By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2006; 11:54 AM
Erich Martel suspected something was wrong, because nobody was telling him anything. But it was not until Aug. 17, less than two weeks before school started, that he learned that for the first time in 20 years he would not be teaching Advanced Placement U.S. history at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District.
No one who knows will say why Martel had his AP classes taken away from him and given to a teacher who has not taught AP before. Martel and many of his supporters think it is because he has become the school's most famous whistle-blower, forcing an audit by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General into his charges that his school -- and perhaps other D.C. high schools as well -- have been giving diplomas to many students who have not earned them.
The graduation-requirements issue is too complicated for me. The Post's D.C. schools reporters, Dion Haynes and Theola Labbé, are on the case and will let me and other Post readers know how it turns out. But I think I have something useful to say about Martel getting his AP courses taken away.
I have long argued that a college-level course such as AP or International Baccalaureate, which have year-end exams written and graded by outsiders, can be a useful way to judge the quality of the teaching in the course. I thought this could be a tool for students and parents who want to look at the AP scores achieved by a teacher's students and decide if that is the teacher they want for AP.
But Martel's case suggests another use. When a teacher is being threatened with dismissal, or the loss of his AP assignment, why not look at his student's scores on the AP exam and see what they tell us?
I asked Martel to give me his data. Here it is.
In May 2006, all 59 of Martel's AP students took the AP exam. This is remarkable in itself, because the average testtaking rate in AP history is only 78 percent of students in the course. For all AP courses, 74.1 percent of students take the tests. The AP exam is usually not required, because the grades come back in July or August, much too late to figure in a student's report card grade.
The AP U.S. history exam is three hours and five minutes long, half the weight given to multiple choice questions and half to essay questions graded by expert teachers and college professors who do not know the names or the schools of the students they are grading. It is worth noting that Martel, according to the Northwest Current, a D.C. weekly newspaper, is one of only two active teachers in the District who have graded AP exams.
The grades determine if a student will get college credit for the course, but many AP students take the course because it looks good on their transcript and don't bother to take the exam. I think this is a bad idea, because to me the most important benefit of an AP course is getting a taste of the academic demands of college. If students don't take the exam, they miss a vital part of the higher education experience.
Some school systems, including several in Northern Virginia, consider taking the AP exam so important that they require all AP students to take it, pay the test fees and deny them an extra partial grade credit on their report card if they don't show up for the exam. The D.C. schools, however, don't have that policy. Martel said he has maintained his high participation rate simply by telling all of his students he expects them to take it and pointing out how much they are missing if they don't.
The AP exam is graded on a five-point scale. According to the College Board, a 5 is the equivalent of a college A, based on AP exams given to college students who have received grades in a comparable course at their university. A 4 is the equivalent of a strong B, a 3 is a strong C, a 2 is a D and a 1 is an F. Most colleges will give credit for a 3 or above on the exams, although some selective schools, for reasons that appear to have little to do with the quality of their own courses, give credit for just 4s and 5s, or in some cases just 5s.
Three of Martel's students last May received 5s. Thirteen got 4s, 14 got 3s, 17 got 2s and 12 got 1s. That means 50.8 percent received grades of 3 and above.
In many of the wealthier suburban schools that surround the District, that would not be a great result. But Wilson High, despite being located in an affluent section of Northwest Washington, is not itself an affluent school. Last year, 43 percent of its students were poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches. AP scores, like all achievement test scores, correlate closely with family income. The more wealthy parents you have, the higher your school's average passing rate, in general.
If Martel had wanted his passing rate to look good, he should not have insisted that all of his students take the final exam. Although his passing rate is much lower than in suburban schools with 5 or 10 percent low-income students, it is only slightly below the 53 percent national passing rate for U.S. History.
I have received many e-mails about Martel. One, from Janet Evans, who describes herself as the mother of a student who was once in his class, is negative. "Mr. Martel is a dry lecturer who does not adequately communicate the life reflected in history. He does not take steps to help able students who are having trouble in his classes. Our high school students need teachers who inspire and aid, not distant academics," she said.
All the other e-mails have been very positive. Pascal Warnking, who took Martel's AP course in 1988, said it was "the most demanding and most stimulating and most effective class in history -- or in school in general -- I ever attended." Mike Henry, a veteran AP teacher and exam reader, said Martel "is one of the most competent, knowledgeable and dedicated AP teachers that I know."
I prefer to look at the numbers. With 59 AP test takers and 30 passing scores, Martel by himself did better than seven D.C. high schools, even if you count all of the AP teachers in all subjects at each school. His record for the past several years is similarly impressive. That says to me he is not the kind of AP teacher any sane principal would want to get rid of.
Wilson principal Stephen Tarason has declined to comment. He said, "It is a personnel matter and I am not at liberty to comment at this time." D.C. schools spokeswoman Patricia Alford-Williams did not question Martel's AP statistics but said they were not the reason why his assignment was changed. She said the decision was not retaliation for his questioning of the graduation policies, but did not say what the reason was. She said Martel is entitled to be notified in writing of the reasons, but so far he has received no such notice.
Some of the e-mails I am getting say the problem is Tarason. They say he is a bad administrator, but once again I prefer to look at the numbers.
Despite its large number of low-income students, Wilson is in the top 1 percent of all U.S. public high schools as measured by AP or IB test participation in Newsweek magazine. I compared Wilson to Wheaton High School, a school with similar demographics -- 40 percent low income students -- in a much better run school district, Montgomery County. As measured by AP, Wilson was clearly the better school, although Wheaton, like all the Montgomery schools, also did very well on the Newsweek list. In 2005 Wheaton gave 425 AP tests and had 272 graduating seniors, for an AP participation ratio of 1.563. Wilson, with 775 tests and 305 graduates, had a ratio of 2.541. At Wheaton, 23.4 percent of the graduating seniors had at least one grade of 3 or better on one AP test. Despite giving more tests, which tends to depress scores, Wilson's percentage of 3s and above was even higher, 28.8 percent.
This is a splendid record. Since Tarason has been Wilson's principal for several years, I have to give him much of the credit for it.
So why did he take Martel's AP courses away? I don't know. It doesn't make sense. Both he and Martel are smart educators who know the value of AP.
That leaves it up to the new D.C. superintendent, Clifford Janey, who had made improving the AP program in the District a centerpiece of his master plan. He, like Martel and Tarason, is a very intelligent man who understands the power of college-level courses, particularly for low-income students. Alford-Williams said Janey supports Tarason's decision, but I would sure like a chance to ask him some questions about that directly.
Janey's next move, it seems to me, is pretty clear. Give Martel his AP courses back, find more teachers with good records and send them to his other schools.