Sunday, February 07, 2016


A Study I’d Like to See

A few weeks ago I attended an orientation for parents for the International Baccalaureate Program at The Boy’s high school.  TB is a bright kid, doing well in honors classes, and the school is offering a “pre-IB” tenth grade program, so I thought I’d check it out.  

The place was packed with a couple hundred Alpha parents, loaded for bear.  

A few administrators and teachers gave presentations on IB, then opened the floor for questions.  More than half of the questions were variations on these:

Do IB courses actually count for credit?
How many credits?
Which credits?
Which schools accept them for credits, instead of just “placement”?

I was the one who asked about the degree to which IB kids felt isolated from the rest of the school.  It was the only non-academic question.  (It was also the one to which TB most wanted to know the answer.)

In the moment, I had two thoughts.  One was that we may have a marketing opportunity for dual enrollment, since transcripted college credit carries weight that IB or AP can’t.  And the other was that in my own case, AP credit only counted for placement.  I didn’t save a dime.

I bring this up because Sunday’s New York Times had a piece about competitive college admissions and some efforts to make them less stressful.  Among other suggestions, it offered:

“[C]olleges should say they’ll value community college courses just like A.P. courses in the admissions assessment.  Even if their high schools offer few A.P.’s, most lower-income kids have access to community colleges.”

Wait, what?

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

I was struck, and confused.  The “should” implies that right now, competitive colleges value simulated college classes over real ones.  Is that actually true?

I can suggest a host of reasons that it shouldn’t be: AP or IB courses stretch a three-credit class of content over a year, where community colleges teach a semester in a semester.  AP and IB come down to a single standardized test; community college courses use multiple assessments, capturing variables like effort over time that don’t show on a test score.  Community colleges are accredited to teach at the college level, with faculty who have master’s degrees or higher in the discipline.  (Exceptions exist in some specific vocational or technical fields, but those are mostly irrelevant in this case.)  Transcripted credit from an accredited institution is supposed to carry some weight; if it doesn’t, we have some much larger questions to ask.

But “shouldn’t” and “isn’t” are not the same thing.  I don’t know how competitive colleges weigh dual enrollment classes, as against AP or IB.  I’m pretty sure the Alpha parents would want to know that before choosing dual enrollment over either.  

Does anyone know, beyond anecdotally?  Has this been studied?

And if the Times’ angle is factually correct, is there any decent reason beyond raging class snobbery?

I have no data, but the NY Times isn't into what colleges actually do—they are too busy feeding the alpha-parent frenzy in the NY area, where it is probably the most extreme in the US.

Community college course probably vary much more than AP courses do. Some community colleges are geared for transfer and are doing fully college-level courses—others are offering really watered-down versions of courses with the same names, but because they do few transfers, no one notices (or cares much). The AP exam provides a uniform measure of course level—something missing from college courses (community college or 4-year).

Here at UCSC we have 2 different physics series (UCSB has 4 physics series) and 4 different calculus series, all of which have somewhat similar catalog descriptions, but they are not interchangeable. It takes very careful comparison to determine which series a particular community college course should articulate to—catalog copy and syllabus is often not enough without examples of the homework and exams.

The AP exams often articulate to the lowest level series, which is good for non-STEM majors, but not of much use to STEM majors. lists the UCSC AP and IB credits: only recently has physics started accepting AP credit, and the Physics C exams require a 5 to get credit for the engineering/physics Physics 5 series, while a 4 or 5 on Calculus BC gives credit on the (non-Honors) calculus track for engineers and physicists (Math 19).

My own son, despite 5s on both the Physics C exams, is retaking physics at UCSB because they would not give credit for any but the lowest level physics series—he is finding the course rather slow-moving and easy, and I've been encouraging him to try for one of the physics-major series, instead of the engineering series that is required for his CS degree.
The College Board is pretty strict about policing the use of its trademarks; a high school can't call its courses "AP" until the College Board determines that the course content and teaching methods meet their guidelines for not diluting the brand. Colleges likely appreciate this consistency.

When I was in high school I took some classes at a local, selective, private 4-year college as a part-time, non-matriculated student (not dual enrollment -- I received no high school credit for these classes). When I went on to attend Fancy-Pants Elite College That You Have Heard of in New England, they wouldn't give me transfer credit. Because they don't give transfer credit. It is not really about the course content. It is about sitting in the same room with members of minor European royal houses and the children of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
I teach both AP Biology at the HS level and majors bio at the college level. In my areas, it's way easier to get credit for my CC course than my AP course...which I think is a little bit ridiculous.

The score well on the AP Biology exam you have to have a far deeper understanding of the content, much sharper analytical science skills, and a better grasp of scientific writing than is required to earn a C in majors bio at most colleges I know of.

Recently I shared a copy of an exam that I give my AP Bio students at a committee meeting of faculty who teach our CC intro bio for majors course...the general reaction was a bit of shock and "our kids can't do this". And it's true.

