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How Science and Math Teachers Address Different Course Levels: Advanced Placement (AP), Honors, and Regular

Author: Eugene Judson

Judson, Eugene. “How Science and Math Teachers Address Different Course Levels: Advanced Placement (AP), Honors, and Regular.” The High School Journal, vol. 100, no. 4, 2017, pp. 226–249., doi:10.1353/hsj.2017.0010.

The purpose of this study was to examine how practices and attitudes of high school teachers vary when comparing Advanced Placement (AP) courses to regular and honors track courses. The sample included science (n585) and math (n558) teachers who taught both an AP course and either a regular or honors course. These teachers indicated their pedagogical beliefs, the emphasis placed on different learning goals, the frequency of practices, and student autonomy. Unsurprisingly, teachers reported having AP students practice for standardized tests and learn test-taking strategies significantly more often than students in regular or honors track classes. Teachers also emphasized homework more often in AP than regular courses, and they gave students assessments requiring constructed responses to AP students more often than students enrolled in their regular classes. Interestingly, science teachers indicated having significantly less control in determining goals and selecting topics in AP classes compared to regular or honors, while math teachers indicated often having significantly more control in AP than in regular courses. Greatest differences were found between AP and regular math courses. Teachers reported differing goals and practices that imply AP math courses integrate more student engagement, promote greater depth of understanding, and better prepare students for further study. Results also underscore the importance for researchers to understand which students are being considered when teachers participate in research. Keywords: Advanced Placement, high school, science, math, mathematics, honors, autonomy, classroom practices, attitudes, beliefs, teaching, secondary education High school teachers are often charged with the responsibility of teaching multiple types of courses. A science teacher may instruct a general science class in the morning and an advanced environmental science class in the afternoon. However, most research about teacher dispositions do not account for the possibility of shifting attitudes and practices in relation to varied courses. For example, the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) prompts secondary teachers to indicate the different courses they teach, but then teachers respond holistically about all their classes, such as asking how prepared they feel they are to assess their students (Goldring, Gray, & Bitterman, 2013). This type of aggregate method does not capture the nuanced approaches and attitudes teachers may possess for the various courses they teach. Those various courses are often viewed as belonging to specific tracks: regular, advanced or honors, and college level courses. College level courses can be defined broadly as any course that focuses on “college level” curriculum. This includes high ã 2017 The University of North Carolina Press 226 school courses that have arguably equivalent curriculum and rigor to a postsecondary level, including dual enrollment courses, which are administratively overseen by an institution of higher education. Here, however, the focus is on the definition of college level courses in high schools that are associated with high stakes end-of-year tests wherein proficiency on those tests can be exchanged for university credit. The most notable of these exam-based systems are Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). In American high schools, AP is the most common of the three and its popularity has been on a rapid rise with AP course offerings growing over 500% in the last two decades (Judson & Hobson, 2015). AP Background There are requirements, varying somewhat among the different content areas, which have been established by the College Board in order for a school to bill a course as AP. Notably, a course must participate in an AP Course Audit which may include requirements such as using appropriate textbooks, ensuring the teacher has read AP materials, guaranteeing the course is structured around key concepts, and submitting a syllabus aligned with AP framework. Simultaneously the College Board emphasizes that the AP Program “unequivocally supports the principle that each individual school must develop its own curriculum for courses labeled ‘AP.’ Rather than mandating any one curriculum for AP courses, the AP Course Audit instead provides each AP teacher with a set of expectations that college and secondary school faculty nationwide have established for college-level courses” (College Board, 2016a). This guidance from the College Board clearly indicates that schools and teachers have a fair amount of latitude when it comes to pedagogical approach, emphasis and time spent on particular concepts, and general classroom practices. AP courses and achievement of students on AP exams have been used as metrics for determining the quality of high schools by news organizations (Morse, 2016a; Washington Post, n.d.) . Though researchers have examined the relationships between AP and college success (e.g., Dougherty, Mellor, & Jian, 2006; Klopfenstein & Thomas, 2009; Sadler & Tai, 2007), to date there has been little investigation into how teachers actually utilize that academic freedomprovided by the College Board. That is, while it is easily estimated that AP teachers work toward preparing students to understand the concepts assessed by AP exams and that these courses integrate higher level concepts than introductory courses, we know little about what is actually going on in these classes. As a means to position understanding of AP courses, this study was designed to juxtapose AP courses to other courses taught by the same teachers. Therefore instead of amassing survey data about AP courses and AP teachers alone, the interest was in understanding how these courses are viewed differently and treated differently by the same teacher who pivots throughout the day from an AP course to a regular course or to a non-AP honors course. Focus on Science and Math To develop an understanding of AP courses versus other courses, this