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Certifying AP Courses

Districts bear the burden of new Advanced Placement audit requirements.

About 100,000 teachers of Advanced Placement courses, most of them in U.S. high schools, have an extra assignment on their desks this spring. But it's for them, not their students. If they want their courses designated as "AP" in the 2007-2008 academic year, so they can be identified that way on student transcripts, they must comply with a new audit the College Board is conducting to reinforce the program's quality and credibility.

Courses that pass will be listed in a ledger the College Board will send to all colleges and universities in the country in November, and each fall thereafter, and will also be posted on the Internet for the public to see. Courses that do not pass will not be allowed to carry the AP label for the coming year, though teachers can try to win approval the following year.

Quality Concerns

The AP program, which the College Board has managed for 52 years, includes 37 courses in 22 subject areas. About 62 percent of U.S. high schools provided at least one AP course last year, up from 57 percent in 2000. According to the Board, more than 90 percent of the nation's colleges and universities grant credit, advanced placement or both to incoming students who earn qualifying grades on the AP exams.

But the College Board acknowledges that as more high schools offer more AP courses, some are applying the AP designation without following official course descriptions or offering AP exams that are key to the program. Similarly, some schools are designating courses as AP without Board authorization.

The audit comes, therefore, at the urging of high school faculties and college admissions officers, says Sue Landers, director of AP program development. "They want us to preserve the AP label for courses that are true AP and make sure that teachers and principals understand the expectations that colleges have for those courses." Similarly, Helene Zimmer-Loew, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of German and a former member of the College Board's world language academic advisory committee, says, "We were concerned about the quality of the program and whether kids actually took AP, or just had it on their records but didn't really take it."

"If the College Board were not to implement a course audit to prevent such misuses, it is possible that the AP designation on a student's transcript could become less meaningful to colleges and universities," the Board tells teachers in its audit instructions. And there are indications that may already be happening. Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, says some of those officers raise caution flags when they see AP on academic records of applicants who want to attend their institutions. "There has been a marked increase in the number of high school courses designated as AP, and from conversations with our members, we are increasingly finding concerns about what that designation really means," Nassirian says. Counselors who advise high school students on college preparation are also telling them that "they really are not guaranteed anything out of AP classes any more, and have to read the fine print in terms of what colleges are or are not going to offer in credit for these courses," says David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

Audit Mechanics

The College Board contracted with the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC), a not-for-profit organization at the University of Oregon, to manage the mechanics of the audit. EPIC is a partner of the Center for Educational Policy and Research, which works with federal agencies, state education departments, non-governmental organizations, private foundations and school districts on research projects. The audit kicked off in January when EPIC sent letters of instruction to teachers, administrators and AP coordinators in school districts throughout the country.

High schools develop their own curricula for AP courses, and as the Board explains in its instructions to teachers, the audit requirements "do not in any way constitute a mandated curriculum; they provide schools with tremendous flexibility in development of curricula." The Board also makes clear that the audit is not a teacher certification process, and there are no educational or professional background requirements to be an AP teacher. But while AP teachers generally seem to understand and support the audit's objectives, they are not pleased by what they have to do to pass. "I like the idea behind it, but it seems like a lot of extra work for us," says Ryan Rust, who teachers AP calculus at Plymouth (Ind.) High School.

By June 1, each teacher of an AP course must submit a copy of the syllabus for the course for 2007-2008, along with an audit form that specifies the curricular and resource requirements that must be met in order to receive authorization to use the AP designation. The teacher leading the course and the principal must initial and sign the form to certify that they meet those requirements.

"They want us to preserve the AP label for courses that are true AP."

Although teachers can continue to deliver the materials after June 1, that is the cutoff date to guarantee a listing in the initial ledger of designated courses that the College Board will compile. The Board will update the ledger regularly with courses that are authorized after June 1.

Teachers deliver their syllabi to EPIC electronically, and EPIC forwards them, with the audit forms, to one of about 1,500 reviewers, mostly college faculty members who have taught at least one semester of the course they are reviewing within the past three years. Some of the reviewers are recently retired AP teachers who have also taught the courses they review.

