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A Smorgasbord Of Material

GENERIC: arithmetic blackboard education school test
AP
Accelerated high school courses in math and science cover a "smorgasbord" of material too quickly and superficially, sacrificing students' in-depth understanding of a few important topics, a new government study said.

The study, by the National Academies of Science and Engineering, took two years to look at the College Board's Advanced Placement math and science courses, which are taken each year by thousands of high school students for college credit. The study also looked at the International Baccalaureate courses, offered by a separate organization of the same name.

"The primary aim of programs such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate should be to help students achieve deep understanding of the content and unifying ideas of a science or math discipline," said Jerry P. Gollub, a physics professor at Haverford College and a leader of the committee that looked at the courses.

He said the Advanced Placement chemistry course, for instance, should afford students not just an understanding of atoms, but should give them a chance to "experiment, critically analyze information, argue about ideas, and solve problems," he said. "Simply exposing students to advanced material or duplicating college courses is not by itself a satisfactory goal."

The committee also said schools should make such courses available to more minority students and those in rural and inner-city schools.

The study, released Thursday, looked at Advanced Placement in chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics. It said the courses' tendency to cover an "excessive" number of topics sacrifices hands-on, practical lessons. While covering so much material quickly may be appropriate for college-level work, the study said, younger high school students often learn best through problem solving and discussion, not rote memorization of facts.

The study also said the New York-based College Board and the International Baccalaureate Organization, located in Geneva, Switzerland, should give more training to Advanced Placement teachers, many of whom aren't qualified to teach the advanced courses.

It also said schools should begin preparing students for such courses as early as junior high school, since many students come to them without having taken required preparatory courses.

College Board spokeswoman Chiara Coletti, who had seen a summary of the study, said the organization agrees with most of its recommendations, but said the College Board has already begun changing courses, such as calculus, to make them more in-depth.

"We're in agreement in much that they say, and have shared some of those opinions long before they were doing the study," she said.

She said much of the problem stems from colleges' requirements for incoming freshmen.

"First-year courses in those subjects tend to be rather broad, and we do have an obligation to reflect what is taught in college," she said.

Coletti added, "We believe that discussion can go on, and much discusion does go on all the time about the AP courses and the tests. We would not have a problem with adding depth over breadth."

Coletti also said the College Board has long tried to increase the number of low-income students taking the courses, more than tripling such figures since 1992.

The advanced courses, first developed in 1955, are the most prevalent high school courses for accelerated students. There are 11 courses in math and science alone.

Originally offered only to a few students, the courses are now offered in about 62 percent of high schools.


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