investigation focused on evaluating how science and math teachers address their AP courses. The drive to establish more AP courses has been particularly acute in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content areas (Judson, 2017). This is evidenced by examples such as the STEM Access program that is funded by a multi-million dollar grant from Google and focused on increasing participation of underrepresented minority and female students in STEM AP courses (College Board, Teachers Addressing Different Course Types 227 2016b) as well as Texas Instrument Foundation’s contributions to the National Math and Science Initiative to promote education through STEM AP courses (Texas Instruments, n.d.) . Further evidence of the attention on AP in STEM education is the U.S. News and World Reports formula for determining the “Best STEM High Schools” in America that heavily integrates into its calculation the completion and success on STEM AP exams (Morse, 2016b). Research Questions The direction of this study was not to merely describe STEM AP courses, but to understand how teachers attend to those classes differently. Teachers therefore were the units of analysis. The interest was to understand how the same teachers approached these different types of classes. From this, the following research questions emerged: c In what ways do science teachers approach their AP courses as compared to both honors and regular track courses? c In what ways do math teachers approach their AP courses as compared to both honors and regular track courses? Relevant Literature The scope of this article does not permit a comprehensive report of the pedagogical strategies supported by research for both science and mathematics. Suffice it to say that national organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics support the tenets outlined in the seminal publication, How Students Learn, which indicated that students most readily understand when the following occur: students preconceptions are addressed, students engage in critical thinking, and students are challenged to be reflective about their own learning (National Research Council, 2005). These strategies are aligned to ideas often placed under the umbrella term of student-centered learning which emphasizes a move toward integrating student involvement in learning through approaches sometimes formalized as inquiry learning or problem-based learning. The positive relationships between these student-centered approaches and student achievement in math and science have been highlighted in several studies (e.g., Adamson et al., 2003; Lawson et al., 2002; Tandogan & Orhan, 2007). The review of relevant research now focuses on what we know concerning the degree to which AP courses are treated differently and more generally how same teachers address different courses. Teaching in Advanced Courses Raudenbush, Rowan, and Cheong (1993) found that high school teachers held fundamentally different instructional goals for different courses. In their study of 16 high schools they discovered that the emphasis on higher-order objectives was significantly greater in honors classes than in nonacademic classes and that this was substantially more evident in science and math classes than in social studies, literature, or writing courses. This teacher effect demonstrated a strong relationship between track and emphasis on higher-order objectives. Specific to AP, Byrd (2007) asserted through review of eight exemplar syllabi, exam questions, and course descriptions, that AP biology and AP calculus courses were on par with university level coursework. However, critics have claimed that the actual teaching occurring in AP classrooms may be more directed toward “teaching to the test” and less concerned about promoting critical thinking (Snider, 2010). In one of the few examinations of practices in AP STEM classrooms, College Board researchers analyzed survey results from nearly 1,200 AP Biology teachers (Paek, The High School Journal – Summer 2017 228 Ponte, Sigel, Braun, & Powers, 2005). They found that biology teachers indicated that the learning goal most emphasized was for their students to understand key concepts and the goal least emphasized was attention to learning scientific methods. The researchers further found that AP Biology teachers tend to “make less use of instructional strategies that are highly involved and require substantial instructional time in favor of strategies with which they can cover considerable more amounts of materials in a shorter time frame” (p. 12). Paek et al. also found teachers were divided when it came to covering some topics thoroughly even if it meant not covering some other topics (57% of respondents), as opposed to preferring to cover all topics that could potentially be on the AP exam (43% of respondents). In determining patterns that relate classroom practices to achievement on AP exams, two classroom practices emerged as most linked to success on AP exams: frequency of class meetings and use of AP topics and scoring rubrics (Paek, Braun, Trapani, Ponte, & Powers, 2007). Other practices had inconsistent effects across different types of schools, such as using laboratory notebooks; or indicated negative relationships with AP exam achievement, such as researching information on the internet (Paek, et al., 2007). However, these studies examined teacher reports about only AP courses. Missing from these studies was a comparison to other types of courses taught by the same teachers. Other related literature is more general in that it addresses practices and teacher attitudes in courses designed for gifted students or courses considered “honors,” but not necessarily AP. In a rare AP-to-honors comparison of classroom practices Herr (1992) found that teachers who taught both AP and honors classes kept a faster pace in AP courses and this often resulted in more lecturing in order to address more topics. This pivoting that secondary teachers often do among courses of varying levels and even content areas has received only moderate attention from researchers. Same Teacher – Different Course Levels Studies that have focused on teachers who instruct different courses have often centered on one or a few teachers. In deeply examining the practices of one teacher at two schools, Eisenmann and Even (2011) found that the teacher’s enactment of an algebra curriculum