Can Average Students Do AP?

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 26, 2006; 11:50 AM

Patrick Welsh, the great English teacher and Washington Post contributor, is at it again. In a Sept. 19 op-ed for USA Today , he asserted that average students are being pushed into college-level Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses that are too tough for them, and they should be given less challenging alternatives.

I have disagreed with Pat on this many times -- in the pages of The Washington Post, on Washington Post radio, in e-mails and on the phone. I wouldn't bring it up again, fearing that people can't take much more, except that I think our dispute is at the core of what is wrong with high schools these days. And, not incidentally, I have some new ammunition that I cannot resist firing in Pat's direction.

Please keep in mind that Pat is one of the best teachers and most deft essayists I know. Few educators have had such success in both the classroom and in newspapers. I bless the day that Pat decided to make The Post's Outlook section a regular recipient of his intriguing pieces on what goes on inside T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. Here is what he said last week in USA Today:

"All parents want their children to be with the nice kids, the bright and well-behaved types who will pull classes up, rather than with kids who will drag them down. In big, economically and ethnically diverse high schools such as mine, T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Va., where there is enormous variation in academic abilities, average kids run the risk of ending up in one of two tracks: in classes full of students with weak skills and lousy attitudes or in so-called advanced courses where they find themselves in over their heads. . . .

"In the 1970s there were five 'tracks' in English, resulting in a type of de facto segregation with the top tracks virtually all white and the lower tracks virtually all black. But while the five-track system was grossly unfair to low-income minority students who populated the lower tracks, today's two-track system shortchanges average students, who have the choice between regular classes, many of which are in fact remedial, or Advanced Placement classes, which they can't handle. . . .

"What is happening more and more around the country is that average students are being pushed into Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes to make schools appear as though they have high standards. In a sense, average kids have become a pawn of school boards and administrators who want to get good PR for boosting the numbers in supposedly rigorous courses. Administrators here in Northern Virginia boast about the numbers of kids taking AP courses but don't talk much about students' test scores.

"What is needed is a middle track for average students -- call it college-bound or some other name that will please parents. The fact is that every child can learn, but every child cannot learn as fast as, or learn as much as, every other child."

Pat doesn't offer any data to back up his argument that many of these average kids can't handle AP, but I have some numbers that will help us figure it out.

In 2004 T.C. Williams gave 499 AP tests and had 526 graduating seniors, producing an AP participation ratio of 0.949 on the Washington Post's Challenge Index list of local high schools. That year, 61 percent of AP tests taken at T.C. received grades of 3 or above, considered the passing level on the 5-point test. In 2005 the school for the first time required that all students taking AP courses take the AP tests, as all the other major Northern Virginia districts started doing some years ago. In 2005 T.C. gave 796 AP tests, plus 11 tests tied to community college courses which the Challenge Index list also counted. With a graduating class of 540, its participation ratio rose to 1.494, but the portion of passing grades on those AP tests dropped to 39 percent.

Those figures suggest that Pat has a point. Many presumably average students who avoided taking the AP exams in the past did not pass them when required to do so. Maybe AP was too hard for them. But before we concede the argument to Pat, let's compare T.C.'s AP numbers to Arlington County's Wakefield High School, just two miles away. Wakefield is a close demographic cousin of T.C. But it has significantly better AP numbers, and a faculty attitude toward average students which is very different from Pat's.

T.C.'s student body is about 42 percent black, 24 percent Hispanic, 27 percent white and 7 percent Asian. Wakefield is 29 percent black, 44 percent Hispanic, 17 percent white and 10 percent Asian. About 40 percent of T.C. students have family incomes low enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches. The Wakefield percentage of low-income students is higher, 50 percent, but both are very diverse schools with lots of disadvantaged kids and a minority of middle-class whites.

You would think, if Pat is right and AP is too tough for the many average kids you find in schools like that, then Wakefield's AP success rate would be similar to T.C.'s. But it's not.

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