The Efficacy of Advanced Placement Programs For Gifted Students

February 7, 2017

by Bonnie Raskin, Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship Manager

As the program manager for the Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship, I am often asked by the CDB community if Advanced Placement (AP) classes and the culminating AP exam is the best “fit” for a gifted student. AP courses have long been considered the gold standard for high achievement in upper level high school coursework. The classes are modeled on college courses and meant to represent the difficulty and breadth of material that students are expected to handle when they get to college. For that reason, some colleges give incoming freshmen credits or allow them to pass out of introductory courses if they score a three or above on the AP exam (exams are scored from one to five).

While every gifted student is a unique individual, for many who have long been stymied in general education classes, the promise of an AP curriculum comes with the following preconceptions: AP classes move faster than other classes covering the same subject matter, classmates are more motivated and likely to do the work in an engaged, enthusiastic manner, and the more talented teachers land the AP class assignments. Many gifted students are quite adept and facile at memorizing vast amounts of material which is an added plus within the fact-dense AP curriculum. But, as more high schools abandon AP programs in favor of crafting their own advanced course offerings, the efficacy of the AP program for gifted students is being questioned by secondary and collegiate institutions throughout the United States.

Statistics bear out that in many nationwide high schools, AP classes are more popular than ever, as students seek a leg up in the competitive college admissions process. But within the past five years, the trend is changing, as some of the most elite schools in the country are opting out of the AP frenzy, saying they can design better and more rigorous courses on their own that won’t force them to adhere to someone else’s  curriculum and timeline and force teachers to “teach to the test.” Administrative and faculty detractors who have abandoned the AP program state, “Our major complaint with the AP courses was that it was a race for breadth against depth.” And instead of replicating a college level course in high school, some schools who have left the AP curriculum say they can go one better—partnering with local colleges so their students can actually take classes and garner individual internships on site.

The pro AP argument that AP credits allow high scorers to skip introductory college courses and, perhaps, graduate in less than four years, is no longer valid for two reasons: 1)increasingly, colleges and universities are abandoning the practice of granting automatic acceleration based on AP scores, 2)  and many of the highly selective colleges and universities gifted students want to attend are bypassing AP exam results and require students who want to move past intro classes to take—and pass– their own mandated proficiency exams to prove they meet that institution’s highest standards in a given subject.

Among the CDB high school administrators I spoke with who chose to phase out the AP program, the decision to move away from AP’s did not come easily and, in all cases, followed a highly participatory, multi-year long conversation with students, faculty, parents, trustees and college admissions officers. Lick Wilmerding High School in San Francisco opted out of AP courses because: “LWHS teachers want to create innovative, rigorous courses that are 1) relevant, compelling, and impelling, 2) aligned with current knowledge and best practice in their fields and 3) reflect teachers’ particular passions and the school mission. We know, both from experience and research literature, that our teachers are most successful at engaging our students when these three goals frame the work they do. It was also the case that LWHS programs have, for many years, been truncated and eclipsed by the intrusion and distraction of AP exams during the first three weeks of May, well before the school year is over.”

Those schools who have done away with AP curricula found that the AP program became a limiting, rather than enriching, factor in their school’s determination to provide what has been described as a “21st Century educational experience for its 21st Century highest achieving students.” The Urban School in San Francisco also no longer offers AP courses, nor does Riverdale Country Day School in New York. Dominic Rudolph, Riverdale Country’s Head of School, said, “I think it’s sort of an impoverished view of expecting kids to learn a bunch of stuff and parrot it back to you. These kids have to be better critical thinkers, they have to be better communicators, and I don’t think passing the AP test necessarily gives them those skills.”  When Scarsdale High School, an affluent public school outside Manhattan, did away with AP classes in 2007, the school superintendent said, “Teachers felt driven to cover what was on the AP test, ‘gaming’ their classes by teaching with only the test in mind” and that it was the teachers who asked for the change to a non-AP curriculum.

Unfortunately, it seems that the choice not to offer AP classes is happening in mostly affluent schools. Cash-strapped schools may not have the resources- time or money- to design and implement specialized courses that emphasize depth or have the necessary outreach to work with nearby colleges and universities to incorporate college-level classes and appropriate teacher training into the curriculum. If high schools don’t offer AP classes and are not able to incorporate their own “honors” level classes in their place, they run the risk of being harder to tout the accomplishments of their highest level students to college admissions staff.