Please note that I don't intend this anecdote to convey the message that CC students are held to low expectations; I honestly think freshmen at most four year colleges would struggle with the kind of skills expected on the AP Bio exam.
I have argued before, and will repeat here, that AP classes are not even simulated college classes. They go at half speed and students usually get 5.0 grade points even if they fail the class (i.e. get an A in the HS course but fail the AP test) and the college board has fairly lenient standards for what constitutes a good classroom environment (what fraction of its students are serious enough to pass the college exam). Stephen Zucker at Johns Hopkins even wrote an article for the AMS about the problem, and goes to great lengths to get his freshmen calc III students on board after two years spent learning 30 weeks of calculus in high school. You can get links to big parts of it here.

That half-speed aspect of AP classes is what caused Zucker problems when kids suddenly found they had to do hours of HW a week on their own, followed closely by spoon-fed teaching to the test and having to read the book. But I just think it is a waste of time. Why get 1/2 year of credit in one year when you can get 1 year of credit in a year? I would think the Alpha parents would go for it, but they might not like it when junior gets a B or a C instead of an "AP Pass" and a HS GPA boost.

And to be clear, I'll repeat it again: a HS student can fail a dual-enrollment class at a CC or university. I don't think anyone fails an AP class, and they might not even fail the HS part of the dual enrollment class (since I have no idea how that works).

But I also agree with HSBioProf that not all college classes are created equal. Students who transfer into my physics class in mid year from some universities have been known to struggle with the expectations baked in by the first semester, and I have seen a vast range of calculus skills.
As a parent of a college freshman and a high school senior, I prefer dual enrollment. While a good AP class can be an excellent educational experience, dual enrollment offers more. My current college freshman was a full time dual enrollment student her senior year of high school. All classes were taken at our local community college. The content may have been the same as the AP course offered by her high school, but the expectations are different. High school teachers offer extra credit and multiple grading opportunities, whereas most of her college courses were limited to a few tests or papers a semester and a final. Learning that you can't blow off an assignment and expect to make it up later is a valuable lesson. On the college campus, my daughter was treated like any other college student...FERPA rules applied and she (not ME) was responsible for dealing with any issues or problems. She learned how to navigate the administrative parts of college - registering for classes, ordering books, managing drop/add, communicating with professors, etc. As a result, when she went away to her 4 year residential college, she took not only 29 transferable credits, but a whole host of skills that she couldn't have learned in an AP classroom. Dealing with a new city, a new roommate, dorm life and being away from home is a big transition. I was glad she didn't have to learn all the "how to be a college student" skills at the same time.
This is a great question and one that I hope garners greater and more wide-spread discussion. As the parent of a high schooler, I know I've already had to combat his view that AP courses are better than dual enrollment ones - a view driven in no small part by his high school counselor.

Minimally I think the two options should be regarded by universities as equivalent. Both require highly skilled instructors. Both are academically more rigorous than regular high school classes. And in many cases both cover a similar amount of content in a similar amount of time. For example, a high school student could take Early American History and Modern American History as dual enrollment courses, one per term, lasting a combined year in length or he should could take a year-long AP American History course and scoring a 5 on the test thus resulting in most universities granting credit for the two aforementioned college courses.
I don't have the data you're looking for, DD, but I'll weigh into the debate.
Molly, your daughter's experience in dual enrollment sounds great. I live in a state, however, in which dual enrollment is taught almost exclusively in the high schools, by teachers who do not need a master's degree. For some courses there is a common final; others, not so much. The high school teachers teaching dual enrollment generally provide extra credit and all of the "cushion" that other respondents have suggested are part of AP. The best part, though, is that there is no requirement that the HS grade and the college grade be the same, so you can have a student with a C- in the college class and an A in the HS class.
So it really depends on what dual enrollment looks like where you live. I worry that too much dual enrollment exists not to give students a taste of college (which, research has shown, makes under-represented students more likely to attend and persist in college), but to fuel the alpha parent race AND to get "generals out of the way." Because why would we want to emphasize education?
When I applied to college (late 1990's) with a non-typical background, college classes counted for level. If you had more than some number (I think 12) hours of college credit (I did), you could not apply as a freshman; you had to apply as a transfer student at all the SLAC's I applied to. And transfer admission meant that you couldn't compete for most merit scholarships, and had far worse odds of admission than the same credentials would have given you as a freshman.

Anecdotally: I've always heard that AP/IB receive heavier weighting than DE in admissions. This is information I seek out whenever available from 1st hand sources.

I'm not surprised, I've attended two community colleges over my lifetime and I have an MS in Mathematics. I can tell you math, even calculus, at the CC level is much easier than AP calculus. I took pre-calculus, trig and calculus 1 through my high school DE program on a community college campus. We knew calculus was vastly easier than the course our peers at the high school took (AP Calculus). In fact is was so much easier (not to say easy) I decided to take calculus 1 again at the state flagship university I went to the following year. It was SO MUCH harder, I was very happy with my choice! I teach AP calculus now and I can tell you that class is every bit as thorough as the calculus course offered at "state flagship university". I don't know if this is still true, it's been a long time but the perception is still out there. Community College courses are not equivalent to university courses. If you want perceptions to change you'll have to actively attack that assumption. AP offers consistency or the appearance of such, which is better than you can offer at a community college.
I teach AP calculus now and I can tell you that class is every bit as thorough as the calculus course offered at "state flagship university".

