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Rapid Growth of Advanced Placement Classes Raises Concerns

April 07, 2002|REBECCA TROUNSON and RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

High school Advanced Placement classes, widely viewed as key to admission to top-tier colleges, are proliferating so rapidly that many educators say their quality is being diluted and school resources are being strained.

Designed to allow the most able students to get an early start on college work, the program now reaches more than 1 million students each year and is expanding at an annual rate of about 10%. Those who pass AP exams can often dazzle college admissions officers, skip introductory courses and even graduate from college early.

But the program's tremendous growth--fueled by government subsidies and the owner's aggressive promotion--is generating widespread concern among education experts, admissions officers, counselors, teachers and even some students. They fear that some AP classes don't live up to the program's own high standards or prepare students to enter college with advanced standing.

"It's a very positive program, but it'll only stay that way if there's a response to all this pressure for improvement," said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

AP's many supporters and even some critics say that the program, owned by the nonprofit College Board, has improved academic standards and teacher training, and has brought a stimulating atmosphere to classrooms. It is still seen by many as the gold standard in high school education.

But recent developments suggest it is losing some of its luster:

* A recent report by the National Research Council criticized AP and other advanced math and science classes for covering too much material in not enough depth. The panel also raised concerns about teacher preparation, quality control and access to the classes, especially for minority students and those in rural and inner-city schools.

The report echoed a 2001 study commissioned by the College Board itself that acknowledged a growing shortage of qualified teachers and weak academic backgrounds of some AP students.

* Harvard University announced in February that it will award credit only to incoming students who receive the highest AP exam score--a 5 on a 1 to 5 scale. (Many schools give credit for 3s or above.) Stanford, Yale, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, among others, also are rethinking their AP policies.

* An elite private high school in New York, the Fieldston School, recently dropped all AP classes, saying the prescribed curriculum was too focused on rote learning and detracted from the in-depth study that is the school's specialty. Other top prep schools are also reassessing its value.

* Many high school counselors, teachers and students say the courses are outstripping resources--from classroom space to testing facilities to the availability of trained teachers. The shortage of qualified AP teachers could reach 100,000 within a decade, the College Board estimates.

College Board officials say they are trying to address these concerns by expanding AP teacher training, establishing clearer guidelines for AP classes and developing a program to better prepare middle school and high school students for such classes by boosting their English and math skills.

Overall, the AP program is still "as powerful an educational engine now as it has always been," said Jenny Oren Krugman, a Florida-based College Board official. "We're talking about a program that has given standards, a real assessment, and allows people to look at their performance. That said, must it be 100% of the answer to every educational question?"

While they are committed to addressing the identified problems, College Board officials say, they also are committed to extending the reach of the program.

"We think every school and every student should have access to this program," said College Board President Gaston Caperton.

Established in 1955, the Advanced Placement program enables high school students to take its semester- or year-long college-level courses in 19 broad subject areas, ranging from art history to physics. Students may then opt to take the two- or three-hour exams. At some high schools, students need a teacher's recommendation to get into an AP course; at others, any student may sign up.

The demand for AP courses stems largely from intensifying competition for college slots among children of baby boomers. Lastyear, 820,880 students took nearly 1.4 million AP exams, bringing in $98 million for the College Board. Nearly six in 10 high schools now offer AP classes.

Nowhere has the program's growth been greater than in California, where the number of students taking AP classes nearly tripled from 1988 to 2000.

Much of that is because the University of California gives students multiple incentives to take part in AP. Not only are UC students who pass AP exams eligible for college credit, a transcript filled with such classes improves chances of admission, UC officials said.

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