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.

Wakefield, like the other Arlington schools, welcomes average students into AP and requires them to take the AP exams. In 2005 it gave 473 AP tests and had 233 graduating seniors, for a Challenge Index ratio of 2.0300, a participation rate 36 percent higher than T.C.'s. That means it likely had a much larger portion of average students taking AP courses and AP tests than T.C. did.

And yet its passing rate on the AP exams was 51 percent, higher than T.C.'s 39 percent. Why should average students at Wakefield do better than average students at T.C.?

The answer is clear to me. The teachers at Wakefield have rejected Pat's view that AP is too much for their average kids and have instead created programs that prepare average students for difficult courses from the first days they arrive at the school. The Wakefield teachers have seen the studies that show that based on PSAT scores, far more students are capable of taking AP courses than actually do so. Those students that Pat thinks are average may just be underchallenged. Wakefield teachers find ways to lure them into demanding preparatory courses and then into AP and give them the time and encouragement they need to succeed.

I asked Mike Grill, the AP coordinator at Wakefield and an AP government and history teacher, to respond to Pat's USA Today piece. I would love to get Pat and Mike (a classic pairing, don't you think?) in the same room and have them hash this out themselves, but this will be a good start. Maybe I can persuade Mike to join Pat as an occasional contributor to The Post. Here is what Mike told me:

"Although I have great respect for Patrick Welsh's commitment to his students and have enjoyed reading his columns, I completely disagree with him on this issue. He has written previously about his opposition to forcing kids to choose between regular and AP classes and has lamented the deterioration of his and others' instruction because of the presence of unprepared/unqualified/unmotivated students in their AP courses. Likewise, he has also complained about how the quality of his instruction/discourse/learning has gone down in his regular courses because the average kids have chosen to take AP courses because of the lack of an honors course existing between the two extremes.

"My response whenever anyone asks about pulling nontraditional kids into AP/IB courses is that it is the teachers -- not the parents and the kids -- who take issue with the practice because it puts the onus on the teachers to do more than they are accustomed to doing in their AP/IB courses. What parent would not want his or her child to be in the most stimulating learning environment possible? What students does not want to feel as though a teacher thinks them capable of achieving at not only a high level, but at the highest level? Teachers are creatures of routine. At most schools, they teach the same courses for the same amount of time each day to more or less the same type of student for years on end. Of course, they're going to buck when asked to alter that routine.

"Good teaching (like good anything) is hard work. It is teachers' responsibility to adapt their instruction to their students while maintaining the rigor/standards of the course. Motivated, talented, professional teachers can do this. What other professional does not adapt their approach to meet the needs of their clients? The same approach should apply to regular courses. Whenever I have taught regular courses, I have invariably wound up using some of my AP curriculum and texts and I have found that most kids rise to the challenge, if you support them properly. I don't have patience for teachers who make excuses to explain why students can't learn in their courses. The issue is not 'why they can't learn,' but rather 'why can't you teach them?'

"This year, I have 48 AP US Government and Politics students. Of those 48, nine are white. I cannot tell you how much easier it is to convince a non-white, first-time AP student to give the course a try (or to remain in the course) when they look around the class and see others who look and talk like them. If we had an honors level Government course, it would be an easy out for many of these kids. They could get out of the regular class and avoid the demands of AP. My personal goal this year is not to lose a single one of them. The reality is that they cannot request to drop the course until the end of first quarter (a new WHS policy this year), and a few will probably go at that time. When that time comes, though, I will have to answer the question of whether we did all that we could to help those kids' attempts to be successful. If we haven't, then we've failed them because they stuck their necks out to try something that most would say was beyond their means.

"I'm lucky. I work in a school where most teachers share my beliefs about kids and how best to prepare them for college and life beyond high school. When kids do finally leave us, it's always great to hear back from them. Today, a former student stopped by before hopping on a flight to Krakow, Poland, where's she's studying art history. She barely passed my class and failed the AP exam. Yet, she and others like her who were on the fringes in my courses are invariably the ones who come back to say thank you. They know how much they learned. If Patrick Welsh and those who subscribe to his philosophy get their way, that type of learning will cease to exist, and that would be a shame."

Things are changing at T.C. The school has a new principal, Mel Riddile, who won the National Principal of the Year award while running J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County. I looked up Stuart's numbers. They are very similar to Wakefield's. Only 25 percent of its students are white, 52 percent are low-income, and yet it had a college-level test participation rate, and college-level test passing rate, much higher than T.C.'s.

Riddile has said for years that he thinks average students can and should tackle hard courses like IB and AP. Consider these two quotes from Riddile's "Titan Talk" message this week: "Success is more about effort and hard work than it is about innate ability" and "We are not building an average school." I am sure he and Pat will have much to talk about.

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