Three months ago I read a commentary in the newspaper Education Week and wondered why I heard a grinding sound. It turned out to be my back molars, scraping together in a way my dentist has complained about many times. The reason for my obvious tension was a commentary, "On Dropping AP Courses: A Voice from the Developing Movement," [Jan. 19 issue] by Bruce G. Hammond, director of college counseling at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, N.M.
AP means Advanced Placement. It, and a smaller but similar program called International Baccalaureate (IB), are high school courses designed to take the place of introductory courses in college. They have long reading lists and difficult final exams written and graded by outside experts.
_____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 email@example.com.
The Wall Street Journal published a story, "Elite Schools Drop AP Courses," last November about some high schools rejecting AP. I had written about this development myself in 2003, both in this column and in Newsweek. I was unhappy with Hammond's article because I thought it would provide ammunition to wrong-headed educators trying to keep AP and IB out of the many non-elite schools that teachers I admire say need that exposure to college-level learning.
Two things in Hammond's piece particularly irked me. He implied that AP educators could not be creative and deep in their teaching, when I had met many who were precisely that. And he suggested that AP programs hurt teacher morale, when in the vast majority of the schools I have visited, AP teachers are the ones who feel best about their jobs.
Unfortunately, I could not dismiss Hammond as an ignorant amateur. His article made it clear he was a splendid writer and an accomplished educator who had taught AP American history himself. So I politely asked him to tell me more about the group of anti-AP schools he was helping organize. He responded warmly and generously, like the good teacher he is, even if he knew he was dealing with a recalcitrant student.
He not only told me what was going on at Sandia Prep, but he also put me in touch with other educators in this movement to celebrate alternatives to AP. These are very kind and honest people who soothed me by making it clear that their movement is tiny and unlikely to get very far. Parachuting off skyscrapers is probably a more popular trend than dropping AP courses from American high schools. Hammond could identify only 12 schools that actively shunned AP, or were close to doing so. That is four-hundredths of one percent of all the high schools in the country. Since these are all small private schools, their policies affect less than 1,000 graduating seniors each year. And even when these schools drop the AP label, those courses remain close enough to the AP standard that some of their students still take the three-hour AP tests and do well on them.
Every year since 1999, Hammond has convened a meeting at the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling called the "Non-AP/AP Concerns Interest Group." Attendance has fluctuated between six to 30 people, he said. That, and his piece in Edweek, are the extent of his proselytizing. His day job still takes most of his time.
And he knows the power of the forces that his group is up against. "The number of schools intrigued by the idea of dropping AP far outnumbers those which actually go through with it because of the intense pressure that can be brought to bear by the parents," he said. The fathers and mothers who pay the tuition at these expensive schools know that college-level courses are virtually an entrance requirement at most selective colleges. They are reluctant to send their child off to the Ivy League admission wars without some AP or IB armor.
I respect their views, even though personally I don't think getting my kid into Dartmouth is a good reason for insisting that his school have AP or IB. My worry is that without AP or IB, American secondary education will continue to fail to educate many average or below-average teenagers who with time and encouragement and a high standard of learning could succeed in college. Only half of students who start college eventually graduate. That record is even worse for low-income students. Research shows that challenging high school classes improve a student's chances of getting through college. In 95 percent of our public schools, dropping AP or IB would be disastrous.
Some people say that I am bashing teachers by saying that. On the contrary, I am listening to hundreds of great teachers who have told me they need AP or IB to do their best. I have yet to find a single public school of ordinary size and enrollment that has managed to come close to achieving the depth and excitement in learning reached by AP and IB schools. Until one shows up, it will be hard to persuade me that these programs are not vital for American education.
But I admit that the private school educators who have dropped AP have very good reasons, from their perspective, for doing so. They are teaching in special schools with very motivated students. They argue convincingly that in those circumstances, they can do better than AP or IB.
Here are the schools that Hammond includes in this category. The number in parenthesis is the size of each school's senior class, as reported in the 2001 edition of the College Board Guide to High Schools or by the schools themselves: Calhoun, New York City (23); Carolina Friends, Durham, N.C. (36); Dalton, New York City (110); Fieldston, New York City (135); Oldfields, Glencoe, Md. (42); Putney, Putney, Vt. (64); St. Andrews-Sewanee, Sewanee, Tenn. (55); Sandia Prep, Albuquerque, N.M. (97); Spence, New York City (43), and University Prep, Seattle, Wash. (44).
Two other schools on Hammond's list, Crossroads, Santa Monica, Calif. (113) and Westtown, Westtown, Penn. (95), have not yet stripped their courses of the AP label, but are completing a series of meetings and discussions that have taken years and seem likely to end in that result. Susan K. Tree, director of college counseling at Westtown, said, "The truth in a nutshell is that teachers here are willing and able to think and teach outside the AP box in a way that is more consistent with our vision and values."
