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High Schoolers Score On College Courses

Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Jay Mathews was online Tuesday, Feb. 8, at Noon ET to discuss new data which shows that Washington area high schools have achieved some of the nation's best results in college-level courses.

Read the story:Fairfax Student AP Results Among Top in U.S. (Post, Feb. 8)


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Washington, D.C.: My youngest is a freshman in college, so I am happily free of all the emotions surrounding SATs and AP. So I can say (calmly) that I believe we should get rid of "advanced placement" and language that makes it sound as if a course is really a college-level course. In fact, the (AP) course is being taught in high school and is a high school course. What is happening, I think, is that we have rather successfully developed a system that has various levels of high school courses, as well as various levels of colleges and college courses. That is a remarkably good accomplishment. Our educational system has found a way, still imperfect, to address the fact that all students are different, some because of their genes, some because of their family's economic situation, some because of being more highly motivated (in some subjects, but not others), some because of passing emotional problems that have nothing to do with school. We should move toward naming courses accordingly. I think that "Honors" works well. I also think that titles like "Chemistry for the non-science major" is a good way to describe a course for a particular type of student. But "Advanced Placement" does not work for me. The point is not that the student will get credit for a college course, but rather that he/she has the talent and interest to take what others might consider too complicated. I would prefer a name like "Special Interest" course rather than AP. Thanks for all your fine columns and ideas

Jay Mathews: It is an interesting idea, but doomed to failure. Whatever you call AP, it will collect the stress and aura, both good and bad, that attach to the fact about AP that makes it so different from other high school courses, and in my mind so good: it presents the student with an incorruptible national standard which they must achieve to get a good grade, and which their teacher is powerless to give to them in the way teachers can grant their own good grades to kids who are nice, or who try hard or who at least show up.
I think it is terribly important to have that in high schools, in the form of AP or IB or the Cambridge tests or any future programs we might construct. That is because college is hard to adjust to, and if you don't give all the kids who are even thinking about college a taste of college in high school, they are not going to be ready. That is impossible to do, except at the very best top 1 percent of US high schools, without AP or something like it.
Also, try to be careful with the notion that some kids, because of background, aren't up to it. I became an education writer 22 years ago because i stumbled across a teacher in inner city LA who did not believe that, and proved that he was right, with more kids taking AP calculus in an poverty stricken school than all but 4 high schools in the country.

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Falls Church, Va.: Excellent on-line article about the true value of education. I have one small disagreement, though. Ireland around two hundred years ago probably had more "debate over the issues of the day" going on among the lower classes of people than anywhere else in Europe. A radical newspaper, the "Northern Star," out of Belfast, was voraciously read by the literate to the illiterate in the 1790s, with each edition reaching about 40,000 readers. The northern Irish province of Ulster had among the highest literacy rates anywhere, helped by the high percentage of Presbyterians, for whom the reading of the Bible was central to their faith. Life in rural Ulster was highly politicized, probably difficult, and often violent, but I wouldn't call it boring.

Jay Mathews: I would love to see your sources on that. I am aware of the urban underclass getting a good dose of that kind of political excitement, but from what i have read, the peasant Mathewses rarely caught a whiff of it.

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Washington, D.C.: A week ago, ABC's World News Tonight ran a lengthy segment on the perceived liberal bias in the faculties and administrations of universities in the U.S. Has anyone ever reviewed local universities to see if this trend is continued in and around Washington? I would think that local institutions would be a bit more conservative (or, at least, realpolitic) than, say, the Ivy League schools.

Jay Mathews: It is difficult to do the reporting on this, because it would require extensive polling of professors and students, which is expensive. But my own contacts on these campuses suggest that the historical leftism of American campuses, indeed campuses worldwide, will be found nearly everywhere in the Washington area, even in places that don't have that Ivy glow. It is annoying to some parents, like me, but it does inspire interesting discussions with our children, and in the end, I think, is a net plus. We grow more conservative as we age, for a lot of interesting reasons, and it is good that we have young people exploring other thinking, and keeping us up to date, able to see our own biases. As a journalist who worships balance, I wish there was more in the college lectures that I hear, but you can't have everything, and the young products of those colleges appear to me to be first rate people. And if your kid wants a more conservative campus, there are many in the South, and with religious ties. Bill Bennett has written a college guide pointing them out.

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Laurel, Md.: Have you heard of CLEP exams (College Level Examination Programs)? Is this open to high school students?

If so, then why the need for AP classes? The way I understand it, all you have to do is take an exam and it may be transferred as a certain amount of credits in college.

My wife, who speaks fluent Spanish, took the exam and managed to get 12 college credits, thereby bypassing the Univ. of Maryland's foreign language credit in her College/Department requirements.

