AP TESTS: Boon or Bane?


The 2018 AP scores have recently been released and students across the country have eagerly been checking their College Board accounts and hoping that their hard work will have paid off in a score that will earn them college credit.

For less than a $100 per test (and lots of effort), a student can sometimes earn 3 or more credit hours of college credit, saving themselves and their parents hundreds of dollars. More importantly, they often enter college with a sense of mastery and confidence that is likely to have significant benefit for their future college success. Even those that do not “pass” the test and earn college credit will likely benefit from having taken a challenging course and learned about the work ethic and their own study habits that they can then use to make changes before they enter college.

Still, there are many critics of the AP Program, who believe the courses provide little academic benefit and cause undue stress on the students.

For an excellent critique of the AP program, based on an analysis of the available research, please check out Stanford University’s Challenge Success program and their white paper, “The Advanced Placement Program: Living Up To It’s Promise?”

It should be noted that their analysis is now five years old and would benefit from an update. Additionally, it should be noted that in my opinion there is not a lot of quality peer-reviewed research on the AP Testing program and outcomes. Still, this white paper is a good starting point and raises pertinent issues.  I would love to see College Board collaborate with a group of independent researchers to really dig into the data.

I also think the questions raised in the white paper about the program might be helpful from a policy point of view, but if you are a parent interested in helping your child, or an educator looking to start a new AP class at your school, the white paper has less value.

I agree that AP courses are not the solution for all that ails the education system, nor is it appropriate that every student takes an AP class in order to be successful in college or life.

But in an age when college expenses are making access to higher education increasingly out of reach for many families, the chance to reduce those costs through placing out of introductory classes or earning actual college credit itself is a true benefit for many families.

Another benefit is that the courses generally are of a higher rigor than one would ordinarily get a high school course, and although this varies from school to school, for many students taking the rigorous course and being successful in it can be a confidence booster.

Still, there are a few things that I dream of that I believe would increase the utility of the AP program through increased equity and access to higher education. In no particular order:

  • Allow schools to opt to teach the curriculum over an extended period. Whether this is through the actual AP course itself spread over two years or a preparatory course one year that leads into the AP course.  This would especially benefit students who are non-traditional AP students, or students in schools that might have socio-economic factors that might limit the students success in taking a condensed, faster paced course.
  • Allow students to take an AP course pass/fail. One of the ridiculous decisions that students and their families feel compelled to make is to imagine whether at their dream university, if it is better to get an “A” in the “regular” course or a “B” in the AP Course (or heaven forbid a “C”)! If we really want to increase equity and access to a rigorous curriculum,  take this decision out of the equation and let students take at least one AP class pass/fail.
  •  Increase participation in the AP courses through eliminating tracking. It is ridiculous in 2018 that we are still sitting around in committees evaluating students’ standardized test scores from 6th or 8th grade and making decisions that essentially eliminate them from participating in honors and AP classes. Students should not be denied by schools from taking the most rigorous curriculum available to them if they choose to opt in. Parents should ask their school boards if this is happening in their district and request that it stop.
  • Colleges need to do their part too! Instead of allowing each department to determine how and when to grant college credit, there should be a universal standard. Any student who earns a “3”, a passing score, earns at least 3 college credits in that subject area.

In my dream world, any student who completes the class and takes the test gets at least one general elective college credit even if they “fail” the test.

Every college and every department feels that the courses at the university are  superior and significantly more in-depth than a mere high school AP course, that emphasizes broad knowledge over the in-depth critical thinking that they are sure to get in every introductory class taught by every single faculty in their department.

Really? I doubt it, but  even if this is the case, they should be fair to the students and their family and give them 3 credits anyways in a general elective course. Parents need to step up and speak to the deans and provosts and regents and get them to take a look at this.

Chances are their “policy” decisions to date have been made by one really cranky department chair who is convinced that this new generation is “just not prepared.” Ask for evidence. Also, ask them why the student can’t be given elective credit in that subject area? I would imagine none of them will have a coherent answer to that. While you are at it, encourage them to not charge students for any “remedial” classes that they must take at their university!

In my opinion, one of the true benefits of the program is that it provides much needed standardization to our nation’s curriculum and assessment. It is hard to conceive of any other important aspect of our society that we have such little agreed upon standards for excellence and comparison.  Most people agree that a speedometer is helpful for measuring speed, a stock price is useful for measuring the value of the company, and a thermometer is useful for temperature. How do we measure academic success? How do we measure student learning?

Most people agree that we want doctors who are proficient in anatomy, engineers who are proficient in mathematics, and manufacturing specialists who are proficient in communication and problem solving, but we can’t even agree on what knowledge should be acquired that allows students to grow into those careers.

Not only is this lack of curriculum and assessment standardization  problematic from a policy perspective, it means that within a school, two students both taking a course in “Biology” from two different teachers are not taking the same course at all.