Research connecting AP participation to positive college outcomes has been conducted since the program’s inception by non-profit organizations, institutions of higher education and the federal government. Pro-AP advocates stress that there is strong evidence that participation in AP programs correlates with student achievement in college, including higher GPAs, more credit hours earned, college readiness and college completion. A college counselor at the renowned Chicago Laboratory School noted, “Studies that simply establish that students who are involved with the AP program in high school perform better in college do not necessarily provide proof that that AP program caused the students to be successful in college. Students who have the motivation and study habits to take AP classes in the first place have those same attributes upon reaching college,” argues the counselor. “So how can we know if it was the program that caused these students to do better in college?” To date, no longitudinal study has been implemented to target the success of gifted students in college based upon their participation in AP programs in high school.

To provide some background on how the AP program came to be, following World War II, American educators sought a way to bridge the widening gap between secondary and higher education. The Ford Foundation created a fund that supported two committees studying education. The first study was conducted by three prep schools- the Lawrenceville School, Phillips Academy and Phillips Exeter Academy—and three universities—Harvard, Princeton and Yale. In 1952, this consortium issued a report which recommended allowing high school seniors to study college level material and take achievement exams that allowed them to attain college credit for this work. The second committee developed and implemented the plan to design and choose an appropriate curriculum.

A pilot program was run in 1952 covering eleven disciplines. The non-profit College Board has run the AP program since 1955. The first year of its inception, 104 high schools and 130 colleges participated in the College Board’s AP program. In the 1960’s, the College Board focused on training high school teachers in the new curricula. And in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the College Board worked to get more minority and low-income students into AP classes. In 2006 over one million students took over two million AP Placement examinations. Any student is eligible to take any AP exam regardless of participation in its respective course; therefore, home-schooled students and students from schools that do not offer AP courses have an equal opportunity to take AP exams.  Financial aid is available for students who qualify for it.

With tests currently available in close to 40 subject areas, College Board, in an attempt to stay ahead of the AP critics, reports that it constantly reevaluates and changes its offerings, which are developed by committees of college faculty members and AP teachers.

Since the AP program was initiated (as more than a pilot program) in 1955-56, the research supporting and documenting the academic impact of the instruction in these courses on students has been very limited. Several studies have investigated student and teacher satisfaction with AP courses, and researchers have conducted limited investigations of the educational success of students who have participated in the AP program.

In 2006, a lengthy report was published by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented called Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Programs*: A “Fit” For Gifted Learners?  23 high schools from seven states were chosen for participation in this study. Selected schools represented varied geographic regions and levels of community size, a range of school poverty levels, diverse cultural groups of students in the AP courses and/or IB programs and variations in the scope and services of courses and programs offered to highly-able secondary school students. Within the 23 selected schools, approximately 200 teachers, 300 students, 25 administrators/coordinators and eight counselors participated in classroom observations and interviews. Documents such as teachers’ planning and instructional materials, program literature and communication materials were collected and analyzed over the five year period of the study.

*(For the purpose of this post, I will only be addressing the AP findings—not the IB—from this study, even though the findings proved to be quite similar among both programs.)

Several important themes emerged from this study related to the question of how teachers conceptualize and implement curriculum and instruction for gifted learners in AP classes.  Classroom observation and teacher and student interview data indicated that AP teachers tended to view their students as a homogenous group and, as such, designed curriculum and instruction in accordance with their expectations of the class as a whole, rather than in accordance with expectations and performance of individual students.

Most AP teachers’ decisions about curriculum seemed to follow a similar pattern. Guided by the belief that high school performance on the end-of-course AP exams was the ultimate goal of the course, teachers first and foremost considered what material would be tested and used that to determine course content. Belief in the need for student exposure to the entire curriculum and constrained time limits led to one-size-fits-all curricula with minor modifications when it came to setting the pace at which content was taught in response to the general level of understanding. Teachers considered individual student needs as they arose, particularly when a student seemed to be falling behind, but provided extra work for more advanced students very infrequently. Teachers’ beliefs that AP students were a homogenous group, and that any differentiation of the curriculum for students would entail “dumbing down” the content, led them to make few, if any, provisions for academic diversity in the classroom.

The study found that AP teachers’ instructional decisions were guided primarily by the goal of “covering” a large amount of content by the time the tests were given in early May. As a result, AP teachers tended to choose what they perceived to be the most expedient instructional method—lecture—and to forgo instructional methods they perceived to be more time-intensive (such as experiments, hands-on activities, in-depth investigations, individualized student-led research). The shared belief among AP teachers was that learning equates with exposure to content, not with making meaning out of in-depth consideration of ideas. Multiple studies have delineated that lecture-based learning is among the least successful—or enjoyable—among gifted students who find little opportunity to participate, ask questions or provide content in a lecture format.