Jay Mathews: The CLEP are designed for adults who can turn what they have learned in jobs or in life into college credit. They are a great idea, and are accessible to high school students. They can even be used as a substitute for the state tests in Virginia. But it is the very rare highschooler who has acquired the requisite knowledge to pass one of those on her own. The beauty of AP and IB is not just the tests, but the courses that precede them where the students learn something at a very high level, driven by the need to pass the test.

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Fairborn, Ohio: Greetings from a Washington ex-pat. The school system in my new home town is in a death spiral. I don't have kids, but this is something I want to fix. Can you point me to some advice or inspiring examples for getting a new school elected, cutting out the deadwood and fraud through the administration, rewarding the teachers who have been doing the right things, and retraining or replacing the ones who are just marking time?
Thanks, Jay!

Jay Mathews: That is a very tall order. Getting yourself elected to the school board, while volunteering to tutor, is one way. Another is to start your own charter school. Start talking to neighbors who feel the same way, and lots of ideas will arise.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is there any discernible difference between the college prospects of a high school student in an AP-based high school versus an IB one? Is there any data available on the colleges they wind up attending, test scores, etc., or is it too soon?

Jay Mathews: There is no discernible difference. The data shows that both do much better in the admissions process than students who don't do AP or IB, and all other factors being equal, a kid with four AP scores will do just as well as a kid with four IB scores of equal level. They get into the same colleges at the same rate. The IB kids have a little more trouble getting college credit for some courses at some schools, but in most cases the college takes a look at what they had in IB, or gives them a placement test, and they get just what their twin who took AP got. It is a trivial difference, and the IB has advantages, such as the required extended essay for diploma candidates, that are so valuable that in the end, i would choose IB for my kid, if any of them were still around and ever listened to me.

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Berryville, Va.: You don't talk about Clark County schools in your article. They ranked 14th among all schools in the area and Clark County high school ranked 124th nation wide. It would have been nice to see a rural school get a little recognition for their outstanding IB program.

Jay Mathews: You are quite right. Like about half of the school districts around here, they were not able to work up the data in time, since it is a very different system. But the mastery rate at the other districts produces results so close to the challenge index rates and standing that you cite, that i am quite certain that Clarke's mastery rate, when they finally calculate it, will be very high. That is the best rural IB program in the country.

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Montgomery: Why is the title of the article about Fairfax schools when Montgomery scores are better? It's not like it's a surprise that Fairfax schools did well. Montgomery's overall scores seemed much more impressive.

Is this an anti-Montgomery conspiracy or just rabid pro-Fairfax bias on the Post's part?

Thanks.

Jay Mathews: We wrote different ledes for the story in each different zone, a Fairfax lede for the Va zone, etc. But you confuse me. What figures in the story suggested to you that Moco was so much better than FX? The AP mastery rates were almost the same, and the AP/IB rates were identical. Tell me more at mathewsj@washpost.com.

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Washington, D.C.: Have you ever done a story on an organization in Philadelphia called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)? I've seen the organization's name a fair bit (I think they were mentioned in an ABC news report last week.).

Jay Mathews: I have done two or three columns about FIRE, including one in our magazine two years ago about how they rate colleges by receptiveness to dissent. It is a very interesting and provocative organization, and have done a fine job exposing the sad campus tendency to squelch immature rebel thinkers.

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College Park, Md.: One structural difference between AP courses and the typical 100-level college classes they substitute for is TIME:

AP classes run during the entire year.

Most 100-level college classes are a semester or a speedy quarter for some colleges.

I think a year in high school on college-level material, discussion, and evaluation (papers, essays, exam questions) is a fabulous transition for any college-bound student.

I speak as the parent of two college students: a senior in college without AP in her career (now an honor Classics major with a very high GPA) and a freshman who entered college last year with 5 AP classes, earning credit for all.

I also teach a core class in composition at a local, state university.

Jay Mathews: A very wise observation. I could not agree more. I also think AP is better because you are in a small class with a first rate, experienced teacher and with friends highly motivated to do well so you can look good to colleges. You rarely have any of that in a college intro course.

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Germantown, Md.: What about the students who are left behind?
They do not fit in with the AP/Honors students and they do not get the help they need if they are not ESOL or children who are low achievers. I see so many of the students, especially Afro-American males "fall through the cracks" of an already populated system. They are struggling but are doing well enough to stay afloat in the system. These children are not recognized as either high/low achievers. They are labeled "as long as you are passing standardize testing, we cannot help you children ... No child left behind, huh, I beg to differ.

