Two Arlington County ninth-graders told Washington-Lee High School Principal Gregg Robertson they had made a mistake. Advanced Placement world history, a college-level course, was too much for them. They wanted to switch to the regular world history course.
Robertson pointed to a banner in his office: “The only way out is through,” it said, inspired by an Alanis Morissette song. He made a deal with the students. If they stuck with AP through the end of the first semester, they could switch if they still wanted to. When the time came, they had adjusted to the heavy writing and reading load. They stayed and did well in the course.
With such stories in mind, Washington-Lee teachers, counselors and administrators are attempting something never done in any non-magnet suburban Washington school. If they succeed in their efforts, next spring every Washington-Lee graduating senior will have taken at least one AP or International Baccalaureate course and test.
This is exceptionally ambitious. A few magnets, such as Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and private schools, such as Washington International in the District, have full participation in college-level courses. But I know of only one neighborhood school in the country in which that’s the case.
That is the Columbia Heights Educational Campus, a D.C. public school whose principal, Maria Tukeva, is famous for challenging low-income children. Since 2007, all Columbia Heights students, most of whom are from immigrant families, take AP English. Only 13 percent of them passed the AP exams in 2012, but teachers and students say they learned more and were more ready for college than they would have been if they had taken regular courses.
Washington-Lee’s portion of low-income enrollees — 33 percent — is much lower than Columbia Heights’ 84 percent. It would seem to have a better chance of getting every student through AP, except that it is bucking a national consensus among educators that AP and IB are too hard for some students and should never be required for all.
Washington-Lee’s decision to defy convention stems from its success in getting a vast majority of students through at least one AP or IB course without any drop in passing rates. The school set a 100 percent participation goal in 2003, when only 23 percent of graduates took an AP or IB course. That’s the kind of goofy target I often ridicule, seemingly designed just to make the school look good. But Washington-Lee’s experienced and talented staff made it real.
This past spring, 87 percent of graduating seniors at Washington-Lee had taken AP or IB courses. The passing rate on AP exams was the same as in 2003 — 52 percent — despite a 168 percent jump in students taking them. Robertson and his staff discovered that only about 60 members of this year’s senior class had not yet participated in either program. Since they had to pass a class on government to graduate, they were all placed in AP government, with extra support. Their AP class sizes are small, about 20 kids each, and there is an accompanying course with the same teacher for those who need more time.
Robertson notified the parents and spoke to the students. He said everyone agreed to the challenge. Margaret East, their AP government teacher, has a doctorate in geography and has taught high school and college. She was at first skeptical of her assignment until she realized the point was not to pass the AP exam but to improve her students’ reading, writing and debating skills.
“We are challenging these kids with a learning opportunity, not a testing opportunity,” East said.
It is hard to imagine that teachers as good as those at Washington-Lee won’t make this work, but I will be checking in at midyear to see what rough spots they have found and what they are doing about them.
For previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.com/