The AP program at least is making an attempt to address these issues through its efforts at equity, inclusion, and rigor, as well  as encouraging  the conversation towards considering some common sense standardization.

The AP testing program is far from perfect and it’s benefits have sadly not been as distributed as equitably as any educator would desire. Still, it has many merits and in my idealistic changes highlighted above, which are meant to provoke conversation and reflection, the AP program can help be a gateway towards a rigorous, equitable education system.

Now, if only the selective colleges, traditional colleges, community colleges, parents, educators, and employers could  continue the conversation towards meaningful, apolitical, rational, solutions, our students and our society will get the education we all deserve.




Pop-Up Retail in Detroit- University of Michigan Students With a Plan

University of Michigan Students and the Social Impact Challenge

The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation recently announced the winners of a challenge hosted by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business-the Social Impact Challenge.

The goal of the competition is to solve challenging real life problems in a competitive format.

The problem tackled by the winning team, quite simply was how to get more businesses into Detroit. While it is true that Detroit has been enjoying growth and improvement in this area over the past decade, any visitor to Detroit will know that there are still tremendous opportunities and challenges to operating a business there. Large areas of vacant storefronts, abandoned houses, lack of developed transportation infrastructure, low pedestrian volume as well as the economic challenges of owning and operating a business.

One of the biggest challenges for a startup or entrepreneur is leasing retail space.


The University of Michigan students, Team Upstart, presented novel ways to reduce the leasing costs and risk as well as a plan to provide extensive training and resources to the entrepreneurs to develop a small “pop-up” retail space.

The Center for Social Impact at the University of Michigan’s director, Matt Kelterborn states: ”

 “We believe the best way to learn about delivering meaningful social impact is to actually work on the ground with community leaders on projects that will have a lasting impact.”

Congratulations to all who participated in the Social Impact Challenge-a great example of using your academic knowledge to solve real world problems, one of the important themes of our work here at Wide Open Research.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What is the purpose of the Social Impact Challenge at the University of Michigan
  2. What problem was Team Upstart trying to solve?
  3. How did Team Upstart “solve” this problem?
  4. What benefits would their solution offer the residents and consumers in Detroit?
  5. Why does Matt Kelterborn think it is so important that students “actually work with community leaders?”
  6. How could you incorporate a form of the “social impact challenge” at your school?


For a link to Greta Guest’s article at University of Michigan News, please click here. 



Rethinking Assessment from MIT

One of the greatest challenges educators face is how to accurately assess student learning.

So often, the assessment tools are divorced from both the curriculum and common sense,  leaving the educator struggling to chase not only a moving target, but a target that changes with shifting political winds.

This is true even in the emerging pedagogy of “maker spaces.” The maker movement which is growing in popularity in the U.S. currently has all the trappings of just another educational fad, despite its well-intentioned ideals.

In an effort to legitimize the movement, there is now an effort to create assessments that might help educators understand the student learning process. So, MIT in collaboration with Maker Ed    has developed a research project to study this-Beyond Rubrics.

The three main questions the Beyond Rubrics projects will attempt to answer, according to the website:


  • What might embedded assessment in maker activities look like?
  • How do teachers codesign embedded assessments for maker-centered learning, and practice the skills necessary for implementing them?
  • How does embedded assessment in making support the student learning experience?


In all honesty, I am not sure these research questions are necessarily unique to the “maker” movement. Eliminate the word “maker” from any of the above sentences and you have the essential questions that all educators grapple with daily as they wrestle with educating students for a world that does not yet exist, assessed on outcomes that can be analyzed using the most advanced statistical techniques, but tell us nothing.

Best of luck.



Helping Farmers in East Africa- Michigan State University Researchers

Michigan State University Research

It is so exciting when researchers are able to take concepts and ideas from the classroom and apply them in a real world setting.

It is especially exciting when it means that this can make a difference in people’s lives.

That is exactly what a team of researchers from Michigan State University did when they travelled to Tanzania and Kenya to help improve agricultural practices.

MSU doctoral candidate in media and information studies, Tian Cai, and a research team, created a research project-creating low-budget videos of videos that communicated farmers perspectives for not using drought resistant maize.

Then, they  showed a group of villagers the videos followed by a discussion. The control group did not receive the videos. An additional treatment group received the videos and a text message.

This group indicated they were most likely to use drought resistant maize, which would benefit their likelihood of success, and help the environment.

This is a great example of applied research and the significant impact that researchers can have in helping those that might not have access to the necessary information and support to make lasting changes. Teachers of media studies, environmental science will especially want to share this research with their students.

For a link to the MSU news article by Nicole O’Meara, please click here. 