If there are any other schools in this category I have not mentioned, I would like to hear from them. In the meantime, here is what these fine educators are saying about how they prepare their students without AP or IB.
"At my preparatory school," Hammond said in his Edweek piece, "the most demanding history course is American History Through Film, which covers the 20th century from "The Birth of a Nation" to Oliver Stone's "J.F.K." Students might view a film such as "High Noon" as a reflection of Cold War America, or "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" as a critique of post-World War II suburbia. Along the way, they are required to write, each semester, seven papers of approximately five pages each, with midyear and final take-home exams of from five to 10 pages. For the year, they write approximately 100 typed, double-spaced pages of analytical prose and take zero multiple-choice tests."
Hammond said Sandia's math, science and foreign language courses look more like AP, but have some important differences. "Our students in Biology 2 spend much less time memorizing and more time in the lab," he said. "They breed several generations of fruit flies, analyze their own genetic inheritance, and much more."
Arlene L. Prince, director of college and career services at University Prep in Seattle, said the school was founded in the 1970s by former public school teachers who rejected tracking students by perceived ability. "Because our senior classes run between 54 to 65 students, we are able to offer classes that appeal to students more along the lines of interest and learning style," she said. "Students who are interested in the math and science fields have offerings beyond the required three lab courses that consist of such classes as Quantitative Physics, Astronomy, Optics and Waves, Special Relativity, and Biotechnology. Of course, we also offer the usual Calculus I and Statistics. Since all of our courses are demanding, if we were to adhere to Advanced Placement courses for purposes of college credit, (which, as you know, may or may not be granted by university departments) we would not be able to offer the variety of non-AP classes we do now."
Joyce Vining Morgan, college counselor at the Putney School, noted that her 70-year-old institution adheres to eight founding principles, the first of which is "to work not for marks, badges, honors, but to discover truth and to grow in knowledge of the universe and in the understanding of men, to treasure the hard stretching of oneself, to render service."
The school has never had AP, or anything like it. It treats its teenagers as if they were graduate students. "Independent work is encouraged through our projects, which replace final exams, in tutorial courses whose syllabi are designed in detail by a senior and reviewed by the Educational Program Committee (deans, department chairs, two elected students) and studied independently under the supervision of a mentor, and our senior exhibitions -- a capstone eight-week independent interdisciplinary study." The school is on 500 acres and has a working dairy farm that, Morgan said, "serves as part of the educational program in addition to supplementing our menu."
The Carolina Friends School is also rural, set in 67 acres of woods between Chapel Hill and Durham. It is a Quaker school where teachers are called by their first names, students help hire new teachers, and individual honors are avoided. Anthony L. Clay, an AP history and AP government teacher in a former life, heads the Upper School Counseling office and said the school has never had AP or even honors courses. It also does not have numerical grades. "At the end of each trimester, a student and his/her family receive a narrative (typically one-page) for each course," he said. "At the end of the year, the student's adviser writes a narrative summary (usually one to two pages) of the year."
The administrators of these schools have persuaded both their students' parents and the colleges their students apply to that their idiosyncratic courses are a fine substitute for AP and IB. Selective colleges can be confident that such small and exclusive institutions will have excellent teachers and high standards no matter what courses they teach, and just to be sure, the students still take SAT or ACT tests like nearly everybody else.
These educators may not like AP, but they understand it better than most educators I know. Hammond, for instance, pointed out that AP classes cannot be made deeper and less dependent on memorization (IB is more to his liking because the exams don't usually have multiple-choice questions) until the college introductory courses that they mimic are changed in that way. Recent critiques of AP by the National Research Council and educational analyst William Casement missed this point.
And Clay at Carolina Friends understands well the power of AP or IB to motivate a student who gets few chances to strive to reach a high standard.
Reflecting on his days as an AP teacher in Tulsa, Okla., and Raleigh, N.C., Clay said, "For me, the greatest success story in AP is not David, the brilliant young man who probably would've scored a five [the top grade] on the AP U.S. History exam even if he'd never had the course (he ended up a Presidential Scholar) but Luke, the nice fellow who wasn't at the top of the list of recommended students for the course but who enjoyed history and was willing to work and to struggle even though he never finished with more than a B in the course and scored only a two on the exam."
"He showed up every day ready to learn, to contribute, and to have a good time in the process. I believe this is how AP ought to work."
So do I. The students at 12 small schools don't need an outside program to prepare them for college. But for the majority of Americans who cannot afford the tuition -- many of these schools charge more than $20,000 a year -- AP and IB are a bargain and are not to be discarded lightly.