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High School AP Courses Getting New Look

Long-awaited changes to Advanced Placement, or AP, science programs may build greater interest in science and math careers, particularly for youth who are underrepresented in higher education STEM disciplines, experts said at a Washington, D.C., forum on Monday.

Starting in fall 2012, the College Board will roll out a series of new AP courses after hearing concerns from scientific groups that the existing courses rely too much on regurgitating facts and not enough on critical thinking.

“This is a sea change in the teaching of science,” said Trevor Packer, College Board AP director, at a Capitol Hill forum on the new changes.

Packer said his organization was responding to criticism from some experts that current AP science courses promoted “simplistic factual recall rather than more critical thinking.” College faculty and current AP science teachers helped in the redesign, he said.

The new curriculum will begin in fall 2012 for the AP Biology course, followed by a new AP Chemistry course in 2013 and AP Physics in 2014. The College Board is making the changes on a gradual basis because of the teacher training requirements involved in rolling out the new courses.

“This has the potential to be a real game-changer,” said Jay Labov, senior adviser for education and communication at the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council. However, he said that improving K-12 science education also will require a “systems change” in the teaching of science affecting middle schools, high schools, schools of education and others to make it more appealing to students.

In presenting the new approaches, the College Board noted that participation in AP science already can improve the likelihood that students of color and female students choose science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, careers.

For example, 15 percent of females who took AP chemistry chose it as a college major, while only 1 percent of females did not take the course but still majored in the subject. Similar trends were evident in biology and physics.

African-American and Hispanic students had a similar record. Eighteen percent of African-Americans who took AP biology chose it as their college major, compared with 6 percent for those who did not take the course. Hispanics who took AP biology were four times more likely to major in that subject in college, the College Board said.

But redesign is not the only strategy to boost participation in STEM by underrepresented individuals. Another priority is to “open the doors” to more students by not creating barriers or pre-requisites for AP enrollment, said Michelle Shearer, 2011 National Teacher of the Year and a science teacher at Urbana High School in Frederick, Md.

“People ask me how a deaf student can be in AP Chemistry, or a student who is in a career and technical program,” she said. “You have to open doors and sell students on the idea that they can be in an AP program.”

For more information on the changes, visit

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