Earlier this month I published what turned out to be a very popular post by veteran educator Kenneth Bernstein — known online as teacherken — that was a warning to college professors about the level of preparation for higher education that high school students were receiving. My colleague Jay Mathews this week published on his blog, Class Struggle, a critique of Bernstein’s piece. Here, by Ken Bernstein, is a critique of the critique, largely but not exclusively focused on the worth of the Advanced Placement program.

By Kenneth Bernstein

Since The Answer Sheet posted my piece called “A warning to college profs from a high school teacher, which went viral, I have been inundated with emails, messages, requests for interviews — and some critiques. On Wednesday, my friend and Post reporter Jay Mathews posted  on his Class Struggle blog a critique of my post that is titled “Missed challenges more worrisome than tests.” I mentioned Jay in the original piece, specifically about how his Challenge Index lead directly to the explosion of courses labeled as Advanced Placement, so it is appropriate for Jay to respond. Here, in the same space as my original post, I respond to his.

Jay suggests that the rise in the number of students passing AP examinations is an indicator of increased knowledge or skill by the increased pool of test takers. It isn’t.  AP exams give scores of 1-5, with 5 being the highest and 3 considered a passing score.  But these are SCALED scores — all the tests are scored on a raw point basis, the scores spread out, and the 3 passing grade set so that something over 50% of the test takers “pass.”   Since the number of test takers has gone up, of course the number of those “passing” would have gone up as well.

The College Board recently released this report on state AP test score results, which clearly demonstrates that the rise in number passing does not necessarily indicate better performance:

Year                Number taking            Number passing             % passing

2002                471,404                       305098                                    65

2007                694,705                       424,004                                   61

2011                904,794                       541,000                                   60

2012                954,070                       573.472                                   60

I will note that there was a slight uptick between 2011 and 2012.  But note this as well: Until recently, the multiple-choice portion of the tests with four choices for each question, were scored on the basis of number of questions correct minus ¼ for each incorrect answer. Last year the deduction for wrong answers was eliminated.

In my subject, Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics, there were 60 multiple choice questions each worth one point, thus representing 50% of the raw scores, and four Free Response Questions, each represent 12.5% of the score, or 15 raw points.  Thus 120 raw points were possible.  In most years, it was possible to earn a score of 3 — supposedly a passing result — with a raw score in the range of 52-57, or less than 50%.   Please cite for me an introductory college course in which you can pass with a percentage of under 60%, to say nothing of under 50%.

Jay has argued that taking an AP course and sitting for an AP exam prepares a student better for post-secondary education.  Having taught AP for years, and having twice read Free Response Questions, I would have to say “not necessarily.”

My students took AP Government in lieu of the required Maryland course in local, state, and national Government, as tenth graders.  Few of them were prepared to function at a college level at the start of the year.  Most them were functioning at the equivalent of a college freshman perhaps by mid-February.  I worked on skills they would need for college — note-taking, critical reading, analysis, etc.  Were they better prepared for future academic endeavors as a result of being in my class?  Certainly, but when I taught Government as a 9th grade class, I approached things the same way and challenged my students just as much.  Thus even in my classes I would argue that taking an AP course did not prepare them more thoroughly than I could have otherwise prepared and challenged them.

The mere fact that a course is labeled AP does not  necessarily make it a college-level course, even if all of the students in that class obtain scores of 5 on the exam. The AP tests, by the way, are given in the beginning of May, when most schools go on for at least an additional month.   In college students do not sit for end-of- course examinations before the end of the course.

Performance on the AP test, while indicating some level of competence, does not necessarily mean one has learned what one would in the equivalent college course. It depends upon the quality of the teacher and the seriousness of the student.  It is worth noting that Dartmouth College will no longer give credit for AP because when they tested incoming students who had scored well on the AP Psychology test the vast majority failed what would have been the end-of- course exam in Dartmouth’s introductory psychology class.

There are many other issues worth exploring in Jay’s piece.  We can have an entire discussion on the issue of homework, and the value represented by more.  Notable education writers such as Alfie Kohn have long argued against the way we use homework.

It is also worth noting that some American students take as many asfive or six Advanced Placement courses at a time, sometimes when they are 14- or 15-year-old juniors. At many colleges nowadays a full load is four courses.  In the school from which I retired, we had some students taking six APs and two other courses.  If this raises red flags for any readers, it is a logical outcome of our approach to education.  Here I might mention that if you have not seen the film by Vicki Abeles, “Race to Nowhere,” it is worth considering in our discussions of how much we choose to place upon our students, and what tragic results can ensue.

Jay focused on AP because of his strong advocacy for it, and because I mentioned my belief that his Challenge Index — originally calculated as the number of AP exams taken (not passed) divided by the number of graduating seniors — is what led to the explosion of Advanced Placement courses in American high schools.

But while I wrote about Advanced Placement, my original piece was broader. It spoke about our entire educational approach and how it is leaving students increasingly less prepared for post-secondary work.

For those who argue as does Jay that students are now better prepared for college than before, I have two responses:

1.  That is not what I am being told by the many college professors who are writing to me.

2.   That is contradicted by the increasing number and percentage of students being required to take non-credit remedial courses, especially in English and Math, in many institutions of higher education.

For those who argue that No Child Left Behind is not causing anything that did not exist before I have a different response:  Yes, it is true that we have had several decades of restricting the real learning in public schools in the attempt to get higher test scores.  What was different about NCLB was the existence of punitive sanctions, something intensified in its stepchild in the current administration, Race to the Top.  The focus has been so narrowed to scores on tests that themselves are full of problems that students are finding their educations even more narrowed.

It is not yet clear that either the rethinking of the AP program or the implementation of the Common Core State Standards will really address either of these problems.

I look forward to continued discussion about the nature of education, the purpose of school, the roles of teachers and others, and the expectations we place upon our young people. Jay and I have had our disagreements in the past.  We maintain a mutual respect because we will listen to each other.  He has always been willing to give my ideas an audience, for which I am grateful.

Finally, seek out and listen to teachers. Most of us we got into teaching because we wanted to make a positive difference for our students.  We might not have so many frustrated teachers, and our students would be better prepared for post-secondary education than they are now, if our current education policy did not resemble the problems illustrated in the following story, which I am repeating from my first post. It is from a famous blog post by 2009 National Teacher of the Year Anthony Mullen, titled “Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard.” After listening to noneducators bloviate about schools and teaching without once asking for his opinion, he was finally asked what he thought. He offered the following:

Where do I begin? I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending noneducators disrespect my colleagues and profession. I listened to a group of disingenuous people whose own self-interests guide their policies rather than the interests of children. I listened to a cabal of people who sit on national education committees that will have a profound impact on classroom teaching practices. And I heard nothing of value. “I’m thinking about the current health-care debate,” I said. “And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms.”


The strange little man cocks his head and, suddenly, the fly on the wall has everyone’s attention.


“I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.”