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Audits Reflect Concerns That High School `AP' Courses May Not Pass Muster

May 7, 2007
By JIM FARRELL, Courant Staff Writer

Seniors in Gerry Navarra's advanced placement psychology classes are preparing for high-pressure tests that will determine whether they might be eligible for college credits in the subject.

Navarra, meanwhile, is facing scrutiny of a different sort, as he waits to learn whether the course he has taught for the past four years at Manchester High School is worthy of the prestigious "AP" designation.

"I wouldn't call it insulting, but it was a lot of work," said Navarra, who, along with about 130,000 other teachers nationally, was asked to submit a detailed course syllabus and other documentation to the College Board, which is conducting an audit of AP courses.

The audit was prompted by concerns that some high schools might be labeling classes as advanced placement without following prescribed content or even intending to offer AP exams.

Navarra said he isn't worried, in part because of how well students in his class perform. Last year, for example, more than half the 50 students he taught earned a maximum score of 5 on the AP test.

"But I understand what's behind it," he said of the audit, alluding to the exponential growth of AP courses in the past decade and concurrent concerns about the quality of some classes.

Nationally, students took more than 2 million AP exams last year, about a 10 percent increase from the year before. In Connecticut alone, there were 15,187 AP tests taken last year, compared with 5,248 in 1996.

The rapid growth of AP courses has led to skepticism by college admissions departments, according to Tom Matts, an official with the College Board, which publishes the tests.

"They were absolutely the driver behind the audit," Matts said. "They're seeing all this growth and they're scratching their heads thinking, `How are these AP teachers accommodating all these new students? Are they watering down the curriculum?' They were curious and, indeed, skeptical."

Colleges base admissions decisions in part on transcripts that show student grades and indicate the level of each course taken. AP classes are considered the toughest, followed by honors and college prep.

But admissions decisions are made during a student's senior year, and admissions officials have had no way of knowing whether a student enrolled in what was labeled an AP class would pass or even take the AP exam at the end of the school year.

Exams are scheduled to run from Monday through May 18.

The audit began in January, and teachers must meet a June 1 deadline in order to be sure that their material can be reviewed before the 2007-08 academic year begins in late August.

Matts said 60,000 teachers have submitted syllabuses thus far and 35,000 have been reviewed. If a syllabus is found lacking, the College Board gives a teacher specific feedback and additional chances to resubmit information.

"We've really put a lot of resources behind this," Matts said, noting that AP teachers are welcome to review sample syllabuses for each of the 37 courses offered.

Only 18 teachers who have submitted syllabuses are still working on revisions in order to have their courses authorized.

Matts said he expects a spike in submissions once tests end.

"AP teachers are very, very busy right now," he said.

Those teachers who do not respond or whose syllabuses are found lacking will have to forfeit the AP label on classes next fall.

Casualties could include science classes that have inadequate laboratory facilities. Also, experts have speculated that some teachers may have essentially renamed honors-level classes as advanced placement to make them seem more rigorous.

Matts would not speculate about how many courses would lose the AP designation next year. Initially, the College Board projected that 85 percent of current courses would be authorized, but Matts said he now expects that percentage to be higher.

Sharon Locke, an assistant principal at New Britain High School, said AP teachers at her school were given an internal deadline of April 1 to submit their material. She also said teachers were given plenty of support, including release time from teaching as needed.

"I expect 100 percent to be authorized," she said.

Charlene Senteio, an administrator at Hartford Public High School, also was confident that her school's nine AP courses would pass muster.

The loss of even a few AP courses in Connecticut high schools could spur interest in other college-credit programs, according to Peter M. Prowda, a consultant with the state Department of Education, who cited Connecticut's early college experience program.

About 4,600 state students are enrolled in college classes taught in their high schools by their high school teachers, who have been trained by UConn and are considered adjunct faculty members.

"These are not just college-level courses, these are our college courses," said Jill Thorne, director of the program.

Another 75 teachers are expected to be certified this year, further expanding the program. The courses are accepted for credit at UConn and at many other colleges, Thorne said.

Parents and students welcome opportunities to earn college credits while in high school largely because of the spiraling costs of higher education.

By passing an AP test, which costs $83, or by earning at least a C in a UConn course, which typically costs high-schoolers $75, a student can avoid taking a three-credit college course. At a private college or university, that can mean a savings of $3,000 or more in tuition costs.

"There's very little down side," said Tim Reed, who teaches AP chemistry at East Hartford High School, noting that all 24 students in his class took the AP test last year and just three did not score high enough to be eligible for college credits.

Many teachers cite test scores as proof that their programs are effective. But College Board officials say the audit was deliberately designed not to measure student performance, because such an approach might have led high schools to discourage students from taking AP classes if they seemed less likely to pass the test.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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