Jay Mathews: They are PRECISELY the kids I mentioned in my first answer, the kids that Jaime Escalante turned into AP scholars at Garfield High in East LA. And the great movement to bring AP to more schools is targeting just those students, with programs like the Cohort at Wakefield high in Arlington, Va.---a group of minority boys in each class who meet weekly to talk about how to handle those touch classes, and cheer each other on.

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Richmond, Va.: What do you think of a Montessori education. It seems to me that Montessori, taught the way it was envisioned by Maria Montessori, goes much further towards achieving the goal of a love of learning and an interest in the world that you describe in your column today, than the methods that most public schools currently employ. There is so much emphasis on passing the tests, especially the SOLs here in Virginia, that enjoying being in school and learning is secondary to memorizing information that may come up on a test.

Jay Mathews: All three of our children were in Montessori programs. We helped start a Montessori school in Hong Kong. I think you are quite right, and i am thinking of doing a story on the rise of Montessori in the DC area. I am hearing about more schools, including some that are part of public systems.

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Fairfax, Va.: As a former New Yorker, I grew up with the Regents system and the end of year Regents exams. Why don't more states adopt a similar system of standardizing exams that students need to pass in order to graduate?

Jay Mathews: They are. You are living in a state that is doing exactly that, with the Standards of Learning exams. About 20 other states have followed suit. But as you know, it is hard to keep that standard up. The old NY regents fell by the wayside as just a program for the best kids, and needed reviving. We shall see how this cycle of state tests does. Many people think they are too hard on kids who are at the margins, in danger of not graduating.

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Falls Church, Va.: Re: sources on politicization and literacy in late 18th-century Ireland (and class struggle). See especially Jim Smyth, "Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century"(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992) and Ian McBride, "Scripture Politics: Ulster Presbyterianism and Irish Radicalism in the Late Eighteenth Century" (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). Contemporary observers thought the newspaper-reading habits of the lower classes were remarkable and downright dangerous.

Jay Mathews: Thanks very much. My education continues.

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Bethesda, Md.: Jay:
I have to disagree with your comment that you get smaller classes in AP. First semester this year, my son's AP Calculus class had 36 students and 1 teacher. It was eventually "reduced" to 32 kids, still a ridiculous number for such a class.

I'm also puzzled generally by your comment that classes are smaller and kids more motivated in AP: this seems to contradict your usual mantra that everyone, no matter how poor their grades or dull their interest should be taking AP classes. I can tell you from the personal experience of my son (who attends one of the "best" high schools in Montgomery County) that urging large numbers of kids to take AP does not automatically motivate them.

Jay Mathews: I meant that AP classes were smaller than the introductory college classes that they are meant to replace, with the typical state school having 300 students in a classes, big lectures and maybe once a week section meetings with a grad student who is not an experienced teacher.
As for motivation, my first and foremost point is that most of our high schools (not in this area anymore, thankfully, but in the rest of the country) BAN many motivated students from AP courses because their sophomore grades were not high enough. That is stupid. In Mont county and many other parts of this region, we have moved to the next step, opened AP and IB to all, and are trying to coax the less motivated into the classes. That is as it should be. You have to get them into the class before good teachers can motivate them. Some will resist, but some will see the light, and that is a lot better than letting then stay in the frothy regular courses where their teenage slacker instincts would leave them. I still wait for stories of motivated kids hurt by non motivated students being in AP classes. I have a few, but the kids who tell them seem to be talking about their feelings of resentment toward the slackers, and not any decline in their own achievement in the class.

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Virginia: Do you have a breakdown by gender? Since 65 percent of all undergraduates in colleges/universities are female, the boys in H.S. are often ignored and left out.

Jay Mathews: You have identified an important issue. Boys are less likely to work hard in high school, and have more opportunities for good jobs after high school, like the military, than girls, so are less likely to enroll in college. I actually think this is a good news story in disguise. The rise of girls in college is the result of more low-income girls going to college than before. Now we have to work on the guys, or at least make sure they can choose college if they want to.

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Alexandria, Va.: Jay,
Has anyone at the Post considered an article discussing the differences between IB and AP courses in high school? My daughter faces a difficult decision as to which of two local schools to attend -- one is IB and the other is AP. This sort of an article would be so helpful to rising freshmen and their parents.
Thank you,

Jay Mathews: i just wrote one of those for the Fairfax EXTRA section of the post last December, but nothing for the whole paper. I will suggest that to an editor. Good way to use what i have learned from my IB book, Supertest, coming out next month. Thanks for the idea. If you need any personal advice, email me at mathewsj@washpost.com.

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Rockville, Md.: Do you have any data or opinion on whether a high school class selection rich in AP courses is the same, better, or worse than a formal curriculum of AP classes, including "pre-AP" courses and an identified group of students all studying in this program (such as the Walter Johnson APEX program)?

