Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Programs

We offer plenty of AP courses at my school, and I have many students who take several at a time. I often hear these students complain about their workload, and when I ask why they take so many AP classes, it's because they "want to get into a good school" or some such nonsense.

I understand the value of delayed gratification and hard work. Considering where I got my bachelor's degree, I don't need to justify that understanding. A difference, though, is that I knew what I was working towards. Additionally, I valued the education I was getting. I enjoyed (most of) the courses because I have a true love of learning. So many of my students take AP classes to punch a ticket, so to speak, to "get into a good school". Which good school? Well, many of them are from well-to-do families, so Stanford and some East Coast schools top the lists. And they do this at age 16? Sometimes I think they drive themselves, or their parents drive them, too hard. Yes, a teacher said that.

I don't believe in the term "over-achiever". That's a term that people who don't do as well apply to people who bust their hump to do well; it's a term meant to stigmatize, to cause the higher performer not to want to strive so much anymore. It's a stupid term--how could someone be over-achieving? Aren't they just achieving? I do, sometimes, question the cost of that achievement. Usually, though, that's a question I keep to myself. If students want to take courses at school (or their parents compel them to), for whatever reason, that's not my business. Again, though, I wonder why someone would put themselves (or their kids) in such a situation merely for potential gains of an indeterminate nature, the results of which students cannot even ever know--no one will get a college acceptance letter that says, "Because you took these 3 AP courses at once, you got in."

I wouldn't set a limit on the number of AP classes students can take--like I said, that's up to them and their parents. But I do sometimes think people should consider this "more is better" mindset a little more thoroughly. This post about AP and IB programs was written by a gifted student, one who obviously wanted something more from the courses than just a punched ticket.

Update: Perhaps here's part of the problem:

Many of us in college admissions have set standards that are so high, and we've been sending the message that kids need to be perfect. We get rewarded by U.S. News rankings for admitting those kids, and as a result we're caught up in it. The other piece is that we have a tendency to want kids to look alike. We want them to take so many AP classes, we fixate on the scores, and oh, by the way, they should have so many activities and they should also be leaders. They get headaches, or migraines, or stomach problems — all the classic signs of stress — because the adults in their world are holding them to such a high standard. There's no room to fail.

Of course it's that way if you're only trying to get one of the few slots at Stanford, Princeton, the University of Chicago, and MIT. UC Riverside, or even nearby UC Davis, aren't as stressful, and you still get a good education at most UC campuses. If you're a Marxist, you'll get a "good" education at the rest of the UC schools!


Chris Abraham said...

College isn't even the goal any more, right? College is just the formality to get the right job out of college until you get into the right Law School or right Business School. So, once you get into Princeton (and since when is about the Education, I thought it was about the connections) you're are close to getting the Rhodes fellowship to Oxford.

La Maestra said...

My school offers very few AP classes, but I always encourage my students to take as many as possible (as well as go to the local JC extension and take UC-transferrable classes.) There are three reasons I do this:

1.) Looks good to colleges. Our students' test scores (SAT/ACT) tend to be so low that they need to compensate as much as possible.

2.) With every test they pass or college course they complete, they're saving themselves a lot of money. Despite the hype about a lot of colleges not accepting AP scores, I have yet to have a student go to a college that won't accept a 3 or higher or a C or higher in a UC-transferrable class, and I have had students go to some excellent schools. Even private schools have been accepting of the test scores and JC classes, to an extent. When one of my seniors from last year came back and told this year's seniors that she was able to start at UCSB as a sophomore, and not only saved herself money but also got better class registration, that woke a lot of kids up, let me tell you.

3.) This one to me is the most important--the harder kids work in high school, the easier college will be for them. I don't think most college-prep students really leave our high school adequately prepared for college, even the ones that work hard and take the hardest classes. This isn't a failing on the teacher's part (mostly--there are exceptions) but rather the system as a whole, and as I mentioned before, tends to be reflected in students' low SAT/ACT scores. But if they take 2 AP classes their junior and senior years, plus 2-4 classes/year at the local JC, PLUS play sports (or join FFA or be active in the Drama Club) and remain active in other organizations and do their community service, they will have learned how to manage their time and priorities their responsibilities, skills that for the most part have to be learned through experience.

I took 5 AP classes in high school along with a full load of 7 classes, and I played 3 sports. I worked 10-20 hours/week and was active in clubs, my church, and community service. I slept very little in high school, and was constantly stressing out, but when I got to college (a top state university) I found it quite easy by comparison. In college, I was able to balance working full-time with taking 18-20 units per term and being active in a community service club on campus and having a very time-intensive extracurricular activity. Except for the quarter my mom was diagnosed with cancer, my grades stayed up, and if I hadn't worked as hard as I did in high school, I never would have been able to handle the load I did in college, or for that matter, the load I do now.

And that, to me, is the most important part of taking AP courses. My students know well the three reasons I told them, but reason #1 is the least of the reasons most of them take AP classes. I'm not as concerned about them getting into top colleges as I am being able to succeed in any college once they get there, be it Stanford or CSU Bakersfield, and I make sure the kids know this and focus on this as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Darren.

I concur with your post re: AP and IB courses.

As a former admissions professional at a Seven Sister's college, which is also my alma mater, and, as a teacher at a mid-range independent school, I can relate both personally and professionally to the various points you make. My school does not offer AP courses, and for this I am glad. As a school which teaches the range, we strive to direct each student to create a thumprint, which is an educational plan. Based on this plan, students are hopefully directed to create an educational experience which speaks to their whole person, and not just the academic.

