College President Cautions Me About AP

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007; 3:22 PM

David Oxtoby is one of the most interesting men in American higher education today. He first strikes you as another brilliant but nerdy scientist, which is how he got started, with a doctorate in chemistry from Berkeley and a splendid record as a professor and researcher. But he also had people skills and became president of Pomona College just as my daughter was arriving in 2003 for the start of her freshman year.

I think he is a terrific person and teacher, which is why I was so upset when I saw he had written a piece for the April 27 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "The Rush to Take More AP Courses Hurts Students, High Schools and Colleges."

I think he is wrong, and wrong in a way that reveals the frustrating refusal of some of our best colleges to see what great benefits AP and other college courses are bringing to the vast majority of high schools that rarely, if ever, send students to extremely selective colleges like Pomona.

I asked him if he would agree to debate me in the column on his issue. Without any hesitation, he said yes, even though my daughter graduated in May and I have already sent him my last tuition check.

Here we go:

Mathews: Your piece in the Chronicle raises many issues, but what bothered me most about it was the tone. As you said at the beginning, 20 percent of incoming Pomona freshmen report the results of 10 or more AP tests each. You decry this growing importance of AP, and suggest colleges and universities put a limit on how many AP credits they will accept and that college admissions offices "need to communicate with schools that an AP label is less important than a challenging and innovative course." This sounds to me, and to the many hard-working AP teachers in average and below-average high schools who have influenced me, like the residents association president of a very wealthy gated community saying: Why do we have to have all these public hospital emergency rooms? Why can't those people just go to their private doctors, like we do?

You say a couple of times that you are glad that AP is becoming more widely available, but you sure don't sound like it. The AP teachers I know are fighting to get approval for just a few more courses, and an end to rules that keep them from giving average students an AP experience. You are providing aid and comfort to the majority of high school administrators who say those average kids don't need AP, they just need "a challenging and innovative course." Have you ever looked closely at what passes for "a challenging and innovative course" in average and below-average high schools that don't use the AP standard? Have you ever watched an AP program transform the lives of kids in a low-income public school?

I worry you are letting the wealth of resources at Pomona, and the majority of high schools that send students to Pomona, color your view of the necessity of AP in the schools that serve the other 90 percent of U.S. students.

Oxtoby: I certainly did not mean to imply that the AP program should be abolished, nor that it has no value. But like all good things, taking it to the extreme can have unforeseen consequences. Offering a strong twelfth grade AP experience that is supported by solid introductory courses in grades 9-11 is what every school should aspire to. This program should be available to as many of its students as are capable.

This is equally true for the elite private school or the urban public school.

What I don't like is the pressure to move APs to earlier grade levels (almost no ninth or tenth grader is really capable of "college-level" work, and to label it that way is misleading). I also feel that putting every college subject into the AP high school curriculum is a mistake. How many schools really have teachers with the backgrounds to teach AP Psychology? What is the real point of teaching AP Comparative Government in high school? I do not deny that these are valuable subjects, but the high school curriculum has become too diffuse and too broad already. It is the elite schools that are pushing the limits here, trying to look like colleges.

To respond to your medical analogy, I am all in favor of a level of "basic care" (including Advanced Placement courses or the equivalent in the senior year) for every one of our high schools. What I oppose is the excessive prescribing of unnecessary "medical" (or AP) tests that some schools turn to in order to assure their anxious parents that they are doing everything possible to get their children into top colleges. That has gone too far.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company