Jay Mathews: I like the pre-AP format because it helps more kids get ready, but it does not have to be formal. You just need good middle school, and 9th and 10th grade teachers devoted to getting kids ready.

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Tampa, Fla.: I quickly skimmed the comments thus far regarding the state of college preparedness among the D. C. metropolitan high school students. I must say that I am curious about the racial breakdown of the successful students. Here in Florida, I worked for 9 years in a school-based counseling program designed on paper to enhance self-esteem as documented by improved academic functioning. I reminded myself daily that I was working with a special population in two of the poorest elementary schools. I rarely interacted with students who were excelling academically and felt giddy with Candide's optimism when I would meet an articulate youngster who enjoyed reading! There is a much higher occurrence of blacks and minorities being labeled as learning disabled, or below grade level in these schools. I overheard a school principal whispering to a cohort that one of my schools had scored so poorly because of the blacks. So I pulled up all the county stats on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and sure enough she was right. Higher percentages of black and minority children fail or score lower than their white classmates on standardized tests.

My query and interest in the D.C. high school students success at college preparation is what significant socioeconomic factors are represented in the sample being discussed. I saw enough of racism, stereotyping, and denial the past 14 years working with at-risk families to know that our schools need to improve significantly in order to provide equal and equitable education for all students in public schools.

An avid reader since age nine, it was heartbreaking to see young students on honor roll in the program I served, who could not punctuate a sentence at age eleven. What is it like for minority students in our nation's capital?

Jay Mathews: The whole point of focusing on AP and IB is to give students like that an incorruptible standard. The AP or IB grader doesn't know you, doesn't know your ethnicity. They are just reading your test. Once a school gets serious about AP and IB for all kids, which is what are best schools here are doing, the standards rise, and the kids you describe so well get the teaching they deserve.

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Berkeley, Calif.: As an American woman with advanced degrees who has spent time in Guatemala, Honduras, Thailand, and Cambodia, I take offense at your insinuation that people from developing countries take no interest in "current debate." In fact, the people I know in Central America actually know what CAFTA is and how it will impact their economy and livelihood, while my family in the rural midwest, all of whom certainly have radios and televisions, some of whom attended college and all of whom graduated from high school, have literally NO appreciation for the events that are occurring worldwide. Please stop making gross generalizations about advanced Americans and their curiosity when compared to people who lack the basic education we have received. Their desire to understand the world far outweighs that of most Americans I know.

Jay Mathews: YOur point is well taken. I was insensitive. But I was trying to make a point about people who yearn for a simpler time, but don't really want to be out of range of Starbucks. Do they have those in rural Guatamala now?

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: My daughter is a junior at Largo H.S. in Prince George's, and though she has taken two AP classes, the school administration actively discourages students from taking the AP tests. If I could have afforded it, she would have stayed in private school after the 9th grade, where I never heard her say, "They think we're stupid anyway". I will start by raising h--l at the school, but where do I go after that? The culture of the entire system has to change in order for these children to succeed.

Jay Mathews: I am afraid you are going to have to fight hard, or move your kid. They can't keep you from taking the test. You can sign up on your own. But that means getting the kid tutoring, since the school is obviously not working hard to get kids ready. PLEASE email me at mathewsj@washpost.com. I want to hear more about this.

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Virginia: I disagreed about the ideology on college campus. There is only one, the left-wing liberal side. Free speech is only that the left are right. There is no free speech in the workplace.

Jay Mathews: I dunnoh. We get into some pretty good arguments at the Washington Post, and you should see my family on holidays.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Jay,
I have noticed a difference concerning the number of electives offered to students, particularly freshmen, in IB and AP schools. AP schools seem to offer more electives. Have you ever studied this issue? Do you know why this difference exists? Thanks.

Jay Mathews: If you want the IB diploma, you have to prepare for six different IB tests, plus the extended essay. That leaves less time for electives than an AP system, which has no set number of AP courses. But most schools allow you to take just a few IB courses if you wish.

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Washington, D.C.: Jay -- I was intrigued by the Web site that you mentioned last week called College Results Online, that lists graduation rates. I am a faculty member at Gallaudet University, where it takes an average of 7 years to graduate (for reasons too numerous to mention here, but it would make a great story!). When you look at the 6-year graduation rates, they are abysmal. Does it matter if it takes a student 6 years or 7 to graduate? Isn't the key issue that the student graduates? I'm not sure how to interpret the information.

Jay Mathews: You are telling me something i didn't know. If one is moving toward graduation, 6 or 7 years makes little difference. I will have to find out more about this. Thanks for the tip.

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Jay Mathews: Thanks very much to all who sent these great questions, and feel free to contact me at any time at mathewsj@washpost.com.

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