Wide Access To AP, IB Isn't Hurting Anybody

By Jay Mathews
Monday, November 3, 2008

Jason Crocker, an educational consultant in Prince George's County, is exasperated with me and my rating of high schools, called the Challenge Index, based on how many college-level Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests schools give. In response to one of my columns, Crocker vowed to refute anything nice I say about AP, particularly in his county.

He reflects the views of many in the Washington area. People wonder why kids are taking wearisome three-hour AP exams (or five-hour IB exams) in history, calculus or physics when their grades aren't that good and their SAT scores are low. Crocker, who is African American, is particularly worried about what all this testing is doing to black students.

"Mr. Mathews, AP in Prince George's County is about setting African American students up for failure to satisfy your Challenge Index," he said. "The flip side of this is that most of these new students taking the exam are not adequately prepared for the exam and Prince George's County cannot recruit enough teachers to teach the exam who are highly qualified."

This assumes black students are not well prepared for tough courses. But of course, many in Prince George's come from affluent, college-educated families and are just as ready for AP as the rich, white kids in Montgomery County. Research indicates that it isn't race, but family income, that affects school performance.

Also, there isn't much evidence that Prince George's can't find good teachers for AP, but put that aside for the moment and consider the larger issue: What should we expect in an AP teacher? These are not advanced college courses but introductory courses, only marginally more difficult than what high schools traditionally offer college-bound seniors. Yet until the Prince George's schools, led by outgoing Superintendent John E. Deasy, made AP a priority, few teachers were asked to take on AP because so many people assumed that most Prince George's students couldn't handle college-level material.

I wish those doubters could visit the hundreds of high schools across the country, including several in this area, that have shed such assumptions and proved that plenty of students, including minorities and low-income kids, do well in AP if given the extra time and encouragement they need to learn.

When students are considered not ready for AP and denied the opportunity to take those courses, they and their teachers don't get a chance to measure themselves against the incorruptible standard of an AP exam written and graded by outside experts. Without that tough benchmark, high school courses, even those labeled "honors" or "advanced," often settle for mediocrity, giving students good grades for little work. Save all that stress for college, the kids are told, while average reading and math scores for U.S. teenagers have remained stagnant the past three decades.

As Crocker says, AP participation soared in Prince George's this year to 7,732 tests, a 50 percent jump in just one year. He is also correct that the portion of passing scores declined from 35 percent to 27.6 percent. But he overlooks the fact that the number of passing scores increased from 1,815 to 2,145. In other words, hundreds more students learned that they could play in this league, giving them a boost in confidence when they go to college. Even those who just missed passing better understand what's needed to get to that level.

Crocker notes that black students in Prince George's are averaging only 1.83 on the 5-point AP exams. Again, this is a matter of class, not race, but let's consider his interesting solution. Instead of "taking AP courses taught by underprepared instructors with a lack of adequate preparation," he said, those students should take courses "at Prince George's Community College. . . . The quality of instruction is better, and you will receive credit that the U-Md. system must honor if you pass the classes."

Crocker does not cite any evidence that college faculty are better teachers than high school faculty. That is because there isn't any. He might remember some great college instructors, but I recall some bad ones, including grad students just there for a paycheck or professors who rushed through lectures so they could get back to their research. Crocker himself, who has taught AP at a local private school, sounds like a better teacher than college dons I knew who had no idea how to handle 18-year-olds.

He also overlooks the likelihood that many of the students he urges to take the allegedly higher-quality PGCC courses are going to be turned away. You can't take a credit course at a community college unless you pass a placement test or have high SAT or ACT scores. At PGCC, 70.1 percent of new students fail to qualify and must take the non-credit remedial version of the course they wanted.

So how much harm is really done by their taking the AP version of that course in high school? They might struggle, but that means they are learning. That will only happen, however, if we shed the notion that AP teaching is only for the students who don't need good teachers and not for those who would blossom if asked to do more.

Coming soon: The life of a D.C. principal. E-mailmathewsj@washpost.comif you know some good ones.

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