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AP Scores Don't Necessarily Reflect Teacher's Skills

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, April 3, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

I expect a few Advanced Placement teachers might take umbrage at your comment that a talented class that produces no AP scores above a 3 "is a glaring indicator that the teacher needs to be retrained or replaced." ["Race Can Be Another Hurdle to Quality Education," March 13].

I taught AP biology for 19 years in Prince George's County. Usually, I had 30 to 36 students in a 50-minute daily class. The material and labs can't be covered even in a double period. The College Board states that the prerequisites are a B in previous biology and successful completion of chemistry. I was called on the carpet for having the audacity to suggest that physics be a prerequisite or that it be taken concurrently, because bioenergetics requires a knowledge of physics. Also, students were required to take the exam.

I had years where most students had a 3, and some had a 4 and an occasional 5, and years when a 2 predominated on the 5-point exam. For 10 years in a row, none of my AP students had taken or were taking calculus.

So you would have me retrained or replaced because of those 3-and-below years? That's ideal, but let's be realistic. Where are these teachers? Teaching AP is hard work and requires experience and energy. I was tapped because I had coursework in molecular genetics and was an adjunct professor at Howard Community College, so I knew college biology. Not everyone does.

And now Superintendent John E. Deasy in Prince George's proposes there should be no prerequisites for any AP class in the county. So again, the numbers of students will go up, but I don't think the scores will.

-- Nancey Parker

Former Prince George's

AP teacher

You sound like just the kind of teacher your students needed. I know some fine AP instructors who rarely have a student score as high as a 3 because their kids start far behind. But they teach those students much, which they would have less incentive to do if they did not have a high standard to shoot for. The story you tell is a powerful argument for the use of AP results to drive policy. Would you be as persuasive without an independent assessment such as an AP exam? Both you and Superintendent Deasy know the answer to that one.

Dear Extra Credit:

I have nothing but good things to say about my experience with the Montgomery County public school system ["Race Can Be Another Hurdle to Quality Education," March 13]. I am the mother of an African American boy who entered the system in fifth grade. Before, he was at a small, private religious school. Believe me, I was worried about how he would fare. From day one, his teachers went out of the way to ensure that he worked up to his potential in every way.

I vividly remember his fifth-grade homeroom teacher saying to me, "He sometimes tries to get away with doing less than his best, but I'm not going to let him do that." After one year at Rachel Carson Elementary School, he entered Lakelands Park Middle School (in its first year of existence), and I am happy to report that the teachers there also worked with him and encouraged him to work to his potential. His sixth-grade math teacher even recommended him for a more advanced math class, so he would be on track to take algebra in eighth grade. In his seventh-grade math class he had to work very hard, but he maintained a solid B average and is now taking algebra, something that would not have happened without his teacher's recommendation in sixth grade.

We just received his proposed schedule for ninth grade, and he has been recommended for all honors classes. I can't say enough good things about his experience.

-- Carol Jackson

Montgomery County

Thank you so much for this positive and informative message.

Dear Extra Credit:

In your March 13 column ["Race Can Be Another Hurdle to Quality Education"], you say, "AP helps you to identify bad teachers in a way few other courses do, because students take an exam their teachers do not control," and "If you have doubts about the teacher, check the previous year's AP scores before your child enrolls." Although this is a good suggestion, most schools do not let students select their teachers and often will not allow students to change teachers. At my daughters' school, if students get a teacher who "produces no AP scores above a 3," their choice is to stick it out and try to teach themselves the material or switch out of AP.

Perhaps too many teachers who need to be "retrained or replaced" are being retained because of the increased demand for AP teachers as more and more kids are taking these classes. I feel this is because of pressure from the colleges to take the most challenging curriculum offered and also from school officials who want to do well on the Challenge Index. The Challenge Index should measure how many students pass the AP exam instead of just take the test, so the schools will be motivated to improve the scores and deal with the teachers who scores are below par.

My daughters have had wonderful, challenging teachers in AP, honors and regular classes. I feel the experience they had in these classes was more because of the teacher than the curriculum.

-- Janet Stein

Fairfax County

As you say, this is territory few parents or students have explored, but that does not mean they should not try. Some counselors will do their best to get a student into the section taught by the harder-working AP teacher. Some principals will listen with interest when parents point out to them AP results that merit concern. The Challenge Index list does say what percentage of seniors at each school have passed an AP test, which motivates the kind of improved teaching both of us want.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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