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Rethinking Advanced Placement

2011 February 13
by Hélène Martin

The New York Times had an article a while back titled “Rethinking Advanced Placement.”  The article describes ballooning topic lists that encourage teachers to lecture endlessly and leave students burned out after hours and hours of homework and memorization.  Particular offenders are biology and U.S. history, both courses and exams that I took as a high school junior.  I’ll agree that both had a lot of breadth without much depth and that they could benefit from some paring down with greater focus on applications rather than straight memorization.  At the same time, a strong factual base is very important for application so I hope that won’t be entirely lost.

I think computer science needs to be careful in its own rethinking of AP courses not to go in exactly the opposite direction that these courses are going in.  The current AP Computer Science A exam has a very tight focus around programming and allows teachers time to cover each concept in depth.  Students leave the class with deep problem-solving skills and many hands-on projects to show off.  After all, the only way to learn programming is by doing it.  While there is memorization around the peculiarities of the Java OO model, APCS is a skill-oriented exam that gives students an opportunity to show off their algorithmic thinking abilities.

As we move away from a programming focus, there are thousands of different computer science related directions to go in.  Both for students’ and teachers’ sakes, I hope we can avoid the breadth trap APUSHistory and APBio fell in.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Kyle Gillette permalink
    February 15, 2011

    Well said!

    With the demise of the CS AB exam and the importance so many schools place on AP, the Collegeboard has shown how much influence it has in shaping secondary curriculum.

    AP exams are supposed to reflect typical freshman college classes. I hope that this exam does that and that the colleges have gotten it right. AP CS cannot afford another black eye.

  2. February 26, 2011

    I happened to see one of my students studying for AP Bio the other day and I was blown away by how much memorization was involved. I’m not talking about just a large technical vocabulary for describing the mechanisms of DNA transcription and other cell bio processes, but also a huge number of specific organism names.

    My major concern with the proposed CS Principles course is that there aren’t any or many colleges/universities that offer comparable courses (maybe an Intro for Non-majors at best). That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be offering a course like Dan Garcia’s CS10 at UC Berkeley, but I’m concerned that since they aren’t, it’s going to be difficult for students to get credit for a 5on the Principles exam — whatever it turns out to be.

    • Hélène Martin permalink*
      February 26, 2011

      Every once in a while I see some kind of sea creature and my mind gets overtaken by ‘porifera’ and ‘parazoa’ and I panic for a moment before realizing that it’s probably ok that I’ve forgotten the difference between a phylum and a subkingdom… oh, AP Bio.

      Agreed that there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem with the new course.

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