On Monday I enjoyed an hour-long webinar with two executives of the College Board who presented on the coming changes to the AP.  “Advanced Placement Course and Exam Redesign,” it was called, and our presenters were:

  • Auditi Chakravarty, Executive Director, Advanced Placement Curriculum & Assessment
  • Trevor Packer,Vice President, Advanced Placement Program

The webinar was an exclusive opportunity for members of the new network, EdLeader21, which I am pleased to have just joined.  Led by the founder and former President of the Partnership for 21st century skills, Ken Kay, EdLeader21 is, in the words of its website: The nation’s first professional learning community for 21st century education leaders.

The AP is of course a controversial and polarizing program in the eyes of  “21st century education” leaders and thinkers.  21st century learning heavily prioritizes thinking skills, such as critical thinking, effective communication,  and creativity far above content knowledge and memorization.   That is not to say the one is entirely at the expense of the other: great teaching and learning happens when these two are synthesized and synergized.  But the AP exam and the course of study to prep for it, particularly in History and Science, simply does not effectively blend content and thinking skills.

I am both delighted that the College Board has recognized the problem and committed to correcting it (see earlier piece) and afraid that the College Board and the AP program administrators are too late in their revisions.  I fear they underestimate the damage that has been done to their brand in the past ten years in their steadfast refusal and then extraordinarily slow response to the mounting frustration and criticism.   In the webinar, the presenters explained that the initiative to review and revise the AP began with a 2002 report by the National Research Council and the National Science Foundation, which criticized the AP program for sacrificing depth for breadth and not assessing students’ deep understanding of organizing concepts and principles.

My question to the presenters at this point was simple: 2002?

The webinar presented surveys of teachers about their perspective of the effectiveness of the program; 62% of history teachers and 56% of science teachers report their AP curriculum covers too many topics in not enough depth: conversely, only 1% of Science and 2% of History teachers report the test doesn’t cover enough topics.  In other words, 56 times more Science teachers think that the program has sacrificed depth for breadth than the opposite.

Now I realize many of my good friends and colleagues have chosen already to depart the AP, and there are terrific schools which have done so on principle and have formed an outstanding organization to advance an AP-free curriculum.   Many teachers at my school would like us to do the same.

By my lights, however, it is still far too important to too many of our parents and students that we continue to offer the AP, and, in contrast to so many of my esteemed colleagues, I see continued value in schools participating in preparing students for well designed, high quality, external assessments: we can that way better prepare our students as their coaches and champions, better participate as colleagues with teachers around the nation teaching parallel curricula, and better assess how we are doing as an educational institution.

If the AP were not changing, it would most likely be time to depart.  Fortunately, it is changing, and I want to be an optimist here.  I recognize the need to be critical of the data they present to support their own cause, but the presenters shared a report that 92% of teachers surveyed, having been shown the new AP Bio test format, approved of the changes and supported the new balance.   Former critics of the AP, they report, have also endorsed the changes, and university academic department chairs have reported near universal approval of the changes.

The presenters were genuinely sincere and committed to this course of revision. Knowing they were speaking to a cohort of leaders from leading edge 21st century school districts and schools, they assured us that:

The AP redesign is aimed at you: the districts and schools who are in the vanguard.   We want to reflect in the new AP the vision and passion that forward-looking educators have for the kind of education required for the 21st century — we want it to serve schools who want to prepare students for our fast-changing world of instant access to digital information.

Trevor Packer, the AP VP, told his own story of having been a student:

In AP Biology, I do think there was far too much memorization; within weeks of taking the AP test, I promptly forgot all that I had memorized for the exam.  I learned the material in a way that learning psychologists have taught us that science should not be taught.  The AP must move sciences and history away from an approach that focuses on memorization and broad content knowledge and toward what learning psychologists are telling us needs to happen: deep understanding and the ability to apply understanding to new situations.

These sorts of factual recall and declarative knowledge are endemic in colleges and on the AP.   We know we need to move away from this.

One of the deepest frustrations for many about the old/current AP Science program lay in the “canned” science experiments asked of students: rote, routine, formulaic.   Now, the new science courses, they assure us (am I being too gullible?)  involve considerably more inquiry:  new labs require students to ask more questions and to do more design of their own experiments.  To quote Trevor: “creativity and innovation are among the very most important skills students need, and our new labs honor this with new approaches.”

The presentation focussed on AP Biology as a case study– it is the first test being revamped.   Here are two questions contrasted, first from the old AP:

Then this, from the new AP:

I know that many will feel frustrated that there continue to be multiple choice questions at all in the new AP, and I mostly agree.  As I understand from my IB training in 2008, IB exams generally avoid MC altogether, and require students demonstrate knowledge and understanding on open-ended essay exams exclusively; this is true too of the CWRA.   But, if you have to have MC, this type of questioning does represent to me a very positive step forward.

Above I wrote that I am not opposed to content knowledge, but think that it is best learned and best remembered, and most significant, when blended with learning and applying thinking skills.     Again, to its credit, the new AP recognizes this, as they define test tasks as “learning objectives” which require students to demonstrate content knowledge with applied skills:

(Please forgive the clumsy photographs; I couldn’t determine how to do screen shots of the webinar platform.)

Q& A

Why did it take ten years to revamp the tests?  

Because we thought it very important to validate what NRC said, and convene a much wider array of educators to analyze this. The AP is growing ten percent a year– it is not broken, so we haven’t seen it as needing, economically, a fix.

But we want the test to be the best it can be.  Changes are very expensive.  There were not courses we could copy from college– we analyzed college courses all over, and could not find models.  It is an incredibly lengthy process to gain consensus.   Test development takes five years.   Every question has to be tested many times.

Fascinating, and deeply disappointing,  to learn that the College Board struggled to find college models to emulate for 21st century learning.   There is such important work still to be done up and down the K-16 world in advancing learning for all students.

What is specifically your thinking of PBL in AP?   Does it need a more prominent role in AP pedagogy?

Yes, we do think PBL needs to play a much larger role in AP curricula.  There isn’t time now for teachers to do PBL now, so part of the reason to pare down the breadth is to provide more time for PBL.

Recognizing the individual differences between/among teachers, what have been some of the more significant challenges you’ve observed in their shift from traditional practice to the redesign?

One of the challenges we expect, based on what we are hearing from some teachers, is that coverage of large amounts of content is often considered to be the definition of rigor. AP is known for providing rigor, and we will continue to do so; however, our definition of rigor is shifting into line with what learning science tells us, which differs from what some long-practicing AP teachers have become accustomed to in our courses. Another significant challenge will be the transition to inquiry-based labs in the sciences. We know teachers who already use an inquiry-based approach to their courses and labs for whom the shift will be simple and welcome, but many others have questions about what inquiry should look like, how to pace inquiry labs, and how to ensure sufficient support for students through an inquiry model. This will be an area where we know we will need to provide a lot of support.

I have been a strong critic of the AP program, and I still have deep concerns to be sure, but that shouldn’t prevent me from recognizing and appreciating that the College Board is genuinely grappling with the inherent flaws and sincerely committing itself to what is, indeed, very much the right direction.

Note: In the course of the webinar I explicitly asked if the information provided in the webinar was confidential to participants, and was told that it was not:   “Anything can be shared and quoted.”

I thank the officials who spoke with us and value the work they are doing to improve learning for our students.