Should We Put the Brakes on Advanced Placement Growth?

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2008; 9:29 AM

Patrick Mattimore -- lawyer, teacher and freelance journalist -- is one of the most insightful writers about schools I know. So when he published a piece in Education Week criticizing the rapid growth in Advanced Placement courses in the country, I read it carefully and asked him to discuss it with me in this column. Mattimore is not only an astute judge of AP policy, but until recently, he was an AP Psychology teacher in San Francisco. He knows the territory like few others, and unlike many people in the debate over how to use AP, he has accomplished the rare feat of changing his mind after discovering facts at odds with his views.

His March 5 Ed Week commentary points out that if you look at all high school graduates, the percentage taking and passing AP exams is increasing. But if you look at the percentage of exams with passing grades -- 3 or above on the 5-point tests -- that is declining in many subjects. To Mattimore, this means the program is growing too fast -- a 10 percent jump every year in the number of exams taken. He says the rapid expansion ought to be reined in until school systems improve instruction in lower grades so students are better prepared for the rigors of AP.

"The College Board would like to continue the expansion of the AP program, and suggests that equity demands all students have access to the most advanced instruction high schools can provide," he writes. "The back story of AP expansion, however, is not that it is a means of benefiting minorities, but that it has become an out-of-control shootout for top students vying for spots at selective colleges. Before we invest more dollars in expanding the Advanced Placement program, we must provide the pre-AP infrastructure in our middle schools to ensure that students are prepared to meet the challenges of the program. Otherwise, we can expect that our AP failure rates will continue to climb."

Mattimore knew how grumpy I was going to be about his suggestion, but he still readily agreed to debate and to offer his e-mail address, patrickmattimore1@yahoo.com, if readers want to respond. Here we go:

Mathews: You are of course right that the percentage of AP test-takers getting 3s has declined in recent years. But you also know that this is to be expected whenever the number of students taking any rigorous test increases, and the College Board's vice president for AP, Trevor Packer, argues that the decline is small in comparison to the huge growth in participation. Remember 10 years ago when many smart high school principals began to encourage more students, particularly minorities, to take the SAT and the ACT? They knew those kids needed practice on that test. Their teachers needed an incentive to get them ready for it if they were going to have any chance of getting into decent colleges. But when it was announced that the average SAT score at T.C. Williams High School, about two miles from where I am sitting in Alexandria, had dropped 25 points because its good principal had followed that policy, many people -- including some colleagues at the paper -- panicked. One of them messaged me: "What has gone wrong in the Alexandria schools!" Actually, I said, something had gone right. More kids were being exposed to that test. Indeed, the NUMBER of kids getting good scores was UP, even if the AVERAGE score had declined. Isn't the same true of AP?

Mattimore: I think we both agree that we love seeing kids take AP classes and succeed in them. Teaching AP was certainly my favorite teaching experience. I also agree with your implication that we need to do everything we can to get more minorities into the AP program. But merely putting an AP label on a class (even when the syllabus has been approved by the College Board) does not mean that kids are necessarily getting a true AP experience. Students who read at a fifth-grade level and are thrust into an AP English Literature class merely because their school says everyone will take an AP class don't benefit from AP. When majorities of whole classes of students aren't ready to handle college-level material, the class cannot be taught at that level.

Mathews: You make a good point, but about a situation that is extraordinarily rare and, as odd as it sounds, is often the best option for the educators involved. I have no data, just my impressions from being in contact with hundreds of high schools, but I think most of the growth in AP testing is the result of two factors: selective colleges insisting that applicants show some AP or IB courses on their high school transcripts and high schools deciding to open AP to all students who want to take it, a change from the standard policy of only admitting those with high GPAs. That first group of students is going to be fairly well prepared, or they would not be thinking of applying to a selective college. The second group in many cases is not so well prepared, but at least they are motivated to take a difficult course, which as a teacher you know is half the battle.

I know of only a handful of high schools in the country that are, as you say, thrusting kids with fifth-grade reading levels into AP by insisting that everyone take the course. The number of such schools is so small -- if you have evidence of a larger number, let me know -- that they cannot be having any great impact on AP passing rates. The principals I know who are doing that think they are making a good choice, and I agree with them.

Maria Tukeva, principal of Bell Multicultural Senior High in the District, for instance, is requiring AP English Language and Composition and AP English Lit for all of her juniors and seniors, most of whom come from families where English is not the first language. Insane? It looks that way from the outside, but she thinks that this is better than any of the alternatives. She knows those courses will not be taught at the same level as AP English Lit at St. Albans School, but they probably will be taught at a higher level than what she would get if she did what most inner-city schools do -- tell their teachers to teach English as best they can, but don't push too hard. Even if students struggle, they will at least get the experience of a three-hour college-level exam, rather important because most of them are going to try to go to college. What harm can come to them from getting a taste of what a college course, and college exam, is all about? Some have suggested a special, inner-city AP course and test, pitched to a lower level but still with an independent standard imposed on teachers. But we don't have that, and if we did, the students would rightly look at it as a diluted version of the real thing and not worthy of all the hard work they were being asked to do.

Mattimore: Well, I don't have the data either as to where the growth in AP exams is coming from, and I certainly don't have your contacts to speculate about it. But what we know for sure about the AP exam growth is: (a) It has been going on at about 10 percent per year for quite some time; (b) Increasing percentages of kids are failing the exams each year; and (c) non-Asian, minority test-takers are experiencing the greatest percentage increases in failure rates.

And while I agree with you that motivation is an important part of the story, I think it is easy to confuse wishing for something and being in a realistic position to achieve that thing. Motivation, with regard to AP, is a sustained drive, not mere whimsy.

I also think AP risks becoming a sham program if expansion continues at present rates. I spoke with an administrator from a state that shall remain anonymous at last summer's AP national convention. She was ecstatic about a low-income, minority school in her state that had made your Newsweek best high schools list because the seniors graduated with something on the order of seven or eight AP classes apiece. The problem was that the kids failed practically all of the tests. The administrator didn't see that as a problem, though, because she felt the kids should have an opportunity to get the same exposure to AP as wealthy kids and because those poorer kids were getting scholarships based upon the fact that they took so many AP classes. This is really a competence illusion, however.


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