While I was not a genius, I was a driven, highly motivated and hard working student, and the only schools I knew to aspire to were the Ivys, Little Ivys and Seven Sisters. If one was bright, one was directed towards these schools. Depending on the school a student attends, the post-secondary options are far richer, and schools which do not carry the cache that an Ivy does, for example, have gained far greater acceptance.

While I would change very little re: about the person I am today, I would have opted to have become a more well-rounded student while in high school, and have enjoyed much more of life, and not have been so hyper-focused on the academic.

As far as the college admissions circus, I hope that in my role as a college admissions rep. I provided access. I honestly believe, however, that the women I helped to admit were representative of a much richer and much more diverse array of experiences, academic and otherwise.

Darren said...

I'm often surprised at which posts generate comments. I didn't peg this post for much at all, except perhaps from a couple of students, and already I get three valuable observations. Wow.

Anonymous said...

One thing that AP classes do is to prepare students for the independent type of work required in most college curriculums. Most of the regular classes are so test oriented or dumbed down that the concept of independent research and thought is seldom discussed. I teach AP Art History, which looks like it's going to be a pretty tough course. My own kids took AP classes and found college easy. But with the push to get all kids in AP classes I think you will see a further dilution of the core material taught in the classes and further erosion of the idea of recieving college credit for the results. The College Board is already at odds with some large universities that refuse or greatly limit the number of hours recieved for high test scores. I can only think this is just another result of programs that assume all kids are alike and that we can program them to perform like little robots. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Darren said...

I can see AP classes if there's no alternative (we have no non-AP calculus class at my school) or if you really enjoy the subject. But AP US History? Honestly, most students despise history--something they grow out of when they've experienced more of it!--and I can only assume they take the AP course solely to get a college admissions ticket punched. I myself would probably have liked an AP Physics course (we didn't have any AP classes at my high school) but AP Chemistry would have had me cutting my wrists.

I assume AP Art History is an elective course, so students genuinely want to learn the material. What a treat!

Tyler Sheaffer said...

I, as one of the students this post references, can say that not all AP kids at Rio are motivated just to "get into a good school." I, like you, have a thirst for knowledge. In addition, as La Maestra said, taking rigorous co urse loads in High School is benificial in terms of not being overwhelmed upon entering college. I plan on going to Berkeley or UCLA or a comparable school, and I know that taking all twelve AP classes at Rio will have prepared me for the coarse load I will experience as a freshman.

I also remember last year you said you didn't believe in weighting grades, and that AP courses should not be worth five grade points. However, I can honestly say that, although I like learning, if it weren't for the grade bump, I would not have taken two of the AP classes that I am this year (AP Bio and AP Spanish) this year. I just don't see a reason not to reward those students that choose to go above and beyond and take difficult classes not required by the state. Do you have a reason for not liking a grade bump? I'm curious as to what that reason is.

But in general, I agree that seeing students who take all the AP's and who don't enjoy a second of it is quite irritating, especially to those of us who take those classes in order to better understand how the world works, and to better ourselves as individuals. This is a great topic for discussion.

Darren said...

Tyler, thanks for commenting. And I believe you when you say that you're one of the ones with a true desire to learn. In fact, I'd argue with anyone who said otherwise about you.

I don't believe in the grade bump because
a) you're getting credit towards high school graduation, and
b) you're potentially saving beaucoup dinero by getting college credit for the courses if you do well on the AP tests.

The extra work you do is justified by the college credit; I don't see why you should get that *and* a GPA boost. Just my opinion--it's not one I hold so strongly that I'd fall on my sword over it, however.

Anonymous said...

Some of the drive for AP courses is probably fear driven.

No, students and their parents often don't know where they want to go for college, but there is a fear that a 4.0 and a reasonable life "isn't enough."

I suspect that this is also what is driving the tendency to apply to tens of colleges (to which I'm thinking, "WTF??? ... I applied to exactly one").

It comes down to a "better safe than sorry" stance.

I think that if many of these people stopped and listed the "acceptable" colleges and then added up the number of freshman slots they would probably calm down a lot. Figure that the Ivys, MIT, CalTech, Stanford, CMU, Michigan, UTA, all the UCs, etc. are acceptable and you probably get something like 100,000 freshman slots. You don't need a superstar application to get in to *one* of these ...

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

I wonder how competitive schools are treating GPA's that have weighted grades. I know there was an article about California college refiguring GPA's, but it would be interesting to see if the AP program results in any way demonstrates a potential for success.

Anonymous said...

Your sense of entitlement for an AP grade bump is quite wrong. The AP grade bump, itself, is quite wrong. (The nice thing about being a high school student, though, is that you have a license to be wrong--especially in a discussion such as this.)

AP coursework should be elected only by those who have exhausted the regular high school curriculum and have such an interest in learning that they desire the challenge and rewards of Advanced Placement.

Anyone who does not qualify for an AP course in that sense should not elect such a class.

You expressed a feeling that you should be rewarded for choosing harder coursework. And that the reward should be granted by the school system. Why? Why should the school system try to corral students into harder classes? What benefit does a school system gain by stuffing AP courses with students who aren't prepared for AP coursework but were just looking for a grade bump?

Suppose the grade bump *didn't* exist. Who would be left taking those tough AP classes? Students who were looking the immediate gratification of a grade bump would not sign up. Who then? Who would be left?

Just those who really did have a "thirst for knowledge," "love for learning," etc. Those who understand the rewards of AP lie in learning the content of the course and navigating the path toward that goal.

And those are the students that AP was intended to serve.