Ted Schultz can still remember 16 years later what his Advanced Placement (AP) calculus teacher at Ramsey (N.J.) High School said to him when he tried to back out of taking the three-hour AP test at the end of the course. Schultz was old enough to know he had no future in mathematics. He was getting a C in the course. The very fine university that had already admitted him, Cornell, was unlikely to give him any college credit for it.
His high school's math department, however, was proud of its record of many students taking and passing the AP calculus test. In a way, they exemplified the virtues of my suggestion in a recent column that high schools let students and their parents use AP or International Baccalaureate (IB) test results to rate AP or IB teachers and as a consequence encourage those teachers to do their utmost to prepare students for the college-level examinations.
_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Schultz may have had mediocre math grades, but his calculus teacher knew he was an honors student, with a respectable 660 on the SAT math test. The teacher figured he would get at least a passing score of 3 on the five-point test, and add to the department's good record. Schultz's teacher said to him, as best he can remember: "You will take the AP test. Or you can take my test, which will be harder than the AP test, and you will fail it. If you fail my test, you'll fail for the period, and maybe the semester. And if you fail for the semester, you'll start college on academic probation. You make the choice."
Now a lawyer in Washington, Schultz says he still thinks the whole thing was a waste of his time. A system that lets parents and students rate teachers by their AP results, he says, would just encourage more teachers to "place extremely burdensome demands upon the students, regardless of whether this helps the student achieve long-term goals."
Yet after that July 20 column, most of the many e-mails I received said letting parents and students review AP teacher's results was a good idea. I had shown the AP results for a few successful and a few unsuccessful AP teachers in the Arlington and Alexandria districts of Northern Virginia, expressed as the percentage of students receiving passing scores in each subject. The best was David Keener, a legendary biology teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, whose students had a 98 percent passing rate in 2003. The worst was a social studies teacher at the H-B Woodlawn high school in Arlington, who had just a 36 percent passing rate.
Arlington and Alexandria said they would show the results for each AP or IB subject to any students or parents who asked. But four of the 14 other Washington area districts I contacted said they would not, and many readers said they thought that was a bad policy.
"The long-term test results of similar cohorts of students taking the same teacher's AP or IB class reflect a good part of the teacher's ability, in the same way that mortality rates for a surgeon and investment results for a financial adviser reflect on those professionals' competency," said Robert Rosenfeld, a parent in Montgomery County. "Although teachers cannot be held to guarantee test results -- as if students are empty vessels waiting to be filled without effort on their part -- nonetheless teachers can be held to deliver effective instruction."
Sophia Twaddell said she agreed, and told a story about two AP classes her middle son took at Evanston Township (Ill.) High School. "As a junior he took AP U.S. history with a fabulous teacher and scored a 5," she said. "This year he took AP European history with a teacher who was completely mediocre . . . and guess what? He only scored a three. . . . Had I known that some teachers' students scored higher on average than others, I would have demanded placements for my sons in those classrooms."
Francoise Galleto recalled the difference between her AP calculus class and her AP Latin literature class when she attended Redwood High School in Marin County, Calif., in the late 1990s. Her calculus teacher, Mr. Goldman, "gave me the first D I'd ever gotten on an exam in my life, and made it clear from the beginning that he expected only the very best from us," Galleto said. She got a 5 on that test, while in Latin the teacher was "a wonderful, fun uncle figure" who set low standards. Galleto got a 3 on the AP Latin test, which was the highest score in the class.
Teachers are important, many readers said, and families should be entitled to information that will help them decide which are best. "The NFL tracks quarterback passing yards, with the understanding that some teams have better offensive linemen and receivers than others," said Mike Shen of Vienna, Va. "For the teachers to refuse to be measured on the AP scores is not unlike quarterbacks refusing to be measured on their passing yards."
Even some teachers agreed with that. Peter Johnson, chair of the social studies department and AP teacher at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, said, "AP teachers should face some sort of accountability, and having their pass rates become public knowledge can be an effective motivating tool. I know this may sound harsh, but I have known quite a few AP teachers during my career as both a high school student and teacher who have taught AP courses only because they figure that fewer disciplinary problems will arise in such courses, or because they will receive an additional financial stipend for doing so."
Those who didn't like the idea of rating teachers this way often pointed out that AP teachers could make themselves look better than they were by discouraging their worst students from taking the test, or letting only the best students into their class at the beginning of the school year. In most high schools, only A students are allowed into AP courses. Teachers often advise students who are struggling in an AP course not to waste $82 on a test that they are going to fail.
But in the Washington area, many schools have made it a rule that even B and C students may take AP or IB courses if they want to, since research shows that participation in such courses, no matter how well they do on the test, will help them prepare for college. Many of those same schools require that all AP and IB students take the AP and IB tests, so teachers cannot load the dice by seeing that those lesser scores are never recorded.
That didn't satisfy many of those who think rating teachers by their test scores won't work. Scott Silton, an AP government and politics teacher in the San Francisco Bay area, said the percentage of students passing the test each year can vary greatly depending on how many students take the course. One teacher may restrict access to academic stars, and his passing rate will be very high. Another teacher at another school may open his door to any interested student, and have a lower passing rate. His recommendation: rate AP teachers by how many of their students, not what percentage of students, pass the test each year.
Robert Mawyer, an English instructor at Heartland Community College in Normal, Ill., raised another issue that I had not considered. To my question, "Should parents and students be allowed to see this information?" he answers: "Yes, but what good will it do?"
"If a parent discovered that their child's AP teacher boasted less than stellar AP results, what could they do?" he says. "Not allow their child to take the class, knowing that this could compromise the student's college application? Investigate sending their child to some other school district so that education becomes more like a consumer choice than it already is? Or possibly agitate for some other person to teach the course, in which case the teacher might actually end up being punished, just as educators fear?"
I asked Ted Schultz, who cannot forget his annoyance at being forced to take a calculus test that did him no good, if he might be protesting too much. Taking the calculus test did not hurt him in any significant way. He got a 2, which delighted him since it frustrated the teacher's plan to boost his passing rate. But he didn't have to send Cornell his score. I thought forcing an irksome math test on Schultz was a small price to pay for establishing a system that made sure all students got a taste of the college trauma that many of them would need to survive their freshman year.
Schultz stood his ground, but I think it is important to note that much has changed since he took that calculus test in 1988. AP and IB are much more important now, and better understood. There are no other standard measures of high school learning that demand as much, and I think we are nearing the point where their worth as a way of identifying our best teachers is going to be irresistible.