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Is AP for All a Formula for Failure?

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By Jay Mathews
Monday, June 8, 2009

I spend much time with aggressive Advanced Placement teachers. They tell me, quite often, that students must be stretched beyond their assumed capabilities. Whenever I try to pass on this advice, however, I become a target for ridicule and disbelief from readers.

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Here comes more of that stuff. Newsweek unveils this week my annual rankings of America's Top High Schools, with a new twist that skeptics will find even less congenial.

The latest list, to appear on newsweek.com, will include about 1,500 schools that have reached a high standard of participation on college-level AP, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests. The bad news is they represent less than 6 percent of U.S. public high schools. The good news is that 73 percent of Washington area schools are on the list. The interesting news is that some of those schools have begun to require AP courses and tests for all students, even those who struggle in class.

Newsweek and The Washington Post use the Challenge Index, which I conceived in 1998 and have been fiddling with since. This time I am adding a separate Catching Up list for high schools that use AP as shock treatment for impoverished students who have been in the academic doldrums. On this new list are 29 schools with AP test participation rates high enough to qualify for the Newsweek list but with test passing rates under 10 percent. Seven are in this area: Coolidge, Bell Multicultural, Friendship Collegiate, SEED, Thurgood Marshall and McKinley Tech in the District, and Crossland in Prince George's County.

Some people might call this the straggler list. I don't. I have spoken to the administrators of many of those schools. What they say makes sense. They have tried raising achievement slowly with remedial education. It didn't work, in part because the teachers and students had no worthy goal to shoot for. So they have made the AP test their benchmark, and in preparing for it hope to give low- performing students the strenuous academic exercise they need for college. Few pass the three-hour AP exams, so few get college credit. So what? They aren't in college yet. This way they have a chance to accustom themselves to the foot-high reading assignments and torturous exams they will encounter in college.

Each year, more data suggest that this is the right approach. A new study of 302,969 students who graduated from Texas high schools shows that even low-performing students -- those who got a failing grade of 2 on the 5-point AP test -- did significantly better in college than did similarly low- performing, low-income students who did not take AP. Nationally, most high schools are so lax in their duties that half their students heading for college never take an AP, IB or Cambridge course and test and thus have little clue what awaits them.

Many AP teachers I know spend much of their time coaxing such under-served students into their classes. That is true at Bell Multicultural High School, the first public school in this area to require all students to take AP. And not just any AP. They must study AP English Literature and AP English Language, especially difficult for the many children of immigrants at Bell.

Daniel Gordon, a Harvard University Law School graduate I watched teach at Bell last year, said the prospect of a college-level exam is a big motivator for students. One of them, Esmeralda Posadas, said, "It forced students who don't speak English at home to focus all their attention on it. It is not run- of-the-mill." Only three students got a passing score of 3 or higher on the exam in 2007, but Posadas was one of 31 who got a score of 2.

AP teachers with that kind of attitude are not the majority. A recent Fordham Institute survey revealed that only 38 percent of AP teachers believe "the more students taking AP courses, the better," while 52 percent said "only students who can handle the material" should take AP. One of my favorite bloggers, Fairfax County instructional technology specialist Tim Stahmer of assortedstuff.com, frequently says too many unprepared students are being channeled into AP and urged to go to college.

My response is, what harm does that do? They work harder in high school, and if they graduate still determined not to go to college, they will discover that those AP skills are just what they need to get the best available jobs or trade school slots.

If they don't take an AP class and test, they will never know whether they could have handled it. Many students from non-college families discover they can. Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has been beefing up instruction in lower grades and luring students into college-level courses for years, with impressive results. The portion of impoverished Montgomery AP students who passed the tests increased from 12.3 percent in 2002 to 22.4 percent in 2006.

The Catching Up schools aren't losers. They are strivers, fueled by the high spirits of teachers who keep telling me how much more their kids can do than they expected. Their schools are exciting. History students are writing an essay every day. English students are publishing books. Those who think this is a good idea are still a beleaguered minority, but we are growing. Watch out.

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com


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