AP: It's Not Just for Seniors Anymore

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Dear Extra Credit:

In your May 31 response to Elaine Jean of Loudoun County, you mentioned that the number of students who overdo Advance Placement classes is very small. How do you know this? Do you have any facts to support this? I have a real problem with a journalist who cannot back up claims with facts. You spoke about how honors courses rarely merit the name. How do you know this? Where are your facts? That is a big statement you are making. I have a problem with that.

I think you might be wrong, by the way. I have worked with honors-level teachers at Potomac Falls High School. They do terrific work. How do you know so much? You say that an outside standard such as AP is needed to prepare students for college. AP is great. I have taught it for a number of years. But I think of hundreds of students who did not take it, and they turned out just fine.

Do us all a favor and be careful of what you say. Especially if you really do not know for sure or cannot substantiate your claims with facts.

Jay Whitehead


I apologize. When I do this column, I like to give readers such as you the maximum amount of space for your good thoughts and questions, and limit my responses, since many are sick of reading what I write. But in this case I did not provide enough facts. Here they are:

According to the College Board's AP director, Trevor Packer, using 2003 to 2006 data, 47.4 percent of AP students took just one AP test, 22.3 percent took two, 12.4 percent three, 7.2 percent four and 4.3 percent five. College admissions officers say three to five tests is fine if you are seeking admission to a very selective college. So, 69.7 percent of AP students took fewer, and 6.4 percent took more than five. Those who took six were 2.7 percent of the total; those taking seven were 1.6 percent. I often hear of students taking a dozen, but nationally they constitute less than a tenth of a percent.

As for honors courses, some are rigorous and well-taught. But my reporting over the years, and what little data exist, suggest that most do not do much to prepare students for college. I have burrowed into three very different high schools -- one poor, one affluent and one average -- for several years at a time, and in each case found several honors classes that did not merit the title. A study of 81,445 University of California students from 1998 to 2001 showed that students who took honors courses in high school had first- and second-year college grades that were no better than those of students who took no honors courses.

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