Why AP Matters

By Jay Mathews
Monday, May 1, 2006; 9:51 AM

Only 30 percent of high-school students take any Advanced Placement courses at all; by the time Frausto graduates later this month, she will have taken 16 of them -- in many cases earning the highest grade, a 5, on the three-hour final exam.

That is because Frausto's school, the Talented and Gifted Magnet School near downtown Dallas, is one of a growing number of high schools trying to make AP as much a part of students' lives as french fries and iPods. Located in a run-down neighborhood not usually associated with high-level learning, Talented and Gifted -- "TAG" to its students -- tops NEWSWEEK's list of America's Best High Schools. Members of its racially mixed student body say they feel united by the challenge. "What I really love about TAG is the atmosphere," said Frausto, who will be attending MIT on a scholarship in the fall. "There is so much closeness."

Large studies in Texas and California done over the past two years indicate that good grades on AP tests significantly increase chances of earning college degrees. That has led many public schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods to look for ways to get their students into AP and a similar but smaller college-level course program called International Baccalaureate (IB), in hopes that their students will have the same college-graduation rates enjoyed by AP and IB students from the country's wealthiest private schools and most selective public schools.

It is a radical change, and many teachers say it makes as much sense as recruiting the chess club to play football. In a March posting on an education blog, veteran AP American-history teacher Kathleen Donnison said she thought NEWSWEEK was doing education a disservice by recognizing schools that were working to coax B and C students into AP and IB. "It is one thing for a bright student to be absorbed for hours working on a favorite subject. It is quite another story when an 'average' student struggles until two o'clock in the morning to master the massive amount of material of a course in which he has little interest," wrote Donnison, who teaches at Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, N.Y. "How much of a favor are we doing these youngsters?"

Nevertheless, many schools in communities less affluent than Westchester continue to embrace the idea of more students' taking college-level courses. The College Board, which administers the AP, says that more than four times as many Hispanic students and three times as many black students took AP courses in 2005 compared with a decade ago. This month, 1.3 million students are expected to take 2.3 million AP tests.

Twelve small private schools are going in the opposite direction, dropping AP as too confining. At University Prep in Seattle, the science department goes far beyond the AP curriculum to offer Quantitative Physics, Astronomy, Waves and Optics, Special Relativity and Biotechnology. "If we were to adhere to Advanced Placement courses," said Arlene L. Prince, the school's recently retired director of college and career services, "we would not be able to offer the variety of non-AP classes we do now."

Most private schools say they will not join the revolt, however, because AP and IB have virtually become a requirement for admission to the selective colleges that parents want for their children. Identical yearnings at the other end of the economic spectrum have brought an AP emphasis to low-income students at public charter schools like the southeast Houston campus of the YES College Preparatory Schools. At YES, nobody gets a diploma without taking at least one AP course and being accepted by at least one four-year college. Similarly, at the BASIS school in Tucson, Ariz., the standard courses in English, history and science exist only in AP form. At Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, Calif., 70 percent of students are from low-income families; since Marshall opened its AP program to all in 1997, the portion of its students accepted at one of the University of California campuses has more than tripled.

In previous years, NEWSWEEK excluded some public schools, including TAG, from its list because of their selective admissions policies. We revised that this year. Our goal has always been to highlight the schools that are doing the best job of preparing average students for college; that's why we omitted schools that weeded out those students. But a close look at last year's list showed that even some selective schools had enough average students to meet our goal. So we changed the rule to allow any charter or magnet public school with an average SAT score below 1300 or an average ACT score below 27. We picked these numbers because they are the highest averages found in the normal enrollment schools that have always been allowed on the list.

Some critics want even more changes, however. Andrew J. Rotherham and Sara Mead, of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, argued in a recent paper that NEWSWEEK should include in its formula dropout rates and gaps in test scores between white and minority students in order to give a more complete picture.

This year NEWSWEEK has added one new feature to the Web site version of some schools on the list -- the percentage of graduating seniors with at least one passing score on an AP or IB test -- in order to measure not just test participation but test success. We are not assessing schools by dropout rates or state test scores because those data are inconsistent and because such a rule would deny recognition to schools with large numbers of low-income students -- even schools making great strides in preparing students for college.

Aaron Zarraga, a senior at TAG, has spent four years preparing for college and his ultimate dream of a degree in electrical engineering. In ninth grade he failed his first AP test, human geography. "I was really scared because the next year I was taking two APs," he said. But his teachers showed him how to construct essays on deadline and juggle his workload. This spring he was admitted to both Stanford and Columbia. "I have learned to be calm and not get so nervous," he said. "I just wanted to get into a good school so that I would be able to secure a nice job, and help my mom and my grandma." Thanks to his hard work, he will have taken 10 college-level courses before he ever sets foot on a college campus, and will be much better prepared for what comes next.

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company