This echos my experience with AP Biology.

AP offers consistency or the appearance of such, which is better than you can offer at a community college.

To those who suggest that some AP teachers give too much extra credit or inflate grades, I'll remind you that college's aren't evaluating the grade a student got in the class, but the grade on the exam. It's very difficult to game the exams (I would argue near impossible with the new revisions made to the science exams) without learning at least what you would have learned in the equivalent from a good four year school.

To CCPhysicist's criticism about AP spreading a semester course over a full school year, that's only true for some courses. Many of the most popular courses (AP Bio, Chem, BC Calculus) cover a year's worth of content.

And finally, I'll argue that since my AP class is all HS students, I can explicitly teach them how to be college students and ease them into the work and skills required during the first couple chapters; this, I feel, leads to a higher success rate. Many of my CC Bio majors get in over their heads early in the semester because no one has ever taught them how to be a college science student.
In response to the people writing that CC courses are not as uniform and reliable as AP courses: Why not have the student enroll in the CC course, then take the AP exam? The college board doesn't require you to be enrolled in an AP course to take their exam, and the exam score would provide reasonable confidence that the CC was teaching a serious course.
All politics are local, and all course quality issues are local. In fact, they are instructor dependent, even within the same college or university. That is why some people will report that their CC classes were harder, and prepared them better, than the classes at some particular university, and vice versa. Ten years earlier or later and it might be the other way around. Each institution puts pressure on its instructors to improve retention, and whether by hook or by crook is usually not measured. The advantage of AP is that it is standardized. The question at the school level is whether every student is held to those standards, thereby creating a rich learning environment.

But unless every student takes BC without taking AB, everything Zucker writes about the transition to a university class remains true. AP calculus students are not a lock to pass calc II at my CC.

What CFox writes at 8:05 AM concerns me a lot. That college should be reported to its accreditation organization for using unqualified instructors. Most of our DE classes are taught on campus, but the ones taught in the HS are taught by qualified faculty. Some are our own adjuncts, while others are teachers who have a masters and the same 18 grad hours in the field that everyone has who teaches that class.
My experience with dual enrollment matches what CCPhysicist writes. While some DE involves HS students sitting in on CC classes, our most popular version involves courses taught after school at the HS. Most of them are taught by HS faculty that must go through the same exact hiring process that our adjuncts go through, including the masters requirement (my state requires tenured HS teachers to have a masters and some grad credits in their discipline so there is no shortage of HS teachers who qualify to teach at our CC). When we can't find a qualified HS teacher, we hire an adjunct or pay a professor overload.

One disadvantage to our DE program is that the courses available onsite at the HS are limited. While there are some minimum requirements for HS to take DE, we don't offer anything whose pre-req is the completion of the developmental sequence. Hence, my HS students can't take intro bio for majors through DE, so AP is their best bet to see what a REAL college science class is like. I have taught a nonmajor bio elective through DE, but those of us in the sciences know that it is a very different beast than a majors course.
Those last comments are interesting.

We do offer DE classes that require completing developmental sequences (in fact, those are most of what we teach at the high schools) but we don't teach developmental classes to HS students. That is the high school's job. Students still in HS have to pass our placement test to be considered for ANY dual enrolled college classes.

As a result, we definitely teach "majors" classes to dual enrolled students, but those are all taught on the main campus. Those students are immersed in college like Molly talked about in the 5th comment from the top. Just to show what is possible with really talented home school or HS students, the top end would be students who complete three semesters of calculus, two of physics, two of chemistry, and maybe some biology before graduating from HS.
Down here, parents use AP and IB as a filter to select the school and peer-group. Once their kid is accepted into the program they can remain at the school (rather than the crappy local school) and they either drop out or just coast not bothering with the exams. As the AP exam counts nothing for the HS credit (and as the extra AP material can't legally count for the HS grade) this makes the AP courses a bit of a joke. Some kids plan on taking the exam, but most don't and it shows in their attitude and work habits.
At our college, classes taken at a community college are preferred, AP classes second, and dual enrollment classes a reluctant third--- they are almost always taken at the high school and vary widely in quality. We are mandated by the state to accept them at face value, and are beginning to have a problem with students accepted with a lot of dual enrollment classes failing the classes they are placed into once at college, but not being given the option of retaking classes they took as dual enrollment.
The former IB Physics teacher in me feels compelled to point out two things: 1. Unlike AP (at least when I took them) IB diploma course grades are NOT based only on the "external" exams at the end of the course. They also incorporate grades of more performance-based skills (in science, independently designing, executing, and evaluating an investigation) that are "internally" evaluated by the classroom teacher using IB rubrics (and externally calibrated between schools through "moderation" - rescoring a randomly selected subset of each teacher's students). 2. My IB Physics class covered most topics I studied in my undergraduate Physics major at an R1 university, although with less depth, and no calculus required (the same limitation AP physics tends to face). It was VERY challenging.
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