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Students Speak Out on AP and the Challenge Index

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dear Extra Credit Readers:

Advanced Placement English teacher Allison Beers asked her 11th-grade students at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County to critique my annual rankings, in The Washington Post and Newsweek, of public high schools. I use the Challenge Index, a measure of participation in AP and other college-level tests. Here are excerpts of comments from several students, with some comments from me:

Dear Extra Credit:

My parents admit that when they were in high school, they didn't learn the stuff my teachers are shoving down my throat, and yet they still have this inane expectation for me to get extremely good grades. They've bought into the idea that AP classes equal gold. . . . Whether I will do well in the subject or not, I and my fellow students are expected to take these classes. And why? So that Eleanor Roosevelt High School can get an even higher rating?

Hanna Yangilmau

Ask your parents that question. I suspect they will tell you they don't care about the high school's rating. They care about you getting ready for college. At the beginning of the last century, students complained that their parents pushed them to go to high school, something their parents had not been able to do. In this country, expectations increase every generation, one reason why so many people want to come here.

Dear Extra Credit:

The school system doesn't really believe that any student can take AP courses. They're just trying to get as many students as they can taking AP tests so they can have a higher ranking on your list. That is also why they have been paying for everyone's AP tests (which my tax-paying parents end up paying for anyway). . . . Students should pay for their tests, but if they receive a 3 or above then they will receive a refund, which will cause them to study more, because they're paying for it.

Gleanza Industrious

You ought to talk to principals and AP teachers, as I have, before you make assumptions about why they are putting such emphasis on college-level learning in high school. We have much data showing that students who take AP courses and exams, even those who do not pass the AP exams, do better in college than students who do not take AP. I hope someone tries your refund idea. It might help cut AP costs at this difficult time.

Dear Extra Credit:

With schools competing for top-ranking positions on your list, what is stopping a school from pushing kids into taking AP tests without the additional push to actually get the student to pass?

Amelia Franklin

This is one of the most common myths about the list, that it has the evil power to make educators act unprofessionally. I invented the list because I had been interviewing the best AP teachers for many years and knew that they hungered to open their classes to more students who wanted to work hard and improve their chances of graduating from college. One of our worst educational problems is that most high schools bar most students who plan to go to college from taking AP courses and exams. I have never met a teacher who welcomed students into an AP course and then refused to teach them. If you know of any, tell me.

Dear Extra Credit:

How about incorporating other factors into your rating system that measure success and failure: GPAs? Dropout rates?

Jonathan Chornay

Those are useful measures of high schools, but they appear in most cases to be related more closely to parental income than the skill and energy of a school's teachers. Students from affluent families tend to have higher grades and lower dropout rates than impoverished students. That wouldn't be measuring the schools, but the parents. Many high schools have large numbers of low-income students and rank high on my list because the teachers are working hard to expose the students to college-level courses.

Dear Extra Credit:

In 2007, the passing rate on the AP exams for Prince George's County was only 35 percent, with zero percent passing rates at some schools. More than $440,000 was used to pay for these tests, but is it worth it if there is nothing to show for it?

Varun Murthy

There is plenty to show for it. First, 35 percent of the 5,171 AP tests taken in the county means 1,810 tests received grades of 3, 4 or 5, making them eligible for college credit. That is 75 percent more than in 1997. Your school, the county's only selective admission magnet, has always done well on AP. The county's decision to encourage more students in other high schools to take the courses and tests has caused a 93 percent increase in the number of passing scores outside of Eleanor Roosevelt. As I noted earlier, new data from Texas show that even students who receive a 2 on AP exams do better in college than similar students who do not take AP courses and exams.

Dear Extra Credit:

If many students decide to take AP courses but most are unable to handle the stress or workload, they might fail the exams or even not graduate.

Sapna Gopalasubramanian

I have yet to find a single student who took an AP exam, no matter what the score, and failed to graduate from his or her high school. If you know of one, introduce me.

Dear Extra Credit:

The county is spending entirely too much money on AP exams just to cover up the lack of good teachers.

Veronica Derrick

Many teachers have told me that AP helps them be better by allowing them to teach to a higher standard that cannot be dumbed down easily if all students take the exams.

Dear Extra Credit:

Maybe a little trip down here to Greenbelt would change your mind about this whole "number of AP tests over graduating students" thing.

Solome Getnet

Any time. Name the day.

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-mail extracredit@washpost.com.

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