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.

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Bullying as castigation of what we truly do not understand…….

This past weekend I went to see The Social Network with friends.  Interestingly, the friends who went to the movie with me had met my cousin over the summer while she was visiting (this will play itself out in this blog).

By the end of the movie I was almost in tears, feeling a great deal of angst against so many characters – the girlfriend who didn’t interpret intelligence correctly and extrapolated it to mean ‘obnoxious’, the college classmates who wanted to victimize some one who really did not understand the manipulation, the predatory nature of silicon valley where people are everything from prey seeking next- next idea thing developers to genuinely dedicated about pursuits of the mind, the public who saw the movie and could do nothing but castigate the character of Mark Zuckerberg.   What I saw was my cousin, as an adult……extremely bright and creative and completely misunderstood. 

I saw my cousin in Mark Zuckerberg.   I have been the advocate in her corner, with her parents, as they deal with a public school system not remotely interested in serving the needs of  an intelligent, socially awkward teenager since she ‘looks normal’.  My cousin has autism and is somewhere on the spectrum, as identified by some of the best at UCLA.  The first time I met her when she was two years old, I knew what it was – the look and the interactions were clear.  The reason I glommed onto it had more to do with my professional background and how I have worked with a variety of students being mainstreamed into a science classroom.  My undergraduate background is in communicative disorders – what is going on in the brain when some one is not somewhere on the bell curve of normal.

Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed as a jerk – uncaring, lacking compassion and easily seduced by people.  Sadly, this is the fate of people with degrees of autism. I don’t know if Mark is or is not in some way autistic – I do know he is brilliant and I know autism and brillance band together in some way……quite possibly the fact that if some one is so inwardly focused on what intersts them, they don’t have time for the ridiculous nuance of the social world, think Einstein. 

My cousin is not understood by her classmates, teachers, own family at times. She is an oddity and outside our standards of normal on a bell curve – AND she is very smart and creative. My cousin lacks any close friends, she is easily taken in by others who perceive her as a person ripe for being taken advantage of, in all types of situations.  My greatest fear is that the adult world, which I exist in currently, is so cruel and heartless my cousin will  be destroyed by people who don’t even realize what they do not know.  It kills me as my cousin does the most amazing art work and has said some hilarious things which bear out her ability to focus and study behavior, yet she does not have a context of how others perceive her.   Whatever my cousin will choose to do in her life, she will do well due to immense focus and her intrinsic desire for knowledge – she will never be accepted for what she achieves as she will most likely never be able to rise above the crictical masses who perceive some one not normal, not one of us, not quite ready for prime time.

As my friends and myself discussed the movie, they realized exactly what I did – my cousin is possibly the childhood version of Mark Zuckerberg. He may well have been like her at the age of 12.  It was both deeply saddening to realize how Mark’s  life had been, at least in college,  and to reflect on the potential of what my cousins life might be if others do not understand autism.

The real @$$h—-in the movie and in the real world are those who see some one as a person to take advantage of for their intelligence and naivete’.  The real winners are the rest of us who have the capacity to know some one with autism and not manipulate the situation.   If you have the opportunity to see the movie and then discuss it with a teacher, psychologist, psychiatrist or family member of some one with autism, I am quite sure they will be able to point out all the tell tale signs of autism – the very same signs which others read as arrogance and lack of caring. Mark and my cousin came into the world with very few friends who understand them…..wouldn’t it be nice if this movie helped us rise above our preconceptions.