Sink or Swim in the AP Classroom?

I recently got the following comment from one of my subscribers:

I am curious what your thoughts are on assessments in AP classes. Some teachers feel that if they are going to teach the class as an AP class then they will only test 3-5 times and that is it. No quizzes or reinforcement between … just be a college student and sink or swim. Other teachers believe that if they are going to teach with an open enrollment, then they need to help those weaker students with plenty of assessing and reflection on their abilities. How often and what type of assessing do you think is important for student success in AP classes? I know teachers who have open enrollment but yet reach most of the students in helping them be successful. Others see them as sinkers or swimmers and then are upset when their scores are low, yet these weaker students struggle throughout the year.

I am now going to express my personal opinion based on twenty-three years of AP teaching experience to an inclusive and diverse student population where I also achieved high scores. Many folks will disagree with me, as is their right. We can all have different philosophies and still have good programs. I PERSONALLY believe that the great beauty of the AP program is that we teach COLLEGE-LEVEL CONTENT in the MORE SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT AND STYLE OF THE HIGH SCHOOL. While the students are tackling college-level material, they are not yet college students. This is especially true for AP courses taught to sophomores and juniors. Even seniors at the beginning of the school year are not there yet. I start the year off (I do teach a senior level course) with much more support and opportunities for redemption, but by the end of the year, have greater expectations that students can function more like college students. To that end, I do assess pretty frequently and allow for second chances. I give my students pop quizzes over basic knowledge like the unit circle and derivative rules, maybe as many as a dozen in a grading period and then drop several of the lowest of those. I give section quizzes maybe once every week and allow students to correct those to a passing grade or earn five points back if they passed it initially. If a student blows a major test, they MIGHT have the opportunity to re-take it. None of these are common practices in our area universities. I do point out to students when my classroom practices are different from those they should expect in college. The fact is that I want to hold the kids responsible for learning the material. If they don’t learn it on the first go round, I expect them to keep at it until they do achieve mastery and I want them to know that I will continue to work with them and to hold them to a high standard. Simply letting them fail would be the easier route for them and for me. If I see someone drowning, I believe in throwing them a life preserver and then demanding that they take swimming lessons.

The subscriber continues:
Also, on that note, how and at what point do you suggest students drop an AP course if they are struggling. If there is a drop period then how would you suggest identifying those students who will not or do not want to perform at the level expected?

The issue of dropping an AP course is pretty tricky. Each case is very individual and many factors should be considered. My class is not required for graduation so if a student ends up failing, it’s not a tragedy. It is often a valuable lesson learned that they need to work harder if they hope to succeed in college level studies. If a student lacks the mathematical foundation necessary to succeed in the class, I might recommend that they retreat to a previous course and shore up their foundation. I would also look into our curriculum and insure that what I am expecting of students is actually being taught at the appropriate level in our feeder courses. On the other hand, there are AP teachers who are too quick to drop a student because they lack some skill that the teachers have deemed essential. “This student cannot factor! How can they be successful in calculus?” is a frequent lament. I have already identified students this year who are not factoring correctly or who don’t know unit circle or whatever. In the high school, I believe that I have the time and inclination to remediate these deficiencies much more so than a college instructor can. I tell the student, “You should have learned to factor in Algebra 2. Since you didn’t, you need to come to my tutorial time so we can work on this skill.” I’m not letting the kid out of my class that easily. When students end up dropping my class (a rare event), it is more often because of personal issues. They might have to work 30 hours a week to support family and have three other AP classes more closely aligned to their intended major. They do not have the time necessary to devote to my class. I try very hard to balance compassionate understanding with high standards and teaching students resilience and perseverance.

As always, thank you for reading and keep the comments coming!


One Response to “Sink or Swim in the AP Classroom?”

  1. Trevor Gallant Says:

    I completely agree that we should be trying to give our students university level experience in the supportive atmosphere of the high school classroom. We have to remind ourselves that these are 16-17 year old students who are keen and willing to face the challenge of AP courses. It would be a shame to not afford these kids as many chances for success as we possibly can. Let’s remember that we teach AP because we love the subject – not because we want to be make our class tough.

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