One of the Washington area’s most thoughtful education bloggers, Natalie Wexler, has examined the latest and perhaps riskiest attempt to improve D.C. schools. This year, all high schools must offer at least six Advanced Placement courses. Next year, the required number will be eight.
Wexler raises the question skeptics always ask: How will this help if those kids can’t pass the thought-demanding, three-hour, college-level AP final exams?
The portion of AP exams with passing scores in D.C. public schools has increased from 27 percent in 2010 to 33 percent in 2015. But that is only about half the national rate. Wexler points out that the poorest D.C. schools often have no passing AP scores at all, and most of their students get only the bottom score, one on a five-point scale.
“If the AP material is far above students’ heads, they may not be getting anything out of the classes at all,” Wexler writes. “Perhaps we need a third alternative: classes that are both rigorous and accessible to the students who are taking them.”
Many intelligent people share her view, but I think they are wrong. The educators who have influenced me say all schools should have AP or the similar IB and Cambridge courses and let in any student who wants to work hard. A less challenging substitute, call it AP Lite, for poor urban kids that will still get them ready for college is a pipe dream that ignores high school realities.
As far as I know, no attempt at AP Lite has succeeded. Such courses lack the key element of the AP program — final exams, written and graded by outside experts, that cannot be dumbed down by good-hearted teachers. Without that incorruptible test, even the best-intentioned AP substitute crumbles. If the course is challenging, many students will get poor grades, complain about it and force a lowering of standards to keep their transcripts bright and their self-esteem intact.
Despite her advocacy of AP Lite, Wexler understands this problem and shows how real AP courses can help even students who flunk the exams. She cites a Utah Valley University study of 90,000 high school students. Those who took an AP English or AP Calculus class but failed the exam did better on the ACT than those who took the course but not the exam. AP students who did not take the exam did no better on the ACT than students who did not take AP at all.
This is easy to explain if you have been lectured on the importance of the exam by as many AP teachers as I have. To students and parents who complain about tough grading on quizzes and essays, those teachers can say they must maintain high standards or their students will have no chance on the big final exam. Facing a test unlike anything they have ever seen in high school, students are more likely to listen in class and prepare at home.
Wexler put me in touch with David Tansey, an AP Statistics teacher at Dunbar High School in the District. He recalled a valedictorian who was upset to learn, without the shock of a genuinely tough high school course, that he was not the top student he thought he was when he reached college.
Tansey and other math teachers have worked hard to identify students who would benefit from AP Statistics. They have parents sign off on a letter describing how challenging it will be.
Some D.C. schools, such as the Columbia Heights Educational Campus, have proven that AP students who strive but fail the exam suffer no loss of esteem. They know they have learned more than they would have in a less difficult course.
But I have encountered a few AP teachers across the country who cut back on tough quizzes and homework anyway. If the District’s new AP expansion can avoid such malpractice, it will be an improvement, no matter what the final exam scores are.