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Should We Put the Brakes on Advanced Placement Growth?

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.

What also gets missed in promoting AP as an open-access program is that higher failure rates inevitably tarnish the program and hurt at least some students in the classes. Here's a personal example. My daughter took several AP classes at her public high school. For most of the AP classes, admittance was restricted to better students. The courses were challenging. For one class she took, however, AP was open enrollment. According to my daughter, that had several consequences. First, many of the better students who had been in her other AP classes didn't bother to take that class. Second, the class was ordinary, like any other class in school. Third, and most disappointing to me, my daughter was completely turned off to the subject matter and never took a class in that field in college. Now, that might have happened anyway, but that is just one of many areas that need to be researched to decide whether AP expansion has unintended, malignant consequences.

Lots of people might feel that my daughter's experience is a small price to pay for giving other kids an opportunity to take AP. Many AP teachers can tell you a story about a student taking a lone AP course who received a 1 or a 2 on the AP exam. That student later bumps into that teacher and tells her how the AP experience nevertheless benefited him when he got to college. These anecdotes are uplifting, but they don't necessarily tell us the whole story. In psychology, kids learn about this method of uncritical thinking, which is called confirmation bias -- we look for information that confirms our preexisting beliefs and disregard evidence to the contrary. It's like a restaurant owner who concludes that she must be serving good food because that's what her survey of repeat customers concluded. Obviously, those one-time customers that weren't surveyed might have something other than high praise for our hypothetical restaurant.

Unless and until we get data about how failure impacts students who took AP, we don't really know whether our assumptions that "AP is good for everyone" are correct. Were some students so overwhelmed by the experience that they skipped college altogether? Did AP exam failure reinforce existing negative stereotypes? Has a student opted not to follow a particular career path because of a bad AP experience? How is open access affecting the teaching of AP? Are colleges becoming more concerned that the AP program is being watered down because they have begun receiving freshmen with lots of AP courses in history, for example, who don't know much about history?

These are just some questions we need to know more about before we conclude that increasing AP failure is benign.

Mathews: Your daughter's story is important, and sad, but we both know what the problem was: bad teaching. Bad teaching is nearly always the problem. Compare your daughter's experience with what we are seeing in Northern Virginia, where thousands of students are taking open enrollment AP and IB [International Baccalaureate] courses every year in all of the region's school districts. I am hearing almost no stories of bad teaching but plenty of stories of great teachers like you making these courses shine for all kinds of kids. I have watched many of those teachers in action. They explain to me that if you do not open AP to all students who want to take such a course, you sentence at least some motivated students to lower-level courses that are going to be, to them, torturously boring. That seems to them, as it does to me, to be pedagogical malpractice. Also, we have data indicating that the standard practice of limiting access to AP has missed the mark. A College Board study based on student PSAT scores indicates at least twice as many students are ready for AP as are actually enrolled in the courses.

There is also, I think, an important flaw in your original analysis. You emphasize the drop in the passing rate among students who take AP exam, but you fail to mention that at the same time the NUMBER of students, including minority students, who pass AP exams is increasing. Education reform happens one kid at a time. The expansion of AP, despite its challenges, is producing more kids who are succeeding in these college-level courses, and I think that is a more important development than the falling passing rate. More young people are realizing they have the stuff that will get them through college. That is a critically important insight for them.

Mattimore: I don't believe the problem is bad teaching. Just like I don't believe the problem at Abu Ghraib was a few bad apples. Teachers are part of a much larger system that includes factors such as the school's culture and, yes, the students with whom they are working. From 2005 to 2007, I taught at a first-rate high school, San Francisco's Saint Ignatius College Prep, in which eight of our 11 U.S. history classes were AP. Virtually all SI's graduates go on to four-year colleges. I had enormous resource support, and over 90 percent of my kids passed the AP exam. It's flattering of you to suggest that I might be a great teacher, but in fact I was in a great situation with stellar kids. Our other AP Psychology teacher, Eric Castro, the best teacher I ever saw, had a higher passing rate than I did. I was fortunate to be able to appropriate material from Eric by auditing his classes occasionally.

We taught at a college level because our students were prepared and expected to learn at a college level. When students come to an AP class unprepared or underprepared to learn, we shortchange other students who could prosper in AP, and we misrepresent AP to those universities that rely on AP designations to signify college-level competencies.

How different was my experience at a middle-of-the road public high school where I taught for many years. Although I had some successes, overall I was discouraged. I tried using a college textbook to teach psychology, but it was beyond the reading level of many of my students. I took several students to Stanford, where they made presentations in front of that faculty. Two of my students were subsequently recognized with plaques by Phil Zimbardo, the president of the American Psychological Association at that time. A third student received a prestigious book award from the distinguished psychologist Albert Bandura. But regrettably, for the majority of my students, and despite my best efforts, the kids were simply marking time. When I was in a superlative situation, I was a superlative teacher; when I was in a mediocre situation, I was a mediocre teacher.

