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Saturday, February 12, 2011

News Roundup - Part One

(I'm having trouble posting tonight so I'm going to break this into a couple of threads.)

Several interesting national stories (one with a familiar focus).

First up, the folks at the College Board, who create and run the Advanced Placement courses, have finally followed through on some long needed reforms of their tests. This article was in the NY Times. (Thanks to Ann for this tip.)

Thirty years ago, Advanced Placement Biology was 36 chapters, 870 pages. Today it is a staggering 56 chapters and 1400 pages. Here's what one teacher in Massachusetts had to say:

“Some of the students look at the book and say, ‘My gosh, it’s just like an encyclopedia,’ ” Mrs. Carlson says. And when new A.P. teachers encounter it, “they almost want to start sobbing.”

But many of the courses, particularly in the sciences and history, have also been criticized for overwhelming students with facts to memorize and then rushing through important topics. Students and educators alike say that biology, with 172,000 test takers this year, is one of the worst offenders.

A.P. teachers have long complained that lingering for an extra 10 or 15 minutes on a topic can be a zero-sum game, squeezing out something else that needs to be covered for the exam. PowerPoint lectures are the rule. The homework wears down many students. And studies show that most schools do the same canned laboratory exercises, providing little sense of the thrill of scientific discovery.

The College Board has revamped AP Biology as well as another giant-killer, AP US History. These changes are to take effect in the 2012-13 school year. Rolling out this year is new curriculum for AP French and German. More revisions are coming for physics, chemistry, European history and world history.

A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like. The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking. In biology, a host of more creative, hands-on experiments are intended to help students think more like scientists.

Word to the wise if you have a high school student:

If Mr. Packer were a high school junior next year, would he take the old A.P. biology or wait till his senior year for the new one? “I would absolutely wait,” he says.

Given the complaints of "an inch deep and a mile wide" about the curriculum, the change is likely to be welcomed. The downside? The need for more lab facilities at many high schools for the hands-on learning required. Luckily, nearly every single Seattle high school has new (or newish) labs.

One other plus to the new curriculum is to slow down the race for taking multiple AP classes in high schools.

But, Mr. Packer says, the College Board supports the idea of schools’ placing limits on the number of A.P. classes students can take.

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