A Teacher Takes Me On

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; 11:52 AM

Mark Crockett, a very savvy and energetic social studies teacher at Western Albemarle High School near Charlottesville, Va., has been among my favorite, and most critical, e-mail correspondents for some time. After our latest exchange of messages over my way of rating schools by AP and IB participation, used by Newsweek in its America's Best High School list, I asked if he would be willing to have such a discussion for this column.

He said yes. The result is below. I think it is a very helpful to see how a working educator reacts to what are in many cases very complex issues. You also get a bleachers-eye view of me struggling to field Mark's line drives, bunts and high hoppers. I always learn a great deal from good arguments, and I think this qualifies as one:

Mark: I've been reading your Washington Post columns and articles, and your Newsweek articles, for a good many years now. In fact, I've even used a 2001 article you wrote on racial bias in special education classes as part of a psychology test. But I think your articles on Advanced Placement (AP) courses and tests dramatically overstate their effectiveness and worth.

Jay: In what way?

Mark: In what way? From reading your stories on AP over time, it seems to me that you oversell AP courses and the benefits of AP, and you underreport what research indicates about AP. Thus, the public gets a skewed picture of what AP is and, perhaps more importantly, what AP is not.

Jay: I am guilty of many sins of omission as a reporter, but holding back AP research information is not one of them. If you can cite a reporter who has come even close to writing as much about AP research as I have, I will give $50 to your favorite charity. I was the first reporter in the country to report the Geiser UC study that showed for California students, just taking an AP test, but not passing it, did not correlate with college success. I was the first newspaper reporter and online columnist to report that the National Center on Educational Accountability (NCEA) found the same results in Texas, although did not rule out a beneficial effect from just taking the test. I was the only reporter who gave space to AP critic William Casement's scholarly article arguing that AP courses are not as good as college introductory courses, I let Casement be a guest columnist to make his case in his own words. I have repeated those findings several times in The Post, on washingtonpost.com and in Newsweek.

I realize more than anyone that AP does not get as much attention in the press as it deserves, but I don't think it is fair to say I don't give a complete picture. I do think AP and IB are the best programs we have in U.S. high schools, but I have always told the whole story. What have I left out?

Mark: Before answering the question "What have I left out?" I want to address your statement that AP doesn't get the press it deserves. You have written continually about AP in The Washington Post and online for years. Newsweek devotes a cover story to it each year. That publicity has led to an explosion in AP course-taking with 1.3 million or more students now taking AP courses. And, colleges now give special weight to AP course-taking. AP has become the course de jour in public high schools with school boards and principals rushing to add more AP courses, and you say it doesn't get enough publicity??

What have you left out -- or perhaps embellished? In your recent Newsweek article ("Why AP Matters," 5-8-06) and in some other articles you referenced Saul Geiser's study in California. In citing that study you say good AP test scores increase the chance of earning a college degree but you omit that the study found the best predictor of college performance to be unweighted high school grade point average (UHSGPA) . . . and as you know, most high schools give either a half-point or a full point bonus for taking AP (that's part of the reason kids take AP . . . to help enlarge their GPAs). In discussing the Klopfenstein study (2005) in Texas [a separate study from the NCEA study], you've omitted that study's criticism of AP-sponsored research (" . . . close inspection of the studies cited reveals that the existing empirical evidence regarding the benefits of AP experience is questionable.").

Perhaps your most egregious omission was in the Feb. 17, 2006, article in The Post reporting on Clifford Adelman's "The Tool Box Revisited." You've cited Adelman's original "Tool Box" for years (wrongly I might add) as proof that AP works. "In Tool Box Revisited" Adelman not only did not find any AP benefit, but also he scolded those who misrepresented his original "Tool Box" study (" . . . a spate of recent reports and commentaries on the Advanced Placement program claim that the original "Tool Box" demonstrated the unique power of AP course work in explaining bachelor's degree completion. To put it gently, this is a misreading."). But your Post article said not a single word about any of that.

Lengthy, I know . . . but you asked. Did I earn the $50 for charity?

Jay: Sadly, no, because the wager was to find a reporter who has come even close to writing as much about AP research as I have, and all the pieces you cited were written by lonely little me.

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