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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

Warrenton

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.

Dear Extra Credit:

As Ms. Jean said [Extra Credit, May 31], in Loudoun County, as well as in Fairfax, when an AP class is offered in a given subject, the honors class is not offered. So, for instance, in ninth-grade history, one could take honors or regular history. Then in 10th grade, because AP history is offered, honors is no longer an option. This puts a student in the position of choosing AP or a regular class. Her point was that that was not a very good choice for a lot of students. The difference in the level of difficulty between regular classes and honors is significant, as well as the level of difficulty between honors and AP.

I do not believe in having my children take an AP class in 10th grade, unless they are exceptionally gifted in that subject. Given that my children are considered very smart and have been in gifted-and-talented centers throughout their schooling, I still would not place them in that class in 10th grade. Why? It is a college course! Three years before they start college! Do you think we are getting a little out of control around here? But honors was not offered. So instead of being challenged, they were bored in regular history.

In 11th and 12th grades, when AP is more appropriate, the choice still is AP or regular. So, for example, my son loves and is great in science. He took many APs in that area. But he is not in love with history, and he chose to take "only" three APs in his junior year (BC calculus, AP chemistry and AP English). He chose not to take AP history and therefore was stuck taking regular history, a class so easy that he did his calculus homework in class. Had he been able to take honors English, he would have been challenged and had to work hard.

Marcy Newberger

McLean

Many people agree with you about ninth- and 10th-graders not being ready for AP, so I hope the many students in other school districts in this area who have taken AP in those grades (or their parents) will tell me what they thought of the experience. I have visited some ninth- and 10th-grade AP government courses in Montgomery County and saw no significant difference between the quality of student discussion and student work and what I have seen in many 12th-grade classes.

The problem, I think, is the weight you and many others put on the word "college." Your son was probably right not to have too many APs on his plate. But I would challenge the assumption that because AP is a college-level course, it is too far above a regular high school course, and there should be an honors course alternative for students who cannot leap so high. But the difference between high school and college courses is sometimes not so great. I had college courses 40 years ago that were not as difficult as some of my high school courses then, and that situation still exists. These AP courses are intro college courses, and like the introductory courses in average state colleges, not that demanding if you do the reading and listen in class (something many of us during freshman year of college did not do).

Some advanced college courses are, of course, out of the reach of ninth-graders, but those do not include AP geography or AP world history, the AP courses most often taken by ninth- and 10th-graders. One of my children also did fine in AP chemistry in 10th grade, and he will assure you he is no science genius. That is why he, like his parents, went into journalism. But I would like to hear from people who have more recent experience in ninth- and 10th-grade AP.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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