University of Washington researcher Walter Parker worked with area teachers to make the AP Government and Politics course more relevant with role-playing instead of lectures.

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In the past 20 years, many states and school districts have tried to give more students a shot at taking college-level, Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

States have offered financial help, teaching help and money to cover testing fees — and Washington State does all of that, according to a new report from the Education Commission of the States.

But enrollment increases have been followed by lower pass rates on the AP exams — a problem that researchers at the University of Washington tackled with the help of teachers in the Bellevue and Seattle school districts.

They pioneered a new way to teach the AP class in U.S. Government and Politics that made it more interesting and relevant without sacrificing test scores.

In the revamped, one-year course, teachers orchestrate five simulations that require students to debate political issues while playing the roles of presidents, lawmakers, Supreme Court justices,  agency heads, lobbyists, expert consultants,  and other power brokers.

The project, featured in two Seattle Times Education Lab stories, started in 2007 in the Bellevue School District.  It has since expanded to Seattle; Oakland, Calif.; Des Moines, Iowa; and most recently, Chicago.

Walter Parker, one of the project’s key researchers at the University of Washington, co-authored a new paper that provides details on the AP Government course and spoke with Education Lab about the project:

What was the biggest hurdle to changing the course while making sure students got what they needed to pass the exam?

The biggest challenge with not only this AP course, but AP courses generally is that there are just too many topics stuffed into a container too small for them. In a way it’s a good problem because the courses are developed by committees of college professors who are arguing about what the 101 version of that course at state university should include. That’s just what you want, experts arguing about what ought to go into the course. But we all know that committees end up with long lists of things. That creates the biggest challenge in the world for teachers: how do you teach all of those topics without resorting to test-prep instruction?

The solution you found, drawn from cognitive science, was to revisit key concepts throughout the course to show how they work in different situations. How did you fine-tune that approach with teachers who were used to teaching topics only once and moving on.

From the start, the local teachers in Bellevue and Seattle brainstormed the projects with us. The first problem they had was, wait a minute, if I repeat any of this material, I’ll risk lowering the pass rates of my students on the AP test — too many topics, too little time. That means you go from flashcard number one to flashcard number 300 and just try to memorize it all. The compromise we reached was, what if we were to repeat only a few key ideas?

One of those key ideas is federalism, which you describe as the separation (and often sharing) of powers among levels of government — a tough concept to get across. How did you do it?

We revisit federalism in every project, so students just keep looping back on what the idea is: in the context of federal health care policy, or in 1791 in the context of the Hamilton-Jefferson debate over the national bank, or in many states today in the context of marijuana legislation — it’s legal in our state, it’s illegal in our country. How do you make sense of that?

How well does the class prepare students to understand the political debates we’re having this election year?

The primary way that it relates to what is going on now is that kids actually learn what the rules of the game are. Knowledge matters. It helps explain what’s going on and it helps you prevent mistakes that have already been made by others. I think this is extremely important stuff. I’m really happy that we seem to be figuring out a way to make the course more engaging so that newcomers to the course can be successful in it. People need to know this stuff.