Questions for Discussion

  1. Who was involved in providing input at the initial one day workshop?
  2. What government agency provided funding?
  3. What is the local language of the region studied?
  4. Which condition had the most impact?
  5. What additional data would you want to review to determine the efficacy of this research?
  6. What changes might you make to this research to potentially improve its outcomes?
  7. Why did professor Steinfield say this research was aligned to the philosophy of the media and information department at Michigan State University?

Visual Communication of Science Concepts-Felice Frankel

One of the many challenges educators face daily is how to communicate ideas to learners with a wide range of background knowledge, learning style, interest/motivation and aptitude.

How many of us have told fascinating stories, presented compelling information, or sketched out ideas on the board-only to have a certain segment of the class stare at us blankly?

I think this is especially true in an area like science, where the real world connections are a bit harder for students, especially younger secondary students to make.

So, for an appreciation of the true challenge and artistry necessary to make compelling visual representations of scientific concepts, you may want to read the MIT News article about Felice Frankel’s work. 

Felice is an award winning, MIT research scientist and photographer has spent decades perfecting this craft and has created free tutorials in MIT’s Open Courseware.

I think any secondary science teacher would enjoy reading about her process and may enjoy using principles from the course to enhance their own pedagogy. It’s also a reminder for all of us non-science teachers to think about how we are communicating our lessons and to examine whether we might benefit from a creative re-examination-possibly utilizing some of Felice Frankel’s work as inspiration. I also think students may benefit from reading about her career as it is a blend of the artistic and the analytical and utilizes the best of each to help individuals develop a deeper understanding of their world.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How often do you use visual representations to enhance your lessons?
  2. Why does Felice Frankel encourage researchers to develop “metaphors” to help explain their work?
  3. Is there a concept that you think your students would benefit from seeing a visual image?
  4. What are some creative methods you have used to help “illustrate” a concept?
  5. What is Felice Frankel’s background-how might this have impacted her work?


Creating a Song-VoiceGrooveSong at University of Chicago


One of the most exciting examples of the intersection between creativity and analysis is the “VoiceGrooveSong” project at the University of Chicago.

Steven Rings, associate professor in the Richard and Mary Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry developed the course to understand song structure in composition.

While this may seem like a reasonably straightforward endeavor, it is the process by which Rings and the “VoiceGrooveSong” students embark on this journey which is inspiring.

For them, it is a journey.

Ring has invited a variety of musicians, from  Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien, to Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. With Kotche, also an acclaimed avant garde percussionist and composer, the class took on an interesting endeavor.

Kotche played his drum kit, while students improvised with a variety of digital clips serving as the vocals. So, students were able to delve into the details of the composition process to allow the  rhythmic and melodic structure of the words to serve as a catalyst for percussion experimentations and understanding the intricacies of composition.

Professor Steven Rings describes the intersection of analysis and creativity in the class, “In the class we don’t know where we’re going to end up,” Rings said. “Everyone is excited to just go along for the ride.”

I can’t imagine a better inspiration to challenge us to continually learn, grow, and develop our curiosity as educators and people. It also helps helps students understand that while creativity of course requires a mysterious element of inspiration, there are certain structures and processes that can facilitate this process-there are concrete steps a creator can take to manifest creativity.

For the excellent source article, written by Andrew Baud, which includes a brief  video sample, please click here.

Questions for Discussion

  1. According to the article, what is the focus of the University of Chicago, Gray Center?
  2. Why was Glenn Kotche chosen to participate in this project?
  3. What does Steven Rings hope to accomplish in this class?
  4. What were the details of how Kotche and the students “collaborated”? What was their process of creation?
  5. Starting with the same set of lyrics, the students developed widely varying musical compositions- what does this say about the creative composition process?
  6. How could you use this process in your own classroom to help create sparks at the intersection of creativity and inquiry?


Improving Test Scores

Improving Test Scores

Have you ever felt like you were spinning your wheels when it comes to studying for exams?

Do you notice your students studying, but still not getting results?

If so, you definitely want to check out Milenko Martinovich’s new article in the Stanford News. This article features the work of Stanford University psychology professor, Patricia Chen’s new work on how to help students study more effectively.

In the study, the intervention group was encouraged to utilize their meta-cognitive abilities- quite simply to “think about their thinking.”

Specifically, students were given an online survey prior to their exams in a statistics course and asked to “think about what might be on the exam and then strategize what resources they would use most effectively”  according to Martinovich’s article.

Importantly, students were then asked to self-reflect, recalling why they chose the resources they chose and how they believed it would be effective in their learning.

This intervention lead to an increase in grades in the course by almost a third of a letter grade.

Please click here to read the article.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What was professor Chen’s research hypothesis?
  2. What is meta-cognition?
  3. Describe their intervention- “Strategic Resource Use.”
  4. In what circumstances does professor Chen say this would likely be most effective?
  5. What might educators need to do to support students in a “resource-scarce” environment?
  6. Besides studying for tests, how else does Chen suggest this might be used?
  7. How would you develop further research to learn more about this topic?