Since we are in the middle of AP testing for this year, it is timely that Hoagies’ Gifted has just posted Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska’s keynote speech from August 2000: The Role of Advanced Placement in Talent Development.
In this speech to teachers of Advanced Placement courses, Dr. VanTassel-Baska argues that AP courses are critical for gifted students, as a means of differentiating instruction for them. She said things like
In the late 1970’s gifted students reported AP to be the most beneficial program taken during their high school years. This perception has not changed appreciably over the intervening decades (Kolitch & Brody, 1992).
Of course, since she gave the talk in 2000, there has been a big push to get more students into AP courses, so that many of the courses are no longer all that suited for gifted kids. Even at that time, she pointed out
One issue that Advanced Placement teachers need to be aware of is the different levels of aptitude for a particular AP course. The range of ability in AP classes is typically very great. Even if all students were identified as gifted, the range would be as broad as in heterogeneous classes. Such differences in aptitude level require more attention to addressing individual needs. Because AP course work probes depth of understanding, it tends to reveal greater disparity in student learning. Level of aptitude may predict how much material students can handle well, how capable they are to work independently, and how strong they are conceptually with the material. Use of various forms of flexible grouping for in-class work may be an antidote to this problem. Organizing sections of AP by ability levels may also be useful in subjects where enrollments are sufficiently high.
The trend to lower the barrier to entry for AP courses over the last decade has made this problem worse. The teaching strategies that are most effective for the bottom half of a current AP course may be quite unsuitable for the kids in the top quarter, who don’t need many routine practice problems, but rather a smaller number of more challenging questions that stretch their minds.
While AP courses may still be the best option available to most gifted high school students, many need to look elsewhere for teaching at their level. Community college courses sometimes provide this, though that varies enormously, as many community college courses are intended to remediate inadequate high school preparation for college, and may be taught in an even less suitable way for gifted students than AP courses.
Sometimes sufficient challenge can be found by skipping prereqs—the review built into the beginning of most courses can serve as a fast-paced introduction to the material for a gifted student. This is essentially what we did by teaching my son a course that covers AP Physics C: Mechanics, with no previous physics courses. He had picked up almost everything from a conceptual physics course by reading various popular books about physics, and his math was strong enough that he did not need the crutch of algebra-based physics, but could jump right into calculus-based physics. (Actually, I think that calculus-based physics is somewhat easier, if you have the math, since there are fewer formulas to memorize—a lot can be trivially rederived from the definitions of force as the derivative of momentum with respect to time and of potential energy with respect to displacement, for example.)
I think that one problem with AP classes as a primary means of teaching gifted high school students is an extension of a common problem in gifted education in lower grades: what the students need is work that is more complex and sophisticated, not more work. Too many AP courses pile on drudgery, in the mistaken belief that this makes them more like college courses. (See my analysis in How many AP courses are too many?) This overload of marginally useful work prevents them from taking on more independent, non-curricular projects (like science fair, debate, theater, or internships) from which they would actually learn more.
I’m not saying that I think that AP courses are a bad idea, nor that gifted students should avoid them. There are times when an AP course is precisely what a gifted student needs and other times when it is the best available choice. Taking AP courses is one of many ways for gifted students to learn, just not always the best way.