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2012 May 13

Advanced Placement for talent development

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:15
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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.


  1. One problem with AP courses/exams is that there becomes a limit on the number of courses you can take because AP courses are supposed to be introductory college level. The foreign language courses cover the first 2 years of college level material; the others basically cover 1-2 semesters of college material. It’s crazy to think that gifted students will be happy spending 4 years doing material at the intro college level (especially if, as you point out, it’s far more work than the equivalent college course).

    Regular students who meet the ACT score cutoffs (around 19) can dual enroll here beginning in their junior year of high school. So AP courses are only advanced to the extent that they are offered before the junior year of high school or available to students who can’t arrange transportation to the community college course.

    (Around here, community college remedial classes are remedial. Non-remedial classes aren’t. Lots of kids from the state flagship come to take community college classes in a smaller class with English speaking professors who are paid for teaching, not research.)

    Comment by Jo in OKC — 2012 May 13 @ 16:30 | Reply

    • My son (a 10th grader) has taken a couple of Spanish classes at the local community college. They were comparable in quality to the Spanish classes he took at a private school in 7th and 8th grade, and superior to what the public high school offers. For language classes, it isn’t clear to me that college courses are better than high school courses—taking more time is probably better for language learning (as long as grammar and vocabulary are presented at a reasonable rate and level—the public high school here was almost a full year behind the private schools).

      I know a student who started taking community college courses in 8th (or was it 7th?) grade. He got a paper published in Concord Review (which is intended for high school papers) as an 8th grader taking a college class. His history classes at the community college were probably better than AP history at the high school, but may not have been quite the level he would have gotten at a first-rank university. But he’s going to a top college next year, and so will have a chance to compare his 5 years of community college classes with a top 4-year college.

      Even non-remedial classes at community college are often presented at a rather low level, with the assumption that the students are struggling with the material. For example, I know that a student can get through the math series through multi-variable calculus at the local community college without ever seeing e^{i\omega} = \cos \omega+ i \sin\omega, something that is covered in the Art of Problem Solving Precalculus book and class. So racing through the community college math series misses some of the most beautiful and useful math, which is more likely to be covered in courses intended for people who are likely to become mathematicians.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 May 13 @ 20:25 | Reply

      • I hear all sorts of stories from other states about kids starting community college at a young age. It’s pretty much impossible in Oklahoma unless you’re radically accelerated in a public school (if you’re a junior and NOT homeschooled and meet the test scores, then they have to take you). We know a Davidson family that tried to get early admission and Davidson couldn’t even get them access.

        Your math example is why we’ve always done acceleration plus additional breadth. My d, by the way, says she’s seen that equation in an AoPS class (she took their old Intermediate Algebra class, which is similar to their current pre-calc class), at MathCamp, and in 3 classes (Modern Physics, Electrical Circuits, and Differential Equations) at her boarding school. My d didn’t take the local school’s pre-calc, so I’m really not sure what they cover.

        I don’t think that the community college is presenting stuff at a lower level than the state flagship (although the community college is limited to only offering classes for freshmen and sophomores). The state flagship doesn’t really separate its math majors out from other STEM majors until after the whole Calculus sequence. Discrete Structures is their “bridge” course to upper level math that includes proofs. In general, it’s not the same as taking class at one of the top universities in the nation, but there’s not one of those for hundreds of miles.

        Comment by Jo in OKC — 2012 May 13 @ 21:27 | Reply

        • I would expect the e^{i \omega} formula to come up in almost any high-level continuous math class (certainly in EE), and so I was surprised that one could finish multi-variable calculus without ever seeing it. But community college classes are sometimes stripped to bare bones essentials. It is difficult to know whether a particular course is going to be a thorough one or a minimal one—it depends on the both the school and the instructor.

          We have one of the top-100 universities actually closer than the nearest community college, so for us it is a tough decision whether to send our son to community college classes, university classes, or home school. This year we used the community college for Spanish since it seemed like very good value for money (there are a number of native speakers in his conversation class, for example). We used AoPS for math (again, very good value for money), a local kids’ theater organization for theater, the home-school umbrella for one semester of English, and home schooled the rest.

          Next year I don’t know what our mix will be. Probably home schooling physics, history, robotics, and English. Computer science will probably be partly homeschool and partly university. Math may be AoPS or may be university. Almost certainly community college for Spanish.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 May 13 @ 21:47 | Reply

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