Apodaca: Do we need Advanced Placement?

If you happen to notice that high school students throughout Newport-Mesa are looking even more stressed-out and sleep-deprived than usual, it's probably because they've been undergoing the annual rite of springtime known as AP testing.

And every year at this time, the Advanced Placement-induced stupor leads me to wonder if the benefits of the AP system are enough to outweigh the negatives.

More to the point, is the program really raising education standards and helping students prepare better for college, as intended? Or is it creating a nation of test-taking drones adept at memorizing and regurgitating, but not particularly good at thinking?

This sort of questioning arises periodically, particularly when news breaks that a school has boldly decided to opt out of the AP system, as the private Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica did a few years ago.

Despite these occasional defections, the AP behemoth continues to grow more inextricably intertwined with the standard high school experience. Nonetheless, changes are in the wings that could address some of the concerns about the effectiveness of the program.

I'll get back to that, but first here's a little background: The AP system has been around for several decades, and has been run since 1955 by the New York-based nonprofit, the College Board, which also administers the SAT. The program has grown steadily, and in the past couple of decades has become a regular staple at most high schools.

AP classes are offered in more than 30 subjects — from calculus to art history — but it's up to each school to determine which it will provide. The courses are meant to be academically rigorous and equivalent to an entry-level college class. They culminate with the big AP exams during the first two weeks of May.

Last year, 1.8 million students took 3.2 million AP exams. More than 500,000 graduating seniors had passed at least one AP test; California's class of 2010 had the sixth-highest AP passing rate in the nation.

The standardized tests are scored on a scale of 1 to 5. A grade of 3 is passing; a 5 is the equivalent of an A. Many colleges offer credit for AP exams passed, allowing students to skip some introductory courses, but the treatment of APs varies from college to college.

The College Board offers a compelling argument that AP courses provide students what it calls a "pathway to success," and cites evidence showing that kids who take AP classes in high school perform better in college and are more likely to graduate on time. It's not clear, however, whether those outcomes are more a result of the likelihood that students who tend to take AP classes are those that would do well in college anyway.

The few schools that have chosen to drop AP classes altogether criticize the system for what they see as a "mile wide-inch deep" approach that races through topics without allowing for analysis and critical thinking. They believe the program focuses too rigidly on passing the test, which locks teachers into a rushed timetable and shorts creativity.

I put the AP question to Gordon McNeill, head of Sage Hill School in Newport Coast. Sage is a progressive private high school that prides itself on forging its own path toward academic success, so I guessed it might have at least considered discarding the AP program.

McNeill said the issue has been addressed twice in the school's history, the first time at its founding and again about 18 months ago. Although he shares some of the concerns about the downside to APs, he said that Sage decided to stick with the program because it provides a strong blueprint for many subjects. Another factor was the perception that colleges tend to look favorably on schools with a healthy offering of AP courses.

But he stressed that Sage doesn't "teach to the test," or slavishly adhere to the AP mold. The key to successful education, McNeill believes, is hiring highly skilled, passionate teachers, and giving them freedom to venture outside the box. This formula has resulted in strong AP scores by Sage students, he said.

Despite its flaws, the AP system remains as entrenched as ever. But the good news is that the College Board has indicated that it's listening to the complaints.

Starting with the 2012-13 school year, the College Board will use a revamped curriculum framework for AP biology and U.S. history, with the goal of requiring less rote memorization and providing greater emphasis on big concepts and analytical thinking.

Those changes are part of a sweeping redesign of the entire AP program, to be rolled out over the next several years, which will include detailed standards for each subject, as well as new exams.

Whether remodeling the existing system will address all the problems remains to be seen, but it's an encouraging sign for future high school students, who might not have quite the same bleary-eyed look come May.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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