Advanced Placement Courses Score with Fast-Track Students Series: Currents in the Curriculum. First of Two Articles Appearing Today

Article excerpt

Ben Powers may only be a high school sophomore, but already he has college on his mind. Next year, he plans to sign up for Advanced Placement courses at Biloxi Senior High School in Mississippi, and he is already taking honors courses to qualify.

"I need to gain as much knowledge as I can prior to entering college," he reasons matter-of-factly, "and I think AP courses can do that more than general courses."

Many high schoolers share that view. With ever-increasing competition to enter top colleges, students are on the lookout for ways to make their resume stand out. And the AP exam, instituted in 1954 by the College Board as a way of enabling gifted high-school seniors to earn college credits, has become a favored tool. Today, according to the College Board, 51 percent of US high schools offer at least one AP course. The program has grown to include 31 subjects, and the number of AP exams administered has grown steadily, reaching 845,000 this May. Of these, 35 percent were taken by high school juniors. College admissions officers are seeing the results in student applications. Half of the 3,500 to 3,600 students entering North Carolina State University in Raleigh this fall, for example, have taken at least one AP course. At Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, 30 to 40 percent of about 400 incoming freshmen have two or more AP courses under their belt. "Ten years ago," says dean of admissions Wylie Mitchell, "that percentage was maybe 5 to 10." The rapid expansion is straining the program's ability to maintain its standards, yet the program shows no signs of slowing down. On the contrary: Many students, parents, and educators hail the program as a positive force in US education. It provides the tools for teachers to design courses that are more in-depth than typical high school courses and also strengthen students' reading and analytical skills. The exam in all subjects consists of a multiple-choice questionnaire and three to four essays. The essays predictably require analysis, synthesis, and the ability to form and support an opinion. But even the multiple-choice portion increasingly emphasizes concepts and themes, demanding analysis, not mere regurgitation of facts. AP courses are modeled on the exams, but they bear no resemblance to prep classes for, say, the Scholastic Aptitude Test. "It is not teaching the test as much as it is teaching the thought process," explains Carol Osborne, an English teacher in Virginia who has taught AP courses and graded AP English exams. The courses have grown to include new subjects - statistics and environmental science, for example. The range of material covered has expanded as well. AP English exams now include texts by contemporary and minority writers. But "Shakespeare has not dropped out," insists Penelope Laurans, associate dean of Yale College, who has served on the exam committee. Many educators like the AP for the informal standards it offers. Guidelines from the College Board form the models for schools' individually created AP curricula. The quality of courses ultimately depends on the quality of the teacher. But, says Margaret Williams, director of admissions at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va., "it's like an academic green light to assume that a certain level of preparation has been achieved." As a result, AP classes and tests often stand out on students' transcripts. …