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Is AP Good for Everybody? It's Debatable

Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page B03

It's thrilling to get that college acceptance. But thousands of the happy high school seniors now hearing from the schools of their choice will never stick it out to earn a college diploma. More and more educators -- and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates -- say that's because America's high schools are doing a poor job of preparing many students for the rigors of higher ed. What kids need is to be challenged more, they say. One way to do that, some think, is to let more of them -- not just the exceptional students -- take Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. But do all kids benefit from these more exacting classes? Outlook invited Post education writer Jay Mathews and Alexandria high school teacher Patrick Welsh to debate the issue.

JAY MATHEWS covers education for The Post. A longtime advocate of opening AP courses to any student who wants to take them, he devised the so-called Challenge Index as a measure of high schools' willingness to allow more students to take AP and other college-level classes.

PATRICK WELSH, an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria since 1970 and an Outlook contributor since 1983, has taught AP classes for the last 26 years.

MATHEWS: Pat, you're very rare among great teachers I know in thinking that AP should not be offered to many more kids. Research shows that the intense academic experience offered by AP and other demanding courses increases the chances that high school students will graduate from college. A recent University of California study showed that more than half of all freshmen going into the state university system had no AP, International Baccalaureate or honors courses in high school, and many researchers think that's why most of them can't survive academically in college. I'm not so worried about the motivated, college-bound students at T.C. Williams who get the benefit of your instruction. What concerns me is the vast majority of average students at other schools who are going to try college, but are not being given a college-level experience in high school so that they're prepared for foot-high reading lists and very long exams.

I came up with what I call the Challenge Index to help readers understand this. I divide the number of AP, IB or other college-level tests a school gives each year by the number of graduating seniors. Newsweek publishes the names of all the schools that have at least as many tests as they have seniors -- what many educators consider a reasonable goal. Sadly, only 4 percent of public high schools nationwide have reached that level. Happily, 61 percent of Washington-area public schools have, and T.C. Williams will reach that level this year.

WELSH: We both agree that students need to be challenged, Jay, but you seem to think that they have to be in AP courses for that to happen. Your challenge index ignores the basic mission of schools and teachers: to take their students and stretch them as far as possible. The number of kids taking AP tests is but one tiny measure of whether a school fulfills that mission. You've unwittingly created an out-of-control monster, a smoke and mirrors numbers game, the equivalent of ranking the teams in the NCAA basketball tournament on the basis of the number of players who got in the game, instead of the final score. You have image-conscious public school officials so intimidated that they're putting as many kids as possible -- and I am not talking about average kids who are willing to do the work -- into AP courses so that they can get a higher ranking on your index. In fact, I already know the challenge index score you will give T.C. Williams on the basis of the 830 AP exams to be given here next month. Even if every one of those exams got a score of 1 (the lowest possible score on a 5-point scale) you will give us a 1.4 (830 divided by the 588 kids in the senior class) up from .949 last year. Are we a better school this year than last because more kids will take the AP test and we will finally make your Newsweek list? Hardly.

The result of this numbers game is the exact opposite of what you intend: The stronger students aren't getting the challenge they should be getting and the weaker students, instead of learning the basic things they will need for college, are being overwhelmed. Furthermore, at a time when high-paying jobs that demand two years of technical school or community college go begging because of the lack of skilled workers, your index is bolstering the myth that every kid needs to go to a four-year college or university -- a myth that Bill Gates has been busy reinforcing.

MATHEWS: I suspect that many Washington-area parents and students are scratching their heads at the notion that their principal could force students into an AP course, like classroom pranksters sent to detention. The problem is that teachers in most U.S. schools are working against schoolwide and areawide standards that are far below what their students are capable of. If I could magically transfer you to a more typical high school than T.C., you would urge your students upward and find much more resistance to doing very much homework, participating in class or getting into an academic groove. In schools like that, AP or IB is a powerful tool for changing the culture. Kids are galvanized by the idea of taking a college-level course. I've interviewed hundreds of teachers who have told me that AP and IB let them work with students to beat a very challenging test that they don't control, rather than pursuing the common practice of dumbing down their own tests to whatever level will yield enough good grades to keep the principal and the parents happy.

WELSH: In my four sections of AP English, about 40 percent of the 96 students do not have the motivation and/or the ability to do the work and are making it difficult for me to push the other half who should be in the course to their limits. If we had a traditional college prep course for those who are having difficulty, they would learn much more than they are learning now sitting in my AP course. As it is, what we have are just two groupings of students: "regular" courses, which for the most part are remedial, and AP courses, which are becoming less and less advanced the more the school system reacts to your rankings.

MATHEWS: If there is too wide a range of abilities in each AP class, why not put the students who are struggling in their own AP section? But don't deny them a chance to work toward an AP test, and get that taste of college trauma. Jaime Escalante at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles had hundreds of low-income Mexican American kids who would have been denied a chance at AP in the usual system that reserves those courses for the fastest kids, but he took them in, found that two-thirds of them passed the AP calculus tests when given enough time and encouragement, and started a revolution in bringing higher standards to our most overlooked schools. In most of the high schools I've visited, courses pitched below the AP level are way below the AP level, and don't get the kids who take them very far. In the real world, do you really want to give schools an excuse to follow their usual instincts and keep kids out of AP because they're black or because they got a C in sophomore English?

