Advanced Advanced Placement
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The spread of Advanced Placement tests have been mostly a success story in recent decades (e.g., they provide a fashionable rationalization for tracking), but Advanced Placement classes tend to be forced marches to try to get high school students to more or less memorize a lot of material: lots of worksheets, little time for class discussion.

From the NYT:

Rethinking Advanced Placement by Christopher Drew

January 7, 2011

As A.P. [testing] has proliferated, spreading to more than 30 subjects with 1.8 million [high school] students taking 3.2 million tests, the program has won praise for giving students an early chance at more challenging work. But many of the courses, particularly in the sciences and history, have also been criticized for overwhelming students with facts to memorize and then rushing through important topics....

All that, says the College Board, is about to change.

Next month, the board, the nonprofit organization that owns the A.P. exams as well as the SAT, will release a wholesale revamping of A.P. biology as well as United States history – with 387,000 test-takers the most popular A.P. subject. A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like. The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking. ...

The changes, which are to take effect in the 2012-13 school year, are part of a sweeping redesign of the entire A.P. program.

Instead of just providing teachers with a list of points that need to be covered for the exams, the College Board will create these detailed standards for each subject and create new exams to match. ...

The new approach is important because critical thinking skills are considered essential for advanced college courses and jobs in today’s information-based economy. ..

WHEN A.P. testing began in 1956, memorization was not yet a dirty word, and it was O.K. if history classes ran out of time just after they finished World War II.

... And it did not take long for instructors to start teaching to the test, treating the board’s outline as the holy grail for helping students achieve the scores of 3 or higher, out of 5, that might earn credit from a college. That obviously became harder to do as breakthroughs in genetic research and cellular organization, and momentous events like the cold war, the civil rights movement, Watergate and the war on terror, began to elbow their way onto the lists. College professors could pick and choose what to cover in their introductory survey classes. But because the A.P. test can touch on almost anything, high school juniors and seniors must now absorb more material than most college freshmen.

So perhaps it is no surprise that while the number of students taking the A.P. biology test has more than doubled since 1997, the median score has dropped to 2.63, from 3.18.

One critical thinking skill that should be taught in schools is "selection."

I doubt if the increase in the amount of biological knowledge in the world between 1997 and 2010 is the main cause of the decline in average AP score. Instead, the expansion of the number of test-takers would be a much more plausible candidate for primary reason.

On the other hand, I've spent a lot of time looking into this, and it appears to me that diminishing returns have not yet badly hit AP testing. As I wrote in in 2009:

Although the quantity of AP tests taken by whites grew 155 percent over the last decade, their mean score dropped merely from 3.04 to 2.96. The fall-off for Asians was even less, from 3.10 to 3.08. ... The ”pass rate” (the percent of test takers scoring 3 or higher) is almost the same for whites (62 percent) and Asians (64 percent). But Asians are much more aggressive about signing up for AP tests, taking almost three times as many per year (1.79 per capita per year versus 0.63 among whites).
There has been a big push to get more NAMs to take AP tests, with predictable results:
The tremendous growth from 1998 to 2008 in Hispanics taking AP tests drove down their average score on the 1 to 5 scale from 2.99 to 2.42. Their passing rate dipped from 60 percent 42 percent.

(And keep in mind that Hispanic mean scores are exaggerated because so many native Spanish-speakers take the Spanish Language test, which ought to be, but isn’t always, a free throw for them. Indeed, 56 percent of all 5s earned by Hispanics in 2008 came on the Spanish Language exam. Excluding it, Latinos in 2008 averaged a 2.17 score with a 35 percent passing rate.) ...

Black scores fell a comparable amount over the last decade, from a mean of 2.21 to 1.91 (with the passing rate dropping from 35 percent to 26 percent).

Still, despite depressingly diminishing returns, more than quadrupling the number of AP tests taken by blacks from 1998 to 2008 helped the absolute number of tests passed by blacks to triple.

So, even with blacks, the number of passing scores is still rising rapidly, so we don't seem to have topped out yet.

In general, there's a big blue state - red state divide in AP testing that goes back, in part, to the regional divide between states on taking the SAT (which, like the AP, is sponsored by the College Board — and is most popular on the coasts) and the ACT (run out of Iowa and most popular in the middle of the country). The ACT part of the country could probably try taking more AP tests without much harm.

Back to the NYT article:

For biology, the change means paring down the entire field to four big ideas. The first is a simple statement that evolution ”drives the diversity and unity of life.” The others emphasize the systematic nature of all living things: that they use energy and molecular building blocks to grow; respond to information essential to life processes; and interact in complex ways. Under each of these thoughts, a 61-page course framework lays out the most crucial knowledge students need to absorb.
This seems reasonable at first glance. What do you think?

However, I suspect there's a lurking ethnic agenda that's one motivation for this change: there's a common assumption that a shift away from memorization toward critical thinking will narrow the racial gaps that currently exist between Asians and whites and between blacks/ Hispanics and Asians / whites.

But, is there much evidence for this widespread assumption?

I don't know. Asians do well on the AP tests, but they also do well on the Ravens Progressive Matrices, too.

In general, educationalists tend to assume that because they are for (at least in theory) critical thinking skills and against (at least in theory) disparate impact, that, therefore, upping the critical thinking demands of a test will lower the disparate impact. This often turns out to be untrue.

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