Tuesday, December 05, 2006

AP Credits and Frustration

I had a conference with a student in my upper level class earlier this term about her essay, which earned an F. She was shocked by the grade. I was equally shocked by the essay. It was creative, but it wasn't an essay, really. It didn't make a point, or work with the text, or work through a process of thinking.

I asked the student about her writing practices, and she gave me the stare of doom. So I asked her if she'd taken our first year writing class. No, she told me, she'd taken an on-line course in high school last year and transfered it in.

There are two problems here. First, what's a first semester, first year student doing in an upper level course? Bad advising, I'm guessing? And second, what did she learn in that on-line writing course?

It's the second I'm thinking about today, because I'm looking at the transcript of a new lit major advisee who's come in with all sorts of college credits taken while in high school. I see a fair number of students with additional credits; I'm guessing it's not all that unusual.

I think there's a big difference between high school and college level learning; a lot of that difference has to do with the difference between absorbing factoids and learning why people think something is or isn't a factoid, or should or shouldn't be practiced. I want college level students to be able to justify their thinking, and given my field, they need to be able to justify it in writing and orally.

That's a huge transition from high school learning, which is far more absorbing factoids and learning skills (math skills, for example). We read and talk about the differences in my first year writing course, and students seem to begin to recognize how the differences play out in their work in various classes.

The problem is that the AP type courses that students transfer in don't seem to push them to a college level of learning, and so they're basically telling students that they've had a college experience without giving it to them. That's bad enough at a public high school. Even worse, the on-line course my student took charged good money for those credits.

It seems to diminish their real college experience, yet they don't recognize that until they've been in college level courses for a while.

I wonder if they're taking these courses because the public school classes are generally uninteresting, and AP somehow makes them palatable? Or are they under some pressure thinking they're going to be competing wildly for placement in a college or university?

(Because, really, unless they're aiming for an ivy league school, the competition seems hyped rather than real. Certainly we accept about half our applicants, and about half of those choose not to come, presumably because they got in somewhere else they prefer. But colleges and universities work HARD to get more applications--even from very unqualified students--so that they can show how selective they are. But this is a rant for another time.)

On average, what kinds of experiences do you see your students from AP classes having? Are they better or differently prepared for college learning? Do they actually seem to have had a college level learning experience?

(I'm especially interested in lit experiences. It seems that my students are all basically taught that the only way to read is to identify with the protagonist. That means male students are basically taught that they shouldn't bother with books about females, and female students are taught that they should learn to identify with male characters, because, hey, male experience is human experience. Isn't there more to reading than that?)


  1. I think it is about looking competitive for college/university, even one who is going to select you anyway*.
    I also get the impression that it's an attempt to finish college in four years. "My" university requires 120 credits for undergraduates -- with a recommended load of only 12 credits a semester. Getting some of those first-year classes out of the way with AP credits frees up time to study/work/groom oneself for after-college (either business or grad school)/get drunk & party without failing out/etc.

    *I'm predicting that I am going to agree with every word of your "selective" rant. Drives me almost as nuts as... well, drives me nuts.

  2. Honestly, the best comments I can give about this come from my own experience of having done AP lit in high school. While I know some of my students did AP, I tend not to know who they are or to be able to distinguish them from the masses of students who have not.

    Anyway, all of that said, I think the whole "identification" as interpretation school of literary criticism has less to do with AP than it does to do with 1) students being at a certain point in their development as readers and 2) with a lot of cultural messages that this is what it is to "read" (Oprah's Book Club, to name just one example, but also the impetus toward "representative" authors in literature courses not only in high school but in college).

    I don't think students should be able to test entirely out of a first-year English requirement with AP, mainly because I do think it's a huge part of the first-year experience and in acclimating to college-level expectations (including, especially, managing one's own time). Although I got AP credit for literature, that credit counted for an intro. to. lit. course which did not fulfill a core requirement - I still had to take a freshmen honors colloquium with a writing component.

  3. There is absolutely more to reading than that, but it can be difficult to get that across in a high school setting. So many HS English teachers - and yes, I'm generalizing, but then again, I used to be one - defer to a reader response approach in literature study, thinking that students will be more likely to engage in the class if they can somehow identify with the book. The problem, as you point out, is that the identification often splits along gender lines when there are so many other identifiable things going on: the situation, the setting, the emotions, the supporting cast. It can be a very superficial way to approach literature and, since it's by far the most common approach, students enter college lit study rather unprepared for the "deeper" study required of them.

