism, in the same way it is important to have a child who applies and is accepted to only Ivy League Universities or similar.  Based on the numbers, my experience with tutoring and talking with a wide variety of parents from all socioeconomic classes across America, AP exams are not for everyone AND they do not save anyone money if you have to hire a tutor/coach (doctor, psychologist, etc.) to help your student through the death march of May.  A good tutor can equal the cost of  a 100 level course at a community college. If saving money is your goal, think again. If proving your child is successful, think about what success means and how it is fulfilled. Personally, I would love to have a student who actually understands the pancreas and insulin as we live in the age of diabetes. The student who understands enough biology to be concerned about their own health, the health of their family and care about the environment is far more practical than passing an AP exam.

Keen, Lament, Moan, Plaint and Hand Wringing

The lamentations have begun. I am having a growing personal concern around the way in  which class levels/subject structures and difficulty  are explained to students and their parents – most especially in middle and high school. It seems as though tracking is alive and well – it merely has a new name.  Not only is tracking in existence, it is the way it plays out which is alarming.

In middle school students have certain course work which is essential to high school success. While there is debate over when exactly Algebra needs to be completed the first time, there is no disagreement on the need for multiple exposures. This means a student should have middle school Algebra, high school Algebra and later, college level Algebra. They are NOT different courses. The re-exposure helps students develop the process and reasoning skills inherent in this stage of mathematics.  I have at various times used college level Algebra book problems with middle school students as the students understood the concepts and needed math grinding practice. The kids thought they were ‘cool’ years later, when I ran into some home on college break….well, they realized they had been duped and laughed about it!

Students need to be able to read and summarize, construct a five paragraph essay  (preferably longer and more concise) and know when and how to use a variety of charts, including the Venn Diagram by middle school. At high school, students need to be further applying these skills and developing more in depth study skills.  High school should not be in the business of providing ‘training wheels’.  Rigorous study skills should begin to be developed in Grades 7 and 8, alas, too many parents believe their child is remarkably special and can skate by.

Todays Honors English is remarkably the same as my high school English class years ago. Honors English is one step up from College Prep, which is the baseline to get INTO college and generally speaking, community colleges or state colleges.  College Prep gives students training wheels to get through Honors English.  College Prep is normal, regular English writing, reading, literary analysis, etc. In effect, College Prep is a level up re-do of what should have happened in middle school and did not occur or the student would not be taking it in high school. In other words, College Prep is ‘tracking’ and Honors is for students on their game.

AP English is COLLEGE Level English. It requires a student to  think and perform as a college student. It is imperative students know how to study – which is different in scope and depth from doing assigned homework. AP English is a foundation for getting through the undergrad years. It is not indicative of a smarter student (as the class tends to be sold to students and parents), it is indicative of a student who knows how to study, has high level persistence and is willing to put in the time and energy for the rewards of learning at a higher level and college credit.

Whether it is AP Engish or AP Biology, the underlying premise is the same – know how to study as the training wheels are off and no one is going to give you  more than an outline. A student needs to be able to take control of their learning. This is not the memorizing of facts and reading a chapter from a text book.

Instead of high schools being honest with the product they are trying to sell (remember, schools with both a variety and abundance of AP classes look better), they just keep marketing the product. Not all students have the essential ability to study at a college level by time they are in high school; Most high school students can and should be able to handle the rigors of so called Honors English.

To each and every parent who is led to believe only AP classes are appropriate for their child, I ask them to reframe the question. Do you and your child actually understand what AP means and what is expected for AP credit?  Have you had a frank discussion with your child about what may have to be given up in order to get through an AP class and are they willing to make the sacrifice at this juncture in time? As in college, college level courses require something ‘more’ and giving up an hour of TV may not be the only thing which must go.  Is the cost benefit analysis worthwhile to save on tuition of three units at a university?

Lamenting the need to give up a team practice or some other activity should not be a big deal to survive an AP class as scholar-athletes manage this routine in college for their scholarship. I know many, many high school coaches who would rather a student take an extra afternoon to study and miss a practice than to settle for C grades to ‘make it on the team’.  Notice the grade of C is low enough to get enough people on the team.

Part and parcel of taking an AP class is the fact it is not easy, there are sacrifices and the student has the maturity to deal with this issue. There is nothing wrong with taking Honors English and calling it a day.

There is something terribly wrong with parents who need to hire tutors to teach their child how to write an essay and study at a collegiate level, most especially after 3 months into the school year when the student has a C grade and needs to get it together.  A little thoughtfulness regarding when a student is ready for AP coursework will go a long way in benefitting a child in actually getting something from the  Honors or AP experience besides frustration and anger.