apcollegeboardlogo2Every parent wants their child to succeed. Ok, mostly we want to make sure they have what it takes to get out of our house. Those of us who sent our kids to public school rely on the school system to tell us whether they are getting everything they need to achieve our goal – self sufficiency. For years that has meant taking the assigned number of courses in each of the required subject areas, getting good grades in those classes, maybe even taking AP courses and scoring a 5 on the exam. All of these indicators were supposed to show that our children were ready for the academic rigor of college. A study from the Social Science Research Network “How Much Does High School Matter?” (2013), however, casts doubt on whether academic preparation for college in high school was effective at improving college classroom outcomes.

In 2009, the Institute of Education Sciences, a branch of the US Department of Education, conducted a review of college preparation, looking at a wide variety of strategies such as increasing the difficulty of academic standards,  matching course topics to college courses and even taking AP courses. Their findings may stun parents.  None of the methods was found to have a strongly predictive positive impact on college readiness. The impact was actually quite weak.

How weak?

The BEST impact on grades (on a 4.0 scale) for a class on the same topic taken in high school was a 2% improvement on the final grade in the college course.

The more recent study by Gregory Ferenstein and Brad Hershbein examined thousands of student transcripts to answer the question, “How much of high school course content instruction is useful to college-bound students?”   They wrote about their findings for Brookings Institute. SSRN’s own review found that “students with one more year of high school instruction in physics, psychology, economics, or sociology on average have grades in their first college course in the same subject just 0.003 to 0.2 points higher on a four-point scale.”

These results were not limited to US schools. In Canada, where some districts required a 5th year of high school, when that year was dropped there was only a 2% decline in GPA of the 4 year only students.

In attempting to explain these findings Ferenstein suggested, “it is more likely they [students] often learn the wrong things, do not sufficiently focus on the critical thinking commonly needed in college, or simply forget much of what they learned… Students who remember a few basic concepts may hold a head start that quickly diminishes as college classes rush toward advanced material. The little information that is retained from high school may explain the very slight advantage from prior coursework that we observed in our study.”

AP courses and exam scores also showed little correlation to success in college course work. In fact, Ferenstein notes that in 2013, Dartmouth stopped accepting Advanced Placement credits after 90 percent of students who scored a perfect “5” on the AP Psychology exam reportedly failed the university’s own test.  The complaints against the College Board’s AP courses have been growing in recent years. Some elite schools like Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth and Columbia no longer allow students to use AP scores in place of required courses. The courses’ rigid structure and excessively broad focus are very limiting for teachers. Heyden White Rostow, the academic dean for Manhattan’s Brearley School, a girls’ private school, which has resisted adopting Advanced Placement classes since their inception said, “There is very little liberty for the teachers.”

With this new information, David Conley’s, a professor at the University of Oregon and CEO of the Educational Policy Improvement Center, prediction from 3 years ago that few other colleges would follow the lead of the elites in rejecting AP scores may be less likely to hold true.

Ferenstein concludes, “since there appears to be little opportunity cost to forgoing advanced course content mastery–at least as it is commonly taught today–schools could have more freedom to experiment with innovative and experimental courses that may be more useful to students in the long term.”

This is a refreshing statement that begs the question, do we really need Common Core standards, the associated standardized tests and the ever more standardized curricula that come with them to make sure our kids are college and career ready? Don’t all of those give us the same false sense of security that the AP courses/exams did?

Kentucky is six years into the implementation of Common Core and all they have to show for it is declining or stagnant test scores. In fact, the Gates Foundation is so worried about its early adopter poster child that it just gave the KY Department of Education another $8.8m to try to turn things around. The money will go to 12 districts to “support the integration of several critical streams of work – measures of effective teaching, implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and the development of innovative tools and resources to help teachers deliver instruction.”

What would happen if KY went back to giving their teachers freedom to deliver instruction as they felt best met the needs of their students? What if there were things not included in CCSS that were actually better at preparing students for college that are now systematically being ignored? How will we know unless there are some schools somewhere who are still trying those things?

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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