Blown Out of Proportion

Recent statistics reveal that there isn’t anything “advanced” about most AP students. In 2009, the Department of Education released statistics showing that the proportion of high-school seniors taking advanced courses has tripled in the past 20 years.

But while the number of students enrolled in these courses has increased, all other measures of achievement — including SAT scores, AP test scores and other national assessments of student progress — have either remained stagnant or declined. The numbers, it seems, speaks to the quantity and not the quality of education. The current system is plagued with an overinflation of course content that produces students who, in the end, are ill equipped to handle the challenges of a university-level education.

According to “The Nation’s Report Card,” a periodic assessment of student progress compiled in 2009 by the U.S. National Center for Education, writing and reading levels of graduating high-school seniors have not changed since 1973, though they are graduating with more advanced credit units.

Students are taking advanced courses that are at times not properly or distinctly labeled and therefore are more advanced than they appear. Many have found themselves encouraged by parents and administrators to take these classes, but the proportion of students achieving passing scores on AP exams has been decreasing.

Course naming varies by school district, with no national standard. A 2008 study of 30 schools in Ohio and Michigan found over 270 unique math course classifications.

A single district even offered 10 unique biology courses, from Basic Biology to Bioscience. Some courses were discovered by the New York Times to be more advanced sounding than they actually were — Algebra I was sometimes relabeled as Algebra II.

The mislabeling represents a blatant oversight on the part of the faculty members and teachers responsible for planning course content. And on a higher level, it’s an oversight on the district’s part, as it’s charged with providing the best possible education to its students — a goal that rampant course inflation severely compromises.

Administrators and parents are both likely culprits. The former want to help students satisfy both high-school graduation requirements and college entrance requirements. Parents have higher expectations of course offerings at schools as competition to get into top universities intensifies.

Discrepancies go beyond having the same class labeled differently between schools — there also appears to be variation in textbook content. A 2008 Michigan State University study analyzed math courses and their adjoining textbooks, discovering that a full 15 percent of the textbooks covered mathematics less advanced than the course title suggested.

According to official AP Reports compiled by the College Board, the number of AP exams administered nearly tripled from 1.2 million to 3.1 million between 2000 and 2010. In the same period, the number of failing scores increased from 36.4 to 42.5 percent. While increased participation in advanced placement programs is laudable in theory, the results suggests that many of the students enrolled are no better prepared for college for it.

Title inflation and a poor quality of education leave college freshmen unprepared. According to a 2006 report from the Secretary of Education’s office, over 90 percent of high school teachers believe that students are prepared for college-level writing, but only 44 percent of college officials agree.

The expectation gap wastes students’ time in pricey remedial classes. A United States Education Commission found that 40 percent of all college students are taking at least one remedial course. UCSD’s retention and graduation rates — 87 percent at two years, and a four-year graduation rate of 56 percent — suggest a lack of preparation as well.

There is, however, a silver lining in this “course overload.” Over the past two decades, participation has risen among minority students and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

College Board Vice-President Trevor Packer argues that although some students are unprepared when they’re placed in advanced classes, they are better off than they would be otherwise. What’s most important is that students who attend schools of subpar quality take the most challenging classes on offer, not that they score a five on the final standardized exam.

The current high school graduation requirements set forth by each state’s Department of Education don’t mandate certain course curricula. But there need to be national guidelines that define core content that should be taught in each course so that both districts and schools have a better understanding of what belongs under specific course titles. That clarification will both curb course title inflation and help to regulate the quality of education.

Districts’ textbook selection processes also require reevaluation. Depending on the location, it is up to the school, district or state to choose certain textbooks for academic departments. But no matter who ends up choosing the textbook, there clearly needs to be more thorough review and assessment to make sure that the textbooks adhere to the required course content.

There is a current lack of accountability at the district, administrative and state government levels, all of which need to have a heavier hand in regulating the way teachers go about presenting course content.

This would, in the long run, lead to both a stronger school system and a class of better prepared college students who would be less prone to the first-year GPA drop that students experience at rigorous institutions like UCSD.

Readers can contact Aleks Levin at [email protected]