Ask any random college educated American adult to recall the processes of cell respiration so painstakingly memorized in freshman biology, or to rehearse the dates of the Progressive Era that had been absorbed as part of the standard American history survey course, and you're likely to receive a blank stare, proving something that cognitive scientists have been shouting from the rooftops: Coursework focused on memorization of a broad body of content knowledge will not produce the sort of learning that lasts.
Advanced Placement science and history courses, due to their close alignment with college curricula, have imitated the tendency of such courses to rapidly cover large amounts of content in order to ensure that high school students who succeed on AP exams are indeed qualified for college credit and placement into higher level college courses.
AP Student Outcomes
The upside of this approach has been that AP students outperform students from other countries and are well prepared for placement and credit at colleges and universities. So how do we ensure that we are preserving these positive attributes of the AP program when, at the same time, we identify ways that high school teaching and learning could improve upon the standard approach employed by colleges and universities to deliver instruction in history and science?
The National Research Council took a stab at answering that question when it issued a powerful charge in 2002, calling for science curricula to "emphasize depth of understanding over exhaustive coverage of content." This charge resonated with me, not least because of my own experiences with AP and college courses. I can remember virtually nothing from my college physical science course, my AP biology course, my AP U.S. history course, and my freshman Western civilization course—each of which emphasized broad content coverage over in-depth study of key concepts and skills. By way of contrast, the AP and college courses that focused on helping me develop the ability to think and act within the discipline—AP English and AP calculus in particular— provided me with a foundation that was of immense worth for the subsequent math and English coursework I pursued in college and helped me develop skills that I continue to use on a daily basis.
Refocusing the Curriculum
So I feel great enthusiasm over the recent announcement of the redesign of the AP science and AP history programs, the result of several years of intensive efforts by expert high school and college faculty as well as a strong partnership with the National Science Foundation, to articulate the right amount of content coverage and to refocus the AP courses on the key concepts and skills that are essential to students' further college studies in the discipline.
In fall 2010, we convened representatives from the science and history departments of nearly 100 U.S. colleges and universities and asked them to confirm whether the elimination of particular topics from the AP science and history courses would result in any elimination of college credit policies. Resoundingly, these college professors confirmed that the changes represented the direction in which many of them were seeking to move college instruction, and that their credit policies would be maintained or strengthened by these changes to AP.
These changes have a number of related benefits. The AP score reports will continue to provide a composite score of 5, 4, 3, 2, or 1, but they will now also provide detailed information about the extent to which students have demonstrated mastery of each of the learning objectives that are the heart of the redesigned courses. AP's new virtual communities will provide opportunities for AP teachers to share resources with each other, trading and rating each other's activities, assignments, and exams. And we're piloting new online homework support services to which AP teachers can direct students.
School administrators and AP teachers nationwide have made amazing progress in their efforts to extend the benefits of AP (rigor, college readiness, reduced college costs) across their diverse student populations, such that nearly twice the number of students are earning scores of 3 or higher than did so a decade ago. The redesign of AP science and history programs will provide additional support for educators seeking to deepen and enrich students' readiness to become our next generation of scientists, engineers and historians. DA
Trevor Packer is vice president of the Advanced Placement Program for the College Board.