While AP teachers in general felt that they had some flexibility in their choice of instructional methods, what is astonishing—at least to me—is the study reports that in NO case were AP teachers observed adjusting their instructional methods to meet the diverse needs of individual learners in their classrooms. It seems that the generally held belief among AP teachers that their students were a purposefully homogenous group of learners left them feeling as though they should not—and ultimately need not– make any modifications to their instructional methods to meet the various learning needs and styles of the students in their classrooms who quite often were left feeling marginalized and onlookers rather than active class members.

The majority of students participating in this study were satisfied with the nature of the curriculum and instruction within these AP courses, perceiving them as challenging and representing the “best” classes offered at their schools. Students seemed to believe that AP courses were the “best” because they were taught by the most experienced teachers, required students to take on the heaviest workload, and were populated by the most advanced students. Most of the students did not question what they were learning, whether or not they found the content interesting or the teachers’ instructional methods. Students believed that the courses would ultimately provide them with benefits in the future—without getting into specifics about WHAT exactly these benefits would/might be. The majority of the students in these AP classes described finding respite from many years of unchallenging, inappropriate and even hostile classroom experiences. Many of these students appreciated the opportunity to work with other advanced students and the highly positive, adult-like relationships with their teachers.

The interview data from students who had dropped out of AP programs told a different story, however.  These students made their decisions to leave the program precisely because they believed that the curriculum, instruction and learning environment of the classes were inappropriate for their individual needs. All of these students indicated that they originally took the courses because they desired greater challenge than that offered in non-AP classes, but that the way the AP courses were taught did not allow them to succeed, feel welcome or learn in the ways they liked to learn.

There are important, significant conclusions from the National Research Center on Gifted and Talented which resonate today; it is still considered to be the critical benchmark for assessing the efficacy of AP curricula for gifted students.  The study concludes that AP courses provide important educational options for students who, by their last years in our nation’s public schools, are clearly starved for challenge, interaction with similarly motivated peers, and relationships with teachers who understand them. One concern, however, that emerged from this study’s findings and has contributed to a growing departure among high schools formerly using AP curricula, is the disturbing picture that AP students’ interview responses painted of the grave mismatch between the curriculum, instruction and learning environments within many AP classes that did not mesh with the needs of gifted learners. Many AP students described educational histories riddled with boredom, uninspiring instruction, and curriculum that did not stretch them. A pervasive sense of relief at being “rescued” from general education—and even some supposed honors classes– by the option to take AP courses was evident in most students’ responses. Clearly, the level of challenge and the learning environments within AP courses are judged more positively by many advanced secondary students than other classroom environments these students have encountered. However, it’s not enough that gifted students find the educational experiences within AP classes to be “better” experiences only in comparison to the other unsatisfying courses available to them.

While AP courses are still prevalent among the majority of United States high schools as the most challenging option for advanced secondary school learners, the NRGTC study suggested numerous ways in which the learning experiences of the students populating AP classes could be enriched, including:

  • Enriching the curriculum and instruction within AP courses by decreasing the breadth of content to be covered within the scope of the courses and increase depth of subject matter
  • Emphasizing the benefit of experiencing genuine challenge over other rewards for taking AP courses that may or may not ultimately be recognized as college credit
  • Provide AP teachers with skills in delivering a differentiated curriculum and using varied instructional strategies to meet the needs of a broad range of gifted students
  • Investigate options for gifted and talented secondary learners beyond AP courses

As with many areas of gifted education, research comparing alternative options for the wide variety of secondary level students who are labeled as gifted or who have the potential to develop as gifted adults is needed when it comes to determining how “best” to challenge, engage and prepare gifted students for the next chapter of their academic experience.

“Really, what colleges are interested in is that a student has taken the most rigorous coursework available,” a self-described AP U.S. History “dropout” teacher told me.  “One more transcript with three more AP courses looks like a thousand other transcripts. A transcript with solid standardized test scores and interesting courses like American Studies or Science Writing, from a good school, with good results by good students helps that student stand out more in the competitive admissions process rather than hindering students.”

Whether via an AP program that allows for more individualized teaching approaches or an honors-level alternative course, the gifted student who is able to flex his/her academic muscles in classes that aim for higher-level analysis and in-depth learning over rote memorization of facts is going to not only be prepared for college, but will continue to soar.

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