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Embracing the Challenge of AP English for All Students

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008

Manuel Ventura, a senior at Bell Multicultural Senior High School in the District, came to the United States from El Salvador only five years ago. He is trying to improve his English, but there are other demands on his time, such as his job cleaning buildings every day from 6 to 10 p.m.

But last May, like every other junior at his high school, he took one of the most difficult English exams in the country: Advanced Placement English Literature. Next month, he expects again to join all of his classmates in taking another demanding exam: AP English Language and Composition.

Last year, Bell Multicultural became the first public high school in the Washington area to require all students to take college-level AP courses and exams. The mandate is all the more remarkable because its two required AP courses are both in English, and most of Bell's students are, like Ventura, from low-income families in which English is not the first language.

Some education experts have warned that the growth of AP courses, particularly for low-scoring students such as Ventura, is a recipe for disaster, forcing students to struggle with material over their heads and take an AP English exam that only three out of 226 Bell students passed last year.

But the Bell administrators and faculty, along with some national experts, say the required AP English courses are exactly what such students need to prepare for college or good jobs. They might struggle on the AP exams, the Bell educators say, but they learn more critical reading and writing skills than they would from the remedial classes such students usually get. At Bell, the students and their families heartily endorse this view, saying the demands of AP have made them feel better prepared for the next stage of their lives.

"I really think it is a great opportunity for people like me," Ventura said. "I feel proud of myself, and I thank all my teachers."

Some students and parents elsewhere have reacted negatively to policies that seemed to force students to take AP courses, with their long reading lists and three-hour final exams written and graded by outside experts. There was an uproar at several Fairfax County schools when officials eliminated the honors course option in subjects such as history that had an AP course, requiring students to choose either AP or a regular course with less-motivated students. School administrators in Bellevue, Wash., and at North Eugene High School in Oregon, among the few places to announce plans to require AP courses, encountered resistance from people who said the change would lower AP standards or be too hard for many students.

Patrick Mattimore, a California lawyer and former AP psychology teacher, wrote a commentary for the newspaper Education Week last month suggesting that the rapid growth of AP should be reined in. "Before we invest more dollars," he wrote, "we must provide the pre-AP infrastructure in our middle schools to ensure that students are prepared to meet the challenges of the program."

Teachers at Bell said the idea of requiring AP English began with the guidelines that longtime Bell Principal Maria Tukeva laid down for the 800-student school, which recently moved to a new building on 16th Street NW. "Rigor, relevance and social justice are our three key words," said Janeece Docal, 32, the AP coordinator and English department head. "When we first started thinking about our English curriculum, I will be honest with you, it stunk. It was really, really bad. We had one teacher who had the AP class. Then we had another teacher teaching something else, which she liked, and then another teacher teaching what he liked."

Teachers discussed the problem and decided that even though AP was more difficult than the English courses their students were used to, it at least gave the English department a consistent, high standard and a way to show all students what they had to do to succeed in college.

Esmeralda Posadas, a senior who is among the best English students in the school, said she thought requiring AP "was a very good idea. It forced students who don't speak English at home to focus all their attention on it. It is not run of the mill." Posadas said her Guatemalan-born parents, who both attended college and now work for the Whole Foods grocery chain, applauded the new requirements.

Last school year, all juniors and seniors were required to take AP English Literature. Only three students earned a 3, considered the lowest passing mark on the 5-point test. Thirty-one students, including Posadas, earned a score of 2, and 191, including Ventura, earned a 1. This year, all seniors are taking AP English Language, which requires more challenging persuasive writing. Posadas said she thinks she has a good chance for a 3 or higher, as long as she doesn't study all night before the exam, as she did last year.

Agnes Akwarandu, who had previously taught the single AP class, and Daniel Gordon teach the seniors. Lisa Avent, Eric Axelson and O'Kiyyah Lyons teach the juniors. Many students are invited to stay after school for extra help, and Docal is planning an extra AP support period next year.

The new AP English requirement helped Bell jump from 45th to 13th in The Washington Post's 2007 Challenge Index ranking of Washington area schools, which measures college-level test participation. But Docal said the new policy was not inspired by the rankings; it was influenced by the school's design as an early-college high school. Under that program, Bell students take AP and local college courses in science, history, English, math and foreign language and can earn high school and college credit for them.

Gordon, 34, a Harvard University Law School graduate in his second year of teaching, said the prospect of taking a college-level exam is a big motivator for his students, but the chance to pass the exam and earn college credit is not the most important thing. They are thinking, he said, "if they can do this, then when they get to college, they'll be ready to succeed."

More writing is key. Gordon said teachers are asking students for the first time to write a major research paper. "We had kids coming back from college saying, 'You guys didn't prepare me for this,' " he said. The 10- to 15-page paper would be unusual for many suburban high schools, but the Bell teachers say their students are not protesting.

Andrew Rotherham, a member of the Virginia Board of Education and co-founder of Education Sector, a think tank, said such challenges teach students that "even if you don't do well the first time, you can buckle down and do better the next time."

Asked what he thought about those who say AP might be too much for him, Ventura said, "I totally disagree. This is the only way you can show that you are learning."

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