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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.

As for "watching an AP program transform the lives of kids in a low-income public school": no, I have never seen a "program" transform lives, but I have seen wonderful teachers transform lives. Just last week at Pomona College we gave our top alumni award to a teacher who just retired from Colton High School, an urban school in a challenging community who has inspired many of his students to go on to college, including a string of wonderful students to Pomona. Yes, he taught seniors in an AP course. But it was not the AP program that made the difference, it was the teacher.

Mathews: I think you need to spend more time in the sort of average or below-average high schools that rarely send students to a college as selective as Pomona, and in some of the introductory college courses as taught not at Pomona, with its tradition of small classes taught just by professors, but in the big state universities where the classes are huge and the teaching and assessing less intimate and less skilled.

The reason why teachers, students and parents in those schools want to introduce AP or IB in as many subjects as they can is that the alternative, without a high and incorruptible outside standard, is going to be much lower and unlikely to give students the thoughtful and deep instruction they deserve. Without an outside standard, the teacher has no defense against parents, students and even occasionally principals who want to dumb down the course because, choose your favorite excuse: "Those kids just aren't up to it" or "He really needs that A to keep his GPA up" or ... "But I have a lot of homework in my other courses too Ms Sanders!" and so on. With AP and IB the teacher can smile, throw up her hands, and say she had to prepare her students for a test that she does not write or grade, so she has to keep the standard high.

You might also visit some of the high schools that give AP to ninth and tenth graders. They are exciting classes to see, and work very well for those kids. The alternative to AP, they realize, is something slower and less challenging. Many of our founding fathers started college when they were 13 or 14, and the species has not gotten any less intelligent since.

Your view of the level of challenge of an AP course, and of the college intro courses AP mimics, may also be distorted by the level of the introductory courses at Pomona -- very high for your very selective student body. The state universities pitch those courses at a somewhat lower level, often with final exams that are not as deep as AP or IB exams. You and I, when we were ninth graders, could have handled those courses, and AP courses and exams are designed to reflect the university standard for introductory courses. These are, as you know, mostly survey courses, and not as deep or as challenging as the higher level courses in most colleges, and do not require doctorates to be taught well. Indeed, I have found most AP teachers to be far better instructors than the graduate student teaching assistants that do most of the teaching in big state college intro courses -- but of course they are nothing like Pomona.

Oxtoby: You might be surprised to hear that we do get a number of students from exactly the type of average or below-average high school that you describe. Of course, the students likely to come to Pomona from such schools are not only in the AP courses, but at the top of them in performance. In recruiting at such schools, we often go directly to the AP teachers, since (at least in California) college guidance counselors may have as many as 1,000 students assigned and may not know the best students as well as the AP teachers do. So the AP courses are in fact very helpful to us in selecting out the best students in such schools.

Still, I remain concerned about a process in which an external "authority" is critical to raising or keeping up standards in our schools, especially when the College Board can't really certify such courses from a distance. I have two, somewhat different, concerns with this role, as reflected in two recent conversations. One was with a current student at Pomona who described an AP Calculus course at her school (a challenging urban school where few students go on to college at all) in which she and a fellow student did most of the teaching because the teacher did not really understand the material. Maybe this is an exceptional case, but it is still worrying. Just because a course has an AP label does not mean it will be taught to an appropriate level. The other conversation I had was with a teacher at a top-notch suburban school, who told me that her AP English syllabus had been rejected by the College Board since it did not follow certain rules or expectations. When she replaced it by a routine parroting of the AP syllabus, it was accepted.

I thus think that it is a bit simplistic to make AP courses and the external agency of the College Board a central mechanism for ensuring high quality and challenging teaching. Maybe I am naively idealistic, but it seems to me that a good teacher could simply say she has to keep standards high so that students really can learn and prepare themselves for challenging colleges and for future careers. Invoking the AP test is an easy out, but it also limits teaching to courses that are broad on coverage but often shallow on development of real critical thinking skills. I think it would be interesting to ask teachers of AP courses whether they appreciate teaching to a detailed external syllabus or would welcome more opportunity to develop a challenging course on their own. I don't know what the answer would be.

You are right that the world of Pomona College is not representative of the rest of higher education, because we are able to offer small discussion-based classes even at the introductory level. However, even at large universities there are differences between broad survey-based courses and courses that focus more deeply on methods and on particular areas. The latter are increasingly favored, while the AP syllabus is inevitably tied to the "one size fits all" broad course. I still feel that too much emphasis on such standardized courses is not good for our students either in high school or once they move on to college. Our high schools should imitate the best, not the worst, models from higher education.

Mathews: I think you are naive about the pressures on teachers in regular schools -- not the sort that send you the bulk of Pomona students -- to keep the standards relatively low so nobody had to work too hard and everyone who shows up for class can be assured of passing grades. (And sometimes be assured of them even when they don't appear in class that often.) The teacher who demands attention in class, gives challenging homework and grades tough is in a constant battle with students, parents and often administrators at schools like that, and having the AP or IB exam as a backup for her high standards is crucial.

You mention several times here your concerns about AP courses, but it is the AP exam that keeps the standard high, not the course. AP, IB and Cambridge are the only high school courses that have such an external quality check at the high end of the learning scale. Some AP teachers, as you say, do not teach well, but at least in their case, if their students are taking the exam, their failure can be seen, and something can be done about it. Without AP, a weak teacher can give an easy exam and it will be difficult for anyone, particularly we clueless parents, to know the difference.

Also, before you adopt the standard anti-AP slogans about broad exams that don't buttress critical thinking, you ought to look carefully at those exams. They demand more critical thinking and analysis than 99 percent of the exams given in high schools today, and the IB exams are even better. AP and IB exams are, in many cases, even more demanding of critical thinking than the introductory course final exams you find in many large state universities. The people who are concerned about the limits of standardized testing have a good point when they speak of the state tests, or the SAT, but when they include AP and IB in that critique, they are wrong. They have just never looked carefully at those exams, but they ought to.

Oxtoby: Your point is well taken and, in fact, I think that you and I are more in agreement with each other than not. Advanced Placement courses and AP exams, like SATs and college rankings, all have their places and I don't see any reason to get rid of them since each, in the appropriate context, serves a useful role. My concern has been primarily about how students, parents, schools, colleges, and the College Board can contribute to an "admissions frenzy" by exaggerating the importance of one or another of these factors. Taken in context, each has value; taken to the extreme, the whole point of education is missed. At places like Pomona College, we try to take the whole student into account, and we hope that students looking at us for a potential match will do the same. Students should challenge themselves with difficult courses, and high schools should excite students by introducing them to new worlds of knowledge. In the end, that is the key to success, and I hope that the AP, IB and other programs will foster this process in the future.

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