at two schools was highly dependent upon the teacher’s perception of students’ cooperation and students’ apparent interest in the subject. When student interest in math waned, students were exposed more to practice and reinforcement assignments and less often to small group investigations or activities that promoted conceptual understanding. This is aligned to research indicating that students in lower level math classes are more often shown how to manipulate mathematics through mechanistic answer-finding approaches (Raudenbush, Rowan & Cheong, 1993; Zohar & Dori, 2003). Past research generally points to the idea that teachers believe that students in highertrack courses are more capable of engaging in higher-order thinking than students in lower-track courses and that instruction should be differentiated accordingly (Zohar, Degani, & Vaaknin, 2001). However, Even and Kvatinsky (2009) found when comparing two case studies that while single teachers do adjust style and student autonomy for different levelled classes, teachers also bring common patterns of interactions to their classes. Contrary to the general body of literature, these researchers did find an instance where a teacher “amplified” instruction in a lower level math course in a way that provided those students greater opportunities for critical understanding; the Teachers Addressing Different Course Types 229 researchers’ supposition was that some teachers may intensify the teaching approach they view as most valuable when students encounter difficulty. Learning that teachers facilitate instruction differently from each other and vary pedagogy among different courses is not jarring. What remains perplexing is that we know few particulars regarding how coveted AP courses are enacted, and to what degree they are addressed differently from other courses.

Implications Aside from better understanding fine differences regarding how distinct courses are perceived and addressed by science and math teachers, several takeaways are highlighted. Although the differences among the course types are themselves interesting, the results and character of this study have implications that can support researchers and practitioners. Similarly, attention needs to be drawn to the missing elements of this study in order to deepen understanding in further studies. First, a major implication this study indicates is that caution must be taken when in-service and preservice teachers are surveyed regarding their dispositions. Attitude is not a fixed data point and we understand that it can certainly change with years of experience, with changing school environments, and with professional development. What is important to learn from this study is that mindset and approach also vary dependent upon the The High School Journal – Summer 2017 246 students a teacher is considering. While this did not occur for all items queried, there were abundant cases of science and math teachers rating their AP courses differently than their regular courses and even their honors courses. Researchers must take caution to ensure that evaluations of attitudes about students are not so generic that they miss the actual viewpoints teachers hold about specific groups of students, particularly based on course level. Second, what was found here was differentiation between approaches of same teachers as well as areas of intersection among course types. Without attempting to discern whether variation or unity is “better,” it is important to value the existence of the variances. This could particularly affect preparation of high school teachers. Typically, secondary pre-service teachers are given guidance regarding differentiating instruction to address various abilities within a class, but it is rare to hear about a preservice program formally addressing pedagogy, personal beliefs about learning, and control over curriculum, in the context of course levels. This may be a helpful element in teacher preparation, as it could help new teachers more quickly get a handle on the various types and levels of courses they are assigned, as opposed to having to “figure it out” for themselves. Likewise, aligning mentoring of beginning teachers with experienced teachers who themselves are aware of the challenges of different types of courses can be an important way to ground new teachers in understanding the nuances of their courses and prompting them toward reflecting on how best to address each level. Additionally, while it is a given that different course levels are associated with different topics, pace, and performance objectives, another implication of this study is that it raises thought about why some of the significant differences found exist. For example, the practices between AP math and regular math were particularly dissimilar, with AP students more often engaged in practices that support critical thinking. It is generally considered that these are valuable practices that should occur in all levels of math and science. However, rather than being reproachful and insinuate teachers withhold, or limit, some practices among regular track courses, it is more important to understand the dynamics that lead to the contrasts and subsequently assess if the current state is most desirable or if changes are preferred. Looking ahead, this study can help to shape a next phase of research of greater depth. Of particular interest is to examine if the different types of approaches and attitudes among the course levels have any actual relationship to student outcomes, such as achievement and persistence. Further investigation is also needed to understand why the differences and commonalities exist beyond obvious points, such as AP students receiving more test preparation. Whether teachers attitudes and approaches among the courses change over their careers or remains stable is also not just interesting but useful to know in order to support teacher development. References Adamson, S.L., Burtch, M., Cox III, F., Judson, E., Turley, J. B., Benford, R., and Lawson, A.E. (2003). Reformed undergraduate instruction and its subsequent impact on secondary school teaching practice and student achievement. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40(10), 939–957. Banilower, E. R., Smith, P. S., Weiss, I. R., Malzahn, K. A., Campbell, K. M., & Weis, A. M. (2013). 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