Rigorous Expectations: U.S. Faces World Competition and Bolsters Advanced Placement in Part to Boost Student Success

By Pascopella, Angela | District Administration, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Rigorous Expectations: U.S. Faces World Competition and Bolsters Advanced Placement in Part to Boost Student Success


Pascopella, Angela, District Administration


Nearly 50 years ago, the U.S. faced a hot scare in the cold war. The Soviet Union launched in 1957 the first satellite, Sputnik, into space, sending the U.S. into a tizzy of fear. So the government poured billions of dollars into the space program as well as better math and science programs in American schools.

Now, the nation's schools are facing an economic scare in part due to countries like China and India taking on more American jobs.

In President Bush's State of the Union address earlier this year, he called for 70,000 new high school Advanced Placement math and science teachers over the next five years. It would more than double the number of teachers of the college-level courses in schools today.

The College Board, which administers and oversees the AP program, is enthusiastic about the president's plan, noting in part that students who take AP science or math courses are five times more likely than others to major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or STEM. "The United States needs to gear up to remain competitive" with nations like China and India, says Trevor Packer, executive director of the AP program at the College Board. "And research shows that AP is a good way to do that."

The AP program has excited more than a million students--and more minority students than ever--to dive into the college-level classes.

But over the past few years, the program started to slide in pockets nationwide. "As Advanced Placement began to be celebrated as a driver of school improvement ... some schools have rushed to provide greater opportunities" for students and labeled courses AP that do not follow the AP course descriptions, Trevor says. Administrators eventually realized that many students were not passing or even taking the end-of-year National Advanced Placement Exam, meaning they'd get no college credit. But many seniors who took so-called AP courses in the fall could use that information when applying to competitive colleges, essentially getting their foot in the door due to the AP reputation for rigor, and they'd be accepted to certain universities before ever having to take the $82 AP exam in May.

But all that should change. The College Board now calls for checkups on individual courses in schools worldwide, Packer says. Beginning with the 2007-08 year, teachers must submit a syllabus for review by college professors that teach the particular course in college, providing each teacher with a mentor and helping to ensure that students signing up for AP in Kansas and in New York receive the same learning. Schools must also submit a list of college-level textbooks and resources they use and must fulfill minimum content criteria for courses.

An annual ledger, naming the schools authorized to offer AP, will be available to the public on the Web and sent to every college and university admission office prior to early admissions decisions every fall, Packer says.

Several years ago, Baltimore County Public School District saw some AP courses watered down, which Superintendent of Schools Joseph A. Hairston correlates to teacher quality. But when he came in 2000, he crafted for the entire district a Blueprint for Progress, which outlines the vision, mission, beliefs, performance goals and key strategies for the district--and changed all that.

"We are encouraging principals at this time to increase the level of rigor in high schools and to do that we have to align the academic standards to the AP criteria," he says. "And there are many good strategies and teaching techniques from the AP program" from which all teachers can benefit, Hairston says.

Just the Facts

AP was born in 1955 when a handful of secondary schools and colleges wanted to ensure high school--particularly senior year--was meaningful and to ensure that freshman year in college was not about learning what should have been taught in high school, according to Packer. …

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