"These are people who are very knowledgeable in the content area, so when they look at a syllabus they can make an informed judgment about whether or not it has all the required elements," says David T. Conley, a professor at the University of Oregon who directs the Center for Educational Policy Research and is CEO of EPIC.

If a reviewer finds that a syllabus lacks something, it goes to a senior reviewer for a second look. "If the first reviewer missed or misinterpreted something, the senior reviewer is a screen to catch that," Conley explains. Senior reviewers have essentially the same backgrounds as regular reviewers, but preference in selecting them is given to those with master's degrees in curriculum and instruction and who are department chairs.

Within two months after they submit the audit materials, teachers and principals are notified that either the course is authorized or that more information is needed. If the latter is the case, "the teacher hopefully makes changes and resubmits the materials," Conley says. Then the materials go to another reviewer, and if all is in order, the course is then passed.

If the course fails the second review, the College Board's AP staff reviews the syllabus and works directly with the teacher to try and get it right, Conley says. A Board representative suggests how the syllabus could be revised, and the teacher submits it a third time. If it still fails, the Board will not authorize the course for 2007-2008, though the teacher can try again the following year.

Syllabus Requirements

For a syllabus to be certified, it must meet all the criteria spelled out in the audit instructions. "This is a very high standard and might cause frustration for some teachers," Conley acknowledges. "They are going to find it annoying. They will say, 'This is what I do, and my students do well in college, so why do I have to write all this down?' But they are going to have to put down very explicitly everything that is part of the course requirement and show in their syllabus that they are doing it."

For example, the College Board's ten curricular requirements for an AP English language and composition course include having students "write in several forms (e.g., narrative, expository, analytical and argumentative essays) about a variety of subjects (e.g., public policies, popular culture, personal experiences)."

Requirements for an AP computer science course include teaching students "to use and implement commonly used algorithms and data structures" and "to code fluently in an object-oriented paradigm using the programming language Java."

For AP courses that use textbooks, teachers must include a "complete bibliographical citation"-author, title, publisher, year and edition-for the primary textbook used. They also have to list or describe other instructional materials they use, such as newspapers, journals, audiovisual materials and software.

"We think one of the main problems will come from teachers who just send in whatever syllabus they have. But hopefully, they will review it against the requirements before they send it in," says Conley. The idea is to make sure AP courses align with the course requirements and that the requirements align closely with what a college course actually is in each of these areas."

But Stacey Howell, who teaches AP chemistry at Davis High School in Kaysville, Utah, says college chemistry courses differ widely across the country. She suggests that if high school AP course syllabi are expected to follow the descriptions provided by the College Board, "they need to do it on the college level, too, so that they all are teaching the same material." Her first audit submission was returned without approval because, she says, she did not provide enough detail about her labs and some of the extra activities her students undertake, like a presentation they make to regular chemistry classes on different types of equations.

Administrative Support

For principals, who must attest to what their teachers submit, "the idea is that teachers and principals agree that the syllabus really reflects what the teacher is doing," says Conley. In addition to the curricular requirements of a course, the principal as well as the teacher must sign the audit form that confirms that the resource requirements are being met-for example, for the computer science course, that "each student has individual access to a computer for at least three hours a week." For a music theory course, each classroom must have a piano or electronic keyboard and sound reproduction equipment, such as a stereo or boom box. "If a school has not provided the resources required to teach a course but the principal signs it to say they have provided the resources, that's a significant ethical issue," Conley says.

The importance of the principal's role is underscored by the Board's requirement that the audit form be faxed to a specified phone number, "because we want a physical signature," Conley explains. "Part of the new reality for principals is ensuring the quality of the instructional program in their schools, and this AP validation is an effort in that regard," says Dick Flanary, director of professional development services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

AP coordinators and administrators in individual schools or school districts do not have to sign anything. But the College Board wants them to be aware of the audit so that they can work with teachers to ensure they understand the requirements and timeline. The Board initially planned to launch the audit last year but delayed the start until January to give local educators and administrators more time to prepare for it, and many took advantage of the added time.

