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See? If Pushed, Kids Deliver

By Jay Mathews
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page B04

Tuesday will be the 22nd anniversary of what was, other than my wedding, my children's births and my hiring by this newspaper, the most important day of my life. On that morning I drove to Garfield High School in East Los Angeles and introduced myself to a fat, balding math teacher with a heavy Bolivian accent named Jaime Alfonso Escalante.

Six years later, Escalante became famous when Edward James Olmos played him in a feature film, "Stand and Deliver." But in December 1982 hardly anyone had heard of him. Nobody associated his name with the movement to fix high schools that has become so fashionable, much less considered that Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses might be the way to go about it. But that's what has shown up in new research as a key to giving high school students what they need to survive in college. It's not only honor roll students who profit from having taken these college-level courses, but C students too. Escalante understood all that two decades ago.

The availability of AP and IB courses, which can earn high school students college credit, is growing rapidly, particularly in the Washington area. But in the vast majority of U.S. high schools, only the best students are encouraged to take them, and in most schools C students eager for a challenge are told they aren't ready. Most high school principals think this system makes sense, but a new study suggests they are actually committing educational malpractice.

The new data are in a book, "Do What Works: How Proven Practices Can Improve America's Public Schools," by Tom Luce and Lee Thompson (available online only from the National Center for Educational Accountability). Luce is a lawyer who has become one of the heroes of the improvement-of-education effort in Texas, most recently as chairman of the National Center for Educational Accountability and founder of Just for the Kids, an organization that is improving the way schools use testing data. Lee Thompson, also a lawyer, is deputy director of the O'Donnell Foundation, which is encouraging Texas students to take more challenging courses in high school.

Check out the chart, above, which appears on Page 143 of the book.

It may look confusing, but to someone like me who has, along with many AP and IB teachers, sought statistical proof of the power of their work with disadvantaged students, this is like finding the flat-screen TV I always wanted under the Christmas tree.

I originally became interested in the power of the AP program after the Los Angeles Times published a short story about how Escalante's students had triumphed over accusations they had cheated on their AP calculus exam. The story did not explain how he had managed to produce 18 successful AP students in a school so disadvantaged that it was a surprise to find any students who even dared think about taking what was -- and is -- one of the most difficult tests in American secondary education.

I started hanging around Garfield, watching it get even better. In 1987, 129 Garfield students took AP calculus tests, with an above average 66 percent pass rate. That was more students taking AP calculus than all but four high schools, private and public, in the entire country. That could not have happened, people told me, because kids from low-income Mexican American homes, with parents who dropped out of grade school, cannot learn at that level. Of course I had seen it happen, but there was no research to back the point.

I knew it wasn't magic. Escalante and the other AP teachers at that school did not triumph because they were classroom geniuses. All they did to help low-income students pass college-level tests was encourage them to believe they were capable and make sure they put in the time that was necessary to prepare. Escalante's favorite device was to wave three fingers in the face of a student falling behind. That meant the kid had to return to Escalante's classroom at 3 p.m. and spend the next three hours doing his homework, with Escalante and several of the more skilled math students available for advice.

I learned one more thing at Garfield that is still so contrary to popular opinion that a parent at New Trier High School in the affluent Chicago suburbs, where C students are usually barred from AP, said in a letter to a community newspaper that it "defied common sense." Students who struggle in an AP course with its college-size reading list and flunk the three-hour final exam, I learned, are still much better off than if they are denied a chance to take the course and the test. They have just played 72 holes with the academic equivalent of Tiger Woods, and although Tiger has beaten them, they have gained from the experience a visceral appreciation of what they are going to have to do to survive in college. Teachers cannot dumb down AP and IB courses without being caught because the final exams are written and scored by outside experts. That undiluted taste of academic trauma stays with their students and helps them work hard enough to get their bachelor's degrees.

Which takes us back to the chart. It summarizes research supporting what the New Trier mom thought was so unbelievable. The left column, under "Passed an AP exam," is the easiest to understand. Those students showed some academic talent in high school and have relatively good degree completion rates, at least for state schools.

But the truly exciting parts of the chart for me are the middle and right columns. Students who did not take AP courses in high school showed little success in college. That was not very startling. But look at the college completion percentages of students who took and failed an AP exam.

Theirs was a strange kind of failure. Look past the exam result, and you see that they still substantially increased their chances of college success. Anglos who flunked an AP exam were twice as likely to get their degrees as those who never took one. Hispanics, African American and low-income students were three times as likely to get their degrees if they at least tried AP.

Correlation, as statisticians say, is not causation, and more research on the Texas data would be very useful. But Escalante showed me how these courses affected students. And Clifford Adelman, a U.S. Education Department senior researcher, reported similar conclusions in 1999 from an analysis of data for about 8,700 students.

Because of some unusually well-informed local school boards and superintendents, most Washington area high schools have begun to encourage all interested students to try AP and IB. Few if any of the A students have complained about the influx of C students, because the incorruptible tests force the teachers to aim high still. But most other regions don't see Escalante's point. Only 5 percent of U.S. high schools average one AP or IB test per graduating senior, and even in some affluent districts in this area, such as Howard County, most schools haven't reached that modest standard. A handful of private schools in other parts of the country are taking the AP label off their courses because their teachers find it confining, but many of their students still take the AP tests.

Every AP and IB teacher in the country should copy that Texas chart, blow it up to 3-by-4-foot size and tape it to the wall of his or her classroom. And every parent and every student in every high school that restricts access to AP and IB courses should wave the chart at the principals, school superintendents, school board members and other thick-headed people refusing to open the doors to those courses for everyone who wants to take them. Escalante, enjoying a happy retirement in Bolivia, isn't around to stick his fingers in people's faces anymore, so we are going to have to do it for him.

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Jay Mathews, an education reporter for The Post, is the author of "Escalante: The Best Teacher in America" (Owl Book). This article is based on a column he wrote for The Post's Web site.

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