  4. I'll comment on the less complicated part of your question, leaving aside why students seem to need to identify with the protagonist (because one of my students, probably one with AP credit, gave me a cold). I think the AP credit thing is mostly economics. I advise students at a moderately selective private university & I'm always happy--well, one part of me is--when I see a student with some AP or college credit because it gives me more flexibility in helping the student find courses, do minors or double majors, that sort of thing. On the other hand, you do identify a real problem. I have a student this semester--representative of many over the years--who took AP English & learned a bunch of stuff that's just wrong. Fortunately, he's smart & is making the transition well; some have to be dragged kicking & screaming into college-level thinking & writing.

    Certainly, your student should never have been registered in an upper-division course. Bad advising. At my school, by the way, we consider our Freshman Seminar so integral to the Clarkson Experience (capital E & imaginary scare quotes) that we'll usually give a student the credits for an AP course, but make them take our course as well.

  5. I came from a very rigorous (private) high school in which AP courses really helped me feel prepared for college. We were looking to have a young over-motivated college professor as our instructor so the class really was college level in a lot of ways. I did well in my first literature courses, but I can definitely say that the critical eye I had on literature was not taught. My perspective and my willingness to interrogate texts came from my position as the only student of color in the classroom. That doesn't mean I was always "harping on" race or gender, but I did gain the ability over years to read texts closely for multiple voices and possibilities.

    My department now has an issue with students transferring in credits for our 200 level intro course for majors and it is very frustrating because they are clearly not prepared. I also have a number of juniors and seniors who have managed to avoid writing classes since high school and it shows.

  6. Anonymous6:43 AM

    Having graded AP essays before, and having been married to a high school AP teacher of six married (the teaching is over, not the marriage), I can make a few claims with a fair amount of confidence.

    1) Not all AP classes are created equal. High Schools, in the name of rating and performance metrics, have been strongly encouraged to open up AP classes to anyone who wants to take them, and over time, this means that there's nothing particularly advanced about them--teachers teach the students they have more than they tech the material, and when about a quarter of the students in an AP class are actually academically prepared for those classes, the teachers have to engage the students where they are, which is not alway (or even often) at the college level.

    2) the AP test, especially the writing test, does not measure college level work. Having spent some time grading essays for the College Board, I know that yes, the scores do generally stratify writing aptitudes in reliable ways, but only based on what a student can do in a very limited amount of time, and under a lot of pressure. So if a student can write a very good timed five-paragraph essay in a shrot time, well great, here's your 5. But the problem is that in my writing and lit classes, I assign virtually no timed five paragraph essays--because it's not college level work!. I am a strong advocate of not accepting any writing credits except for from other institutions where the curriculum has been vetted, either by portfolio review, or at least by looking at the catalogue copy and a sample syllabus. These skills are too important to pass off on an unknown, unknowable, or (in the case of AP), a known-to-be insufficient writing curriculum.

    Bu8t Joseph's right. There's a lot of money on the line here, especially for the College Board.

    Sorry for the long comment...this issue gets me riled up.

  7. Anonymous6:49 AM

    As someone who is both a college prof and a long-time reader of AP exams (in history, though, not lit), I think I can clarify something about AP. The program has clear guidelines for what students should learn, and those guidelines are set in part by college faculty. The goal is that the course will truly be as close to an equivalent of the college course as possible. That said, there is no mandate that high school teachers who teach AP courses be *trained* in how to do so, and at many schools, teachers are assigned to teach AP classes, whether they want to or not! Ludicrous, I know! So while for some students, AP courses don't help much, for others, it can be a real help in developing critical thinking and writing skills. At the elite SLAC I teach at, almost every student has done several AP courses, but they also tend to come from very strong school systems, so it is hard to say how much effect AP has. Of course, this whole issue is linked to school quality, class sizes, money, and all the other bugaboos of public education, and I've highjacked your comments enough!

  8. Anonymous7:39 AM

    Like Dr. Crazy, I can comment from my own experience as an AP student. I took AP courses in great part out of pride -- good student, should take the hard stuff. For me, using the AP tests to get college credit was a totally stupid thing to do. It didn't save me any time or money, and it DID mean that I didn't take classes in the subjects I liked and was good at!

    As I look through applications to our undergraduate honors program now, I find myself looking at the list of AP courses the kids' HSs offer and the number they have taken. I seem to consider it as an indicator of their willingness to dig in. Of course, if they take every darn one, I think, "Brownnoser."

    Another thing I see with the honors students who come in with 30 credits already is that they want to rush through their undergraduate experiences. Finish in 3 yr so they can get on to med or pharm or PT or law...instead of taking the extra year to learn and grow a little more. We're a relatively inexpensive state u, so it's not like the extra year would cost 40K.

    So I guess, along with most of the commentors here, I'm really not such a fan of AP.