For example, in the Pinellas County (Fla.) Schools, AP teachers submitted draft syllabi last year to their district subject area supervisors, who then developed review committees of "some of our best and most successful AP teachers," reports Bill Lawrence, Advanced Placement incentive program manager in Pinellas, who has been coordinating the audit process. The incentive program, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, provides grants to eligible national, state or local education agencies to help them increase the participation of low-income students in both pre-AP and AP courses and tests. The reviewers provided feedback to the teachers, and "together they have dialogued and collaborated to make sure all their syllabi are likely to meet the College Board's standards," Lawrence says.

"Our teachers have felt that this has been quite a burden, but at the same time, it is helping them refocus the curriculum in their AP courses, to ensure that they are teaching at the college level, and prepare their students to do well on the AP exams, and that is a good thing," Lawrence says.

"Teachers are busy people, and they were not quite sure what this was going to be all about," says Andrea Morgan, an education specialist who coordinates the AP incentive program in the Oregon Department of Education. "Now that it has become a serious business, they are paying attention to it. Most of them already have their materials together, or will realize that they do once they get over the initial panic., because that's what is required."

Alternate Programs

There are also related options to consider, and Nassirian says that some admissions officers are paying more attention to other advanced placement programs, particularly the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program offered by the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO). "The IB suffers the disadvantage of not being as widely promoted as the AP, but those admissions professionals who know it tend to view it very favorably," Nassirian says.

The IBO offers the two-year diploma program, for students 16-19, in 520 schools in the U.S. Requirements include studying six subjects and writing an extended essay. One of the subjects studied must be a foreign language. Schools can participate in the program only after going through an authorization process that includes a visit by an IB delegation that assesses its capacity to offer the program.

"The IB is an excellent program," agrees Dan Saracino, assistant provost for enrollment at the University of Notre Dame. "I wish it was growing more. It is an interdisciplinary program and it challenges a student to develop proficiency in a second language, which is something we should be encouraging our children to pursue." The British-based University of Cambridge program is also beginning to catch the attention of college admissions officers, although it currently is available in only about 60 U.S. high schools.

Restoring Credibility

College admissions officers hope the audit will restore credibility to the AP designation that they have found lagging. "We're seeing a growing number of transcripts where an AP course is listed but it's really not an AP course. That wasn't the case a number of years ago, but it's been growing over the years," says Saracino.

"We count on it being accurate, and if a student is in the gray area academically, we will definitely do further researching," says Saracino. Admissions staff members usually know high schools well, but if they do not know a particular school they check its Web site "and look for an explanation of the curriculum there," he says. Or they call the school directly. He does not think high schools deliberately put inaccurate course information on transcripts. "I think schools are just sloppy with this. When I called some schools about this misinformation, they really were surprised. They didn't know that AP is really like a copyright," Saracino says.

One admissions official who asked not be identified cites "some background noise that questions whether some of these designations are not simply a matter of high school convenience." He explains, "It shouldn't surprise anyone that in the pressure cooker environment in which some high school principals and district officials operate, it would be convenient to just slap an AP designation on an otherwise ordinary course and get the parents off your back."

"We really want to work with teachers to ensure that their courses meet expectations."

Debbie Faust, a parent in the Blind Brook (N.Y.) School District, also talks of schools that are offering "too many" AP courses. She says her own district has added ten AP courses in the last three years and now offers 15 for the 400 students in its single high school. Her daughter, who graduated from the school last year, took three AP courses in her junior year and four as a senior.

"There are such pressures on kids to take APs when they might not necessarily be ready for them, because to get into college, they need to show that they are taking a rigorous course of study," Faust says. "If a school has a lot of APs on the menu, it puts pressure on the kids to take more than the one or two they might really feel comfortable with." Faust is a member of the Blind Brook School Board but emphasizes that her concerns about the AP program are principally as a parent.

Schools that receive authorization to offer designated AP courses as a result of the audit will not have to go through the process again in following years unless the teacher of an AP course changes, or a school offers a new course, or the curricular and resource requirements for a course are significantly revised. Principals will receive forms each fall for requesting authorization renewal.

The College Board hopes the initial audit will remove any doubts about the validity of individual courses and the overall program. "We really want to work with teachers to ensure that their courses meet colleges' expectations, because ultimately this is about the students in those courses. It's in everyone's best interests that the courses are authorized," says Landers.

Alan Dessoff is a contributing editor based in Maryland.