Curricular gold?

Over the ten years of Fordham's modern existence, we have panned vigorously for gold--curricular gold.

This quest has mostly disappointed us, as our reviews of state standards have consistently shown that expectations for American primary and secondary students are typically weak and watery.

Worse, at the high-school level, state standards have few teeth. Barely half of U.S. states require high school students to complete exit exams or standardized end-of-course exams, and most states still define high-school graduation requirements in terms of "Carnegie units," i.e. time spent in courses with particular labels that may or may not bear a close relationship to what is actually taught to pupils and expected of them.

We're not alone in saying, "Enough!" The National Governors Association, for one, has declared that "all young people should take a rigorous college-prep curriculum." Federal law calls for students to take a "rigorous high school program of study" to qualify for super-sized Pell Grants in college. But what does "rigorous" mean? "College-prep"? "Honors?" Anything in particular?

Increasingly, people using such terms mean the Advanced Placement (AP) and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) program. These two rapidly growing programs enjoy high esteem in education circles. But is it warranted? Are AP and IB academically sound? Have they resisted the postmodernist silliness that infects so much of the academy? Do their curricular frameworks and tests withstand scrutiny? In short, do AP and IB offer what most, maybe even all, high school graduates should ideally have mastered--and how to know whether they've mastered it?

Fordham's new study, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate: Do they Deserve Gold Star Status?, provides some answers. Authored by Sheila Byrd and other subject-matter experts, it finds that, while not perfect, AP and IB deserve much of the praise they receive.

Sheila's team examined AP and IB offerings in the four core U.S. high-school subjects: English, history, math, and science (biology). The reviewers were generally satisfied with what they found and, in a couple of places, positively pleased. Both biology courses scored As, and the English and history courses secured grades in the B-range. (Fordham followers know that high grades are scarce around here.) Math, on the other hand, fared less well: the IB math course earned a B-, while AP Calculus emerged with a C+.

On the whole, these programs succeed for two reasons. First, they're built atop high academic standards and goals for learning that are clearly delineated for teachers, students, and parents. Their exams are well aligned (and sometimes superior) to their standards, testing students on the content of their courses and considerably more. Students are expected to make sense of complex materials; to write and defend their opinions intelligently; and to apply their knowledge in creative ways. These are all skills that will serve them well in later years--and that should find their way into state standards, too.

Second, these programs are linked with real-world benefits. AP and IB students not only develop knowledge and skills that better prepare them for college, but they can earn college credit (and sometimes college admission) for their efforts--a good motivation to stay with the program.

No, they're not perfect. We spotted some disturbing holes in their content, especially in math and in the English reading lists. Nor can we be certain that these programs will maintain their commendable rigor into the future. The College Board is currently revising its history and science curricula to address criticisms by "progressive" educators. Under the proposed changes, as we understand them, future U.S. history students in the AP program may spend less time studying the names, dates, events, documents, and movements important to our history, and more time talking about such themes as "politics and citizenship" or "continuity and change." Science students may also spend more time on themes (e.g., "science as progress") and on "investigative" learning, and less time on the material and terminology required to work at advanced levels of science.

These decisions are not yet set in stone. You may want to register your concerns now. For if the College Board kowtows to trendy history and science, it is apt to do the same when other courses come up for revision.

And while we're generally happy with AP and IB, we don't believe that every school in the country should rush to embrace them for all students. Successful implementation of these programs depends on the availability of talented, motivated, and well-educated teachers. As long as teacher certification regimes, school-district HR processes, and collective bargaining agreements conspire against the recruitment and development of such teachers at scale, particularly in our neediest schools, then the move to universalize access to the AP and IB programs is fraught with risk.

For now though, AP and IB deserve most of the esteem in which they are held. Parts of the two programs are gold, while others are alloyed with baser education metals. But they're mostly shiny and mostly worthy of emulation. (The Washington Post's Jay Mathews writes about the report here.)

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute