How a Virtual AP Course Changed Her Son

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007; 9:14 AM

Maria Allen worried about her son Matthew's prospects in high school and beyond. He had always been regarded as an underachiever by his teachers. He received B's in middle school with virtually no effort because he did well on what were, she thought, very easy tests.

Every new school year, the Reston mother donned her Super Nag persona, got on his case and tried to turn around his bad habits and attitude. It never worked. By the second quarter, whenever her attention turned to other matters, he stopped working, and his teachers started complaining.

So she was more than a little surprised when Matthew asked if he could take an Advanced Placement biology course online at the beginning of eighth grade, when he was only 14 years old. She knew where he got the idea. His big brother, a high school junior, had signed up for online AP biology so he would have time for other courses during the school day. She laughed. Good joke, Matthew. But he brought it up again. He was serious. Even when she showed him the demanding syllabus on the Web site, he did not back down.

Well, she thought, why not? Her Super Nag act had not worked. She paid the $600 course fee and waited, without much hope, to see what would happen next.

"Matthew continued to put negligible effort into his middle-school work," Allen told me, "but in biology, he started to work hard, very hard, in fact. And, even more remarkably, he continued to work hard throughout the year."

She said he took a full complement of eighth-grade honors courses, but they demanded very little. "Unencumbered by any significant homework," she said, "Matt had plenty of time available to log on to AP bio for a few hours each evening, and so he often did better on AP quizzes and assignments than my high school junior, who was always swamped with homework and competing deadlines from several other challenging courses."

Matthew got a B from the Apex Learning online teacher. He was thrilled that the AP testing room at Herndon High School buzzed with the news that a middle school kid was taking the exam, and even happier when he got his test score -- a 4 on a 5-point scale. That's equivalent to a B in most colleges. "Before the course was even over, he announced that he was taking AP psychology online over the summer," his mother said, "and didn't forget or change his mind as summer grew near." Matthew got a B in that course too, but unlike his middle school courses, he had to work for it.

There are some problems in our schools that we talk about a great deal, like uninspired teaching and too much testing. But there are also problems in our schools that we almost never talk about, like courses that don't live up to their titles and grades that reflect little effort.

Unlike the middle-school classes in which he apparently coasted, Matthew saw AP biology as authentic. For him, it was exciting to jump ahead of his peers. I first observed this attitude 25 years ago in a public high school in East Los Angeles, where students whose parents were sixth-grade dropouts flocked to AP courses because they could earn college credit. Those courses were the same as the ones the rich kids took at Beverly Hills High School. There are many ways to add authenticity in our schools. Hopefully they won't cost parents an extra $600. I have had my doubts about online courses, but Allen convinced me they can have a good influence on students like her son who would not be able to take an AP course any other way because they were still in middle school. She said the school district would have paid the online fee, as it did for her other son, if Matthew had been enrolled then at South Lakes High School, where he is now a ninth-grader.

"His attitude toward school and study is very different now," she said. "Matthew now talks confidently about his plans to earn the International Baccalaureate diploma [part of a program similar to AP], and after college his plans to attend medical school, something I doubt he ever even considered before. He is proud of what he has done, and he sees himself differently than he did a year ago."

Asked for a response to Allen's remarks about unchallenging courses in Fairfax County schools, Peter J. Noonan, assistant superintendent for instructional services, sent me this statement: "Fairfax County Public Schools, through our viable and agreed-upon common program of studies (POS) that incorporates the Standards of Learning (SOLs), provide high levels of rigor for all students. To increase the rigor for our middle school students who need further extension of their learning we encourage the participation in the honors program and International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program (IBMYP)."

Fairfax County schools are among the best in the country at challenging students at all levels, but there is always room for improvement.

Allen said she is not suggesting that middle school students should take AP courses, although, "given what it did for Matt, I am not entirely sure why."

Some college professors reject the notion of even high school juniors taking AP courses, but most of those professors have never taught an AP course and usually forget that they substitute for introductory college courses, not graduate seminars in thermodynamics. The material is challenging but not impossible for children who are interested in the subject and willing to do the reading.

"Matt could have continued sliding downward right on through high school," Allen said, "and I shudder to imagine the outcome. High school will have its tough moments, but now I know Matt will do fine. Frankly, I feel very lucky."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company