Beyond Breadth-Speed-Test: Toward Deeper Knowing and

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  • Beyond Breadth-Speed-Test:Toward Deeper Knowing and Engagement

    in an Advanced Placement Course

    Walter C. ParkerJane Lo

    Angeline Jude YeoSheila W. Valencia

    Diem NguyenRobert D. AbbottSusan B. Nolen

    John D. BransfordNancy J. Vye

    University of Washington

    We report a mixed-methods design experiment that aims to achieve deeperlearning in a breadth-oriented, college-preparatory courseAP U.S.Government and Politics. The study was conducted with 289 students in12 classrooms across four schools and in an excellence for all context ofexpanding enrollments in AP courses. Contributions include its investigationof a model of deeper learning, development of a test to assess it, and fusion ofproject-based learning with a traditional curriculum. Findings suggest thata course of quasi-repetitive projects can lead to higher scores on the AP testbut a floor effect on the assessment of deeper learning. Implications aredrawn for assessing deeper learning and helping students adapt to shiftsin the grammar of schooling.

    KEYWORDS: high school, curriculum development, project based learning,design-based research, civic education, social studies

    Advanced high school courses take many forms around the world butoften lag behind contemporary research on how people learn andwhat learning is. Broad coverage combined with a fast pace and a high-stakes summative exam typically count for rigor. This breadth-speed-testformula, while efficient for some purposes, may exacerbate the problem itattempts to solve; it may drain advanced courses of the kinds of intellectualwork they require if they are to be considered advanced. Here we reportfindings from the second year of an iterative, mixed-methods design

    American Educational Research Journal

    December 2013, Vol. 50, No. 6, pp. 14241459

    DOI: 10.3102/0002831213504237

    2013 AERA.

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  • experiment that aims to deepen students learning in a widely enrolledadvanced high school course in the United States: Advanced PlacementU.S. Government and Politics.

    The U.S. government and politics course, whether or not the AdvancedPlacement (AP) version, is a staple in the American high school curriculum.After a temporary decline during the 1970s, its enrollment returned to highlevels in the 1980s, and approximately three-quarters of high school studentstake the course as of the latest count (Niemi & Smith, 2001). The course hastwo central concepts: politics (the processes of getting and using politicalpower) and government (the product of politics). The chief variable indifferent forms of the course is whether the course has more of an active-citizenship, experiential goal or more of a political science, academic-learning goal. There is overlap, but the emphases are distinct. The formeris more likely to engage students in civic action, perhaps using a modulesuch as the popular Project Citizen (Center for Civic Education, 2010).Students identify a public policy problem in their community, develop

    WALTER C. PARKER is professor of social studies education and, by courtesy, politicalscience at the University of Washington, Seattle, 122 Miller Hall, Seattle WA 98195-3600 (e-mail: His research focuses on school-based civic educationin national and global contexts.

    JANE LO is a doctoral student and research assistant in the College of Education at theUniversity of Washington, Seattle. Her research focuses on the civic development ofyouth.

    ANGELINE JUDE YEO is a doctoral candidate in the College of Education at the Universityof Washington, Seattle. Her research focuses on the influence of contexts and iden-tities on students historical thinking.

    SHEILA W. VALENCIA is professor of language, literacy, and culture at the University ofWashington, Seattle. Her research focuses on reading instruction, policy, and teacherdevelopment.

    DIEM NGUYEN is research scientist and director of the Knowledge in Action Project atthe College of Education, University of Washington, Seattle. Her research focuses onequity, diversity, and the quality of education in urban public schools.

    ROBERT D. ABBOTT is professor of educational statistics at the University of Washington,Seattle. His research interests include the analysis of longitudinal data and the use oflatent variables in educational research.

    SUSAN B. NOLEN is professor of learning sciences and human development at theUniversity of Washington. Her research focuses on the development of motivationand identity in learning contexts and their relationship to engagement and learning.

    JOHN D. BRANSFORD is the Shauna C. Larson Professor of the Learning Sciences in theCollege of Education at the University of Washington, Seattle. He conducts researchon learning, problem solving, transfer, assessment, and roles for technology ineducation.

    NANCY J. VYE is principal research scientist in the College of Education at University ofWashington, Seattle. Her research focuses on choice, agency, and challenge-basedlearning in K12 and workplace settings.

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  • a solution, and then plan a course of political action to effect change. Thelatter emphasis involves less doing and more knowingless participationand more intensive study of the structures and functions of U.S. government,including its constitutional underpinnings, the Federalist Papers, landmarkSupreme Court cases, federalism, civil rights and liberties, interest groups,elections, and so forth. The AP U.S. Government and Politics course(APGOV) falls squarely into the latter approach. According to the CollegeEntrance Examination Boards (2010) course description,

    This course includes both the study of general concepts used to inter-pret U.S. government and politics and the analysis of specific exam-ples. It also requires familiarity with the various institutions, groups,beliefs, and ideas that constitute U.S. government and politics. (p. 6)

    We value both poles in this tensionboth participatory and academiccivic learning. In the design-based research (DBR) reported here, weattempted to join them in a hybrid version of the course and to do so inthe breadth-oriented, exam-based context of APGOV. We developed collab-orativelywith teachers, curriculum and instruction scholars, learning scien-tists, and political scientistsa kind of project-based learning (PBL) that putsstudents in authentic civic roles as legislators, cabinet secretaries, interestgroup members, judges, journalists, lobbyists, and citizens. In this way,students were engaged in simulated political action, but they also had tounderstand the roles they were playing and their interdependencies andcontexts. The aim was for students to experience government and politicswhile also studying them intensively, learning to act and acting to learn intandem, thus combining the two modal approaches.

    This article is organized as follows. We begin with a problem statementthat includes a brief on the AP program, including its rapid growth anddemocratization (Lacey, 2010, p. 34) in recent years along with increasingconcern that student learning in these courses is superficial and unadaptive(i.e., insufficiently transferable and generative). Next, we present the con-ceptual framework, followed by a methods section, which includes our mea-sure of deeper learning and adaptive transfer, and then the course designprinciples. Methods are followed by Findings in two parts: quantitative find-ings from the two tests and then qualitative findings from end-of-year inter-views with students as well as from their responses to the deep learningmeasure. We conclude with a discussion and implications for extendingthe design experiment into a third year and for introducing it to classroomsin poverty-impacted urban schools.


    Honors, Advanced Placement, the International Baccalaureate (IB), andDual-Placement are familiar names of advanced programs in U.S. high

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  • schools. There are more, many of them home-grown rather than affiliatedwith standardized programs (Sadler, Sonnert, Tai, & Klopfenstein, 2010),and some of these are in the nations most prestigious prep schools.Increasingly in public schools, however, AP has become the norm forwhat often are called rigorous college-prep courses. It has become themain brand and largest program of advanced high school coursework inthe United States. Also, its quality is widely (though certainly not universally)regarded; indeed, it often is called in popular media the gold standard ofthe American high school (e.g., Associated Press, 2012; Hess, 2012; Mathews,2009).

    There are more than 30 AP courses, ranging from Calculus to WorldHistory. Of these, U.S. Government and Politics typically ranks fourth in stu-dent participation, just behind English Language, English Literature, and U.S.History. The courses are developed by committees of scholars and APteachers working together with assessment specialists from the CollegeBoard, the association that develops and markets AP and other tests, suchas the SAT. Some courses are one semester in length, others one year, butall end with a high-stakes summative test. Students who receive a passingscore (a 3 or higher of 5 points possible) often have an edge in college appli-cations, and some colleges allow these students to bypass the introductorycourse and proceed directly to advanced courses.1