AP teachers are put to the test

Audit attempts to standardize courses to ensure classes are academically rigorous

March 11, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Linn Griffiths is nervous - the type of nervous usually experienced by someone undergoing an IRS audit.

She is among the many high school teachers across the country whose curricula are being scrutinized in the first national audit of Advanced Placement classes.

"Although I'm confident that my syllabus meets all the requirements of the AP program, you never know," said Griffiths, who teaches AP environmental science at C. Milton Wright High School. "When I heard about the AP audit, I was a little worried and anxious."

Griffiths - along with teachers at more than 15,000 schools nationwide - recently received notification of the audit.

"This is the first time in the history of the United States that we're ever going to be able to say something about a set of courses across the country," said David Conley, chief executive officer of the Educational Policy Improvement Center, a nonprofit organization in Eugene, Ore., that researches education issues and is conducting the audit.

"When the audit is completed, we will be able to say with some certainty that the accepted courses meet a common standard nationwide," Conley said.

Initiated in 1955, the AP program provides students the opportunity to take college-level courses in high school. Students who complete the course and pass an exam receive college credit.

The audit was ordered by the College Board, a New York City-based nonprofit that governs national standardized tests such as the SAT and PSAT, as well as tests for AP courses. In recent years, the board has received requests for an audit from colleges and secondary schools concerned about the types of courses that had the AP designation, and about the growing number of students who failed tests on AP coursework.

"If college credits are going to be awarded for the classes, then the colleges want to be sure that the courses are comprehensive and academically rigorous," said Thomas Dove, a counselor at C. Milton Wright, where about 400 of the school's 1,850 students are enrolled in 15 AP courses.

Coming more than 50 years after the AP program began, the audit is long overdue, said Jennifer Topiel, the executive director of public affairs for the College Board.

"We have schools that offer AP history classes, but they don't use a college-level text," Topiel said. "And some schools are slapping `AP' on courses the AP program doesn't support, such as journalism, physical education, astronomy, trigonometry and military history."

The audit process began in late January, when the board sent letters to all teachers who lead AP courses, directing them to submit a course syllabus and an audit form signed by the principal.

The forms are forwarded to reviewers who are qualified professors and teachers, Conley said. The reviewers make sure that the curricular requirements of the AP courses are met in the syllabus. If the syllabus meets or exceeds the requirements, the course will be included in a ledger created in November for colleges and universities, Conley said.

If the syllabus fails to meet requirements, it is forwarded to a senior reviewer. If that reviewer agrees with the findings, the syllabus is returned, and the teacher can revise and resubmit it. Teachers have up to three chances to revise.

"In some schools in the country, teachers do their own thing and call it AP. This will help put a stop to that," said Rosalind Bennett, the school counselor at Bel Air High, where about 350 students enrolled in 18 AP classes last year.

The audit has teachers taking a closer look at syllabuses and evaluating ways to improve them.

"The percentage of time that teachers should spend on any certain content area is reflected in the percentage of questions on the topic that are on the AP exam for the subject," Griffiths said. "I looked closely at my current syllabus to be sure that I'm meeting all the requirements."

Ultimately, the audit could benefit students, said Gayle Debenham, the guidance counselor at Edgewood High. Last year, about 168 of that school's 1,300 students signed up for 11 AP classes.

"Students have to work hard when they take an AP course," she said. "If a class meets AP requirements, it should prepare students for college-level courses."

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