Mathews: This is a terrific illustration of an important principle: A school works much better if leaders and teachers are all on the same page, working toward the same goal of raising every student's level of achievement. St. Ignatius was clearly that kind of school. The unnamed middle-of-the-road public high school was not. That takes me to my last, and I think most important, complaint about your suggestion that the College Board discourage high schools with low AP passing scores from giving so many AP courses and tests until they arrange for better teaching at the lower grades.

I applaud the intent of your suggestion. Many school systems do not set the standard for elementary and middle school as high as they should. That is an important reason why many high school students struggle in AP classes. But you have watched how school systems work long enough to know that blaming a high school's failure on low standards in the lower grades is a classic cop-out. It is indeed one of the most common reasons I hear for high schools not opening up AP to more students: "They just aren't ready for it."

It would be very nice if we had a culture where, in such cases, you could tell the elementary and middle school teachers and principals to get their act together and they would instantly change their ways and send to the high school in one or two years kids who WERE ready for AP. But in my experience, and in the experience of the AP teachers who have influenced me, that almost never happens. The middle school people have few incentives to raise their standards. If you place severe limits on entrance to the high school's AP program, you have removed one of the few selling points they have with their principal, their parents and their students. "Why should I try to get ready for AP?" the kids will say. "We know kids in the high school that were plenty smart, but they wouldn't let them in. That program is just for rich kids." Everyone can revert to the common excuse. Those kids just aren't up to it.

But if there is a vigorous and open AP program at a school that shares the spirit of St. Ignatius, with everyone working to raise the level of every kid, then they don't have so much of an excuse not to work harder to prepare more kids for AP. The door to AP is wide open. They can no longer say their kids will never be let into the AP courses. AND -- this is a crucial element you did not mention in your Ed Week piece -- if you do not have a lively and open enrollment AP program at the high school, you are not going to be able to give your teachers a chance to develop the techniques that work best in teaching AP to kids from families where AP is something very new, and scary. You also will not have AP teachers with that kind of experience who can visit the middle school teachers and help them improve their lessons. If we stop schools with low AP passing rates from trying to improve their AP courses, while keeping them open, then everyone will NOT be on the same team, as you were at St. Ignatius.

That kind of team spirit has helped increase AP test participation and AP passing rates in schools throughout the country. Look at Northern Virginia, look at Dallas, look at Long Island, look at Florida, look at Marshall Fundamental in Pasadena, Calif., or YES Prep in Houston or several other schools on the Newsweek list that have both high percentages of low-income students and high passing rates. For kids like that, you don't want to have high schools that look like AP dead ends.

Mattimore: I'm not clear as to why there needs to be an open-access policy in place in order to insist upon more infrastructure at the pre-AP level. In fact, if anyone can get into AP, what is the incentive for students to work hard at pre-AP classes in order to make sure they are qualified for AP?

Let me use a rather unfortunate example from the education system of the country I now call home, France. If you were to ask the average scholar for a listing of the world's great universities, the Sorbonne in Paris would no doubt make the list. But, I'm told, somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of undergraduates entering the Sorbonne flunk out within the first two years. Professors at the Sorbonne complain about the quality of students at that university. Why? Because any student who graduates from a French high school on university track with a baccalaureate degree is guaranteed acceptance at the Sorbonne. And the problem, as educational writers here note, is that the baccalaureate has been diminished over the years and no longer signifies anything like the kind of intellectual competence that students need to begin university studies at the Sorbonne. There are proposals to reinvigorate the baccalaureate by requiring students to pass two years of exams for that degree instead of one. In other words, make pre-college preparation more rigorous and winnow out some students so the university and the students don't waste their time later on. I would think the winnowing process is analogous to what we should be doing with pre-AP and AP.

There are a couple of psychological principles here that are apt, too -- scarcity and justification of effort. We want those things that are hard to get or are in short supply (scarcity). When we work hard to get something, the goal is more attractive than if we get it without effort (justification of effort).

AP is special, and it should remain so. Students should know that not everyone will qualify for an AP class but that with hard preparatory work they might just make it.

I've learned from having had plenty of rejected op-eds that if you identify a problem, you should be prepared to offer a solution. Here are two suggestions for the College Board.

First, begin once again publishing the percentage of AP passers (based on test-takers) compared with the previous year. It might be obvious, as Jay writes in his introduction, that the push to expand AP and open access will result in higher failure rates as it has, but that story is not getting reported by many newspapers (including this one). In fact, the story that is reported is that higher percentages of students are succeeding on AP exams.

Second, undertake research to determine the consequences of AP expansion. I won't repeat all the questions I think need answering, but the general thrust of the inquiry should be as to whether or not AP exam failure has any negative impact, not only on the affected students, but on AP programs more generally in high schools, and perceptions about the program in colleges.

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