WELSH: The fact is, Jay, that many of the best students in my classes are black girls. It's unmotivated boys -- white and black -- who are vegetating, serving only to get us a higher ranking on your index. I agree totally with Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, who recently wrote: "The markers of true educational quality are far more difficult to quantify than the number of students enrolled in a particular class. . . . Ranking of schools encourages a destructive competitiveness, leading institutions away from offering rich alternatives and toward a stultifying sameness."

MATHEWS: I think you and Patrick Bassett ought to visit some of the many high schools that have opened up their AP and IB courses to all. Take Wakefield High School in Arlington. Close to half of its students are low-income, and the majority are minorities -- just like T.C. Yet its AP participation rate has been much higher than T.C.'s for the last six years. Wakefield's AP teachers have made it their goal to look from the ninth grade on for all students who have the potential to do well in AP and get them ready for that challenge. Their ninth-grade academy directs students to the most challenging preparatory courses. Their Cohort program brings together for weekly meetings boys who benefit from sharing their experiences in raising their game academically. Their Advanced Placement Network provides extra help and a summer program to meet the school's goal of every student taking at least one AP course, not just the numerical average of one per graduating senior that they have already reached.

I think it's good for your students to recognize that the best sign of learning is not your score on a single test -- haven't they heard that from you in the case of the Virginia Standard of Learning tests? -- but how much you read and write and talk and think in a class, and AP gives schools that need it a star to guide them.

WELSH: There you go again with the numbers game, Jay. Show me the AP test results at Wakefield, not the "participation rate," and I might be impressed. This past year, on the basis of "participation rate," you ranked a D.C. school that had only 11 passing scores on last year's AP exams above T.C., which had 302 passing scores. You've finally revealed the logic behind your ratings: You have such a low opinion of teachers that you believe that they are incapable of challenging students without the College Board's AP "star to guide them." That's nonsense. Kids aren't "galvanized" by the label on a course but by good teachers. I don't think you realize the enormous power you have and the damage your rankings are doing. Alexandria, for instance, has increased the sections of AP English from 8 to 11, and has offered to pay the $82 fee for every kid to take the test. Even kids not taking an AP course are being encouraged to sign up to take the test. The pressure created by your rankings is reducing AP to a public relations ploy.

MATHEWS: Then why am I getting almost no complaints about the index, and in fact hearing from students who say they love their AP classes and from parents happy with an additional way to judge schools? I assumed when Fairfax County did seven years ago what Alexandria is doing now -- opening up AP and IB to all students, paying the test fees and requiring that they take the tests -- there would be a flood of e-mails saying we had ruined those schools. So far, I've seen only one complaint from any Fairfax parent or student. Most seem to think this system is making their schools even better.

WELSH: Get your facts straight, Jay. For the last 15 years, T.C. Williams has encouraged any student who wants to try AP courses to do so, regardless of previous grades. And the school has always paid for kids who couldn't afford to take the test. But because of your index, kids are now being shoved into AP. Fairfax County teachers I've talked to say you have single-handedly destroyed their traditional college prep honors programs and are responsible for watering down their AP courses. "Kids now are being pushed out of honors into AP courses because of Mathews's index," one told me. "All principals care about are head counts -- how many kids take, not pass, AP tests. Teachers are furious that administrators have caved in" to the challenge index.

MATHEWS: Show me some data that support your point. As for watering down AP in Fairfax, here are some real numbers: The percentage of students getting scores of 3 or above on the AP tests decreased from 75 to 61 percent when the program was opened to all in 1998. Fairfax teachers went to work, and despite giving more AP tests than ever this year, that passing rate is up to 70 percent -- above the national average -- and getting higher. The AP teachers I speak to say average students are better off in their classes, struggling to reach a college standard rather than sitting in a regular class being given good grades for much less challenging work.

There's lots of data to back them up. The UCLA annual survey of more than 400,000 college freshmen shows that two-thirds of them spent only an hour a day, or less, doing homework when they were in high school. Teachers may not be able to get all of them to score 3s, but you can certainly move them from the standard regular-course fare to something that will prepare them for the demands of college.

WELSH: The AP grading standards are so low in English, government and history that any reasonably bright kid can walk in off the street and get a score of 3. That's not a college experience in my book. Given the demographics of Fairfax County, a 70 percent pass rate is nothing to crow about.

I have to say I'm a bit nonplussed that someone who has written such wise advice to students on college selection has such a blind spot when it comes to high school courses. I have shared your wonderful article "Ignoring the Ivy Itch" with my students. In it you point out that there are many roads to success -- that people like Warren Buffett, Rudy Giuliani, Oprah Winfrey and many others did not go to the highly competitive, "name" colleges that parents and kids think will guarantee success. There are likewise roads to success in high school other than AP courses. Your desire to see kids challenged is noble, but your methods have backfired. But since I'm sure I can't convince you to change, I can only hope that parents who want to see their kids truly challenged will convince public schools officials to start using common sense and ignore the challenge index.

Authors' e-mails: mathewsj@washpost.com, May6dog@aol.com

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