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Extra Credit: Two Radically Different AP Experiences

Dear Extra Credit Readers:

Here are two students with sharply different views of Advanced Placement, the program of college-level courses and testing in high school. Who is right?

Dear Extra Credit:

Concerning your Nov. 3 column ["Wide Access to AP, IB Isn't Hurting Anybody"], on whether AP discourages or encourages students to do well, my personal experience is that once I was given the opportunity to participate in a challenging yet interesting subject, my grades gradually went up.

As a student from Arlington County's Wakefield High School, one of the most diverse high schools in the nation, I see low-income black students succeed every day. Sometimes I see them doing better than I am, although I am a biracial, high-income student.

For most of my career in high school, I was a straight-C or below achiever. But since entering AP courses, my interest in school has taken a sharp turn. AP courses aren't just, as you put it, "wearisome three-hour exams." They are all-year wearisome exams, testing our stamina.

Sometimes I have a million essays due the next day, and all I feel like doing is sleeping. But AP revives a sleepy mind. It's not only a good way to benchmark high schools, but, individually, kids can keep their sights on what they need. I see it as not only an intensive way to prepare for college, but also as a roadmap for going to college. Without that extra push, there's a depression in which average classes, and their students, get stuck. AP opens a window through which students can see what college is like and discover that it is much more compelling than standard high school classes.

I wasn't "set up for failure" with AP, as some people say, and neither were the other minority kids in my school. An AP teacher should be someone able to give, as you say, the "extra time and encouragement students need to learn." Because of the luck I have had with AP teachers, I think that my performance improved strongly, even if my exam grades weren't perfect. Of course, it would be nice to score high enough to get college credit, but colleges still see that AP students are challenging themselves.

Liz Guzman

Well said. I have met many students who share your view.

Dear Extra Credit:

I'm a former student at the reasonably well regarded Montgomery County High School, and I can attest to what the AP critic said in your Nov. 3 column. I often expected my AP classes to have a contingent of five to 10 students who would be disastrously far behind the rest of us. The worst one was AP English Literature, because many of the students had never really written analytical papers before and didn't know how to articulate or support points.

Our teacher (a saint if there ever was one) had incalculable patience with these students and would take the time to thoroughly work with them on every paper and with every book. What made it extraordinarily frustrating was that we would frequently have group assignments -- with involuntary groups, of course -- and one couldn't comfortably allocate work to those in the group who were drastically unprepared.

It's a trying situation: If you give them the work and expect them to do it on their own, you run the risk of them doing a poor job and dragging down the whole group. If you give them nothing, you overwork those who can do the work, and you create social tension within the group that is extremely unhealthy. Bitterness and resentment abound.

The worst thing about it was that, invariably, many of the students would realize the gap between them and those who were adequately prepared, and they would more or less give up on the class. Their malaise began to infect other students in the class, seeping into the psyche of every student. Why should you prepare for the discussion today, when you know that half the class will be further behind than you are now?

Frankly, the teachers who vilified the AP critic you cited are doing their capable students immense harm. All they can see is how the average does, not "How far did we push these students, given their abilities and proclivities?" It saddens me to think that these teachers would be okay with their better students getting fours on the exam, if that meant that one unprepared student got a three.

And enough with this canard that the better students will, without incentive, naturally help the less capable. If it happens, it happens only because the teacher insists on it, and that creates a remarkably uncomfortable situation for all. Why is it the responsibility of the better students to help the chronically unprepared? Is that not the role the teacher should fulfill? It places an undue burden on the students who might be able to go to an elite institution: The weight of one bad grade on a transcript can be what sinks an admission.

The reason one never hears these opinions is that people such as me are a minority and, by the time we are free from the social constraints of school, no longer care. Please don't let our elite drown in a sea of mediocrity.
Josh Lerner,
University of Chicago

I was delighted to receive your letter, because it was so unusual and it allows me to test your thesis that AP is much more of a drag on good students than the teachers or statistics I report suggest. Readers who agree or disagree with you will, I hope, tell me their stories.

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

By Washington Post Editors  | February 5, 2009; 12:05 PM ET
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I can only imagine where the second letter-writer would be going to school if he hadn't gotten a B+ in English junior year.

I knew a guy at the U of C who kept a rejection letter from Dartmouth tacked to the ceiling above his bed for most of freshman fall. But don't worry, he got over it, and you will, too.

Posted by: sdz123 | February 7, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

The second letter writer makes a very important point about group projects. I always dreaded these for exactly the same reason. Group projects drag down the best students and create tension with the worst students in the group. I always ended up doing all the work and was forced to share the grade with those who would do nothing, when I was forced into a group. This tension is only resolved if students may chose the make up of their own groups. I did not have the oportunity to take AP classes in high school, but did take honors classes. I am shocked that they would force students in AP classes to do them! In my honors classes, we chose our groups and usually everyone was happy.

Posted by: badalton | February 8, 2009 1:48 AM | Report abuse

@badalton: At least at my school teachers (even in the advanced classes) refuse to let us pick groups every time because we "were always working together with the same people" which was for whatever reason undesirable. Whoever becomes the one to "compile" the project in a group of five usually ends up doing the work of 3 people because two inevitably don't do their fair share. It's even more frustrating if by a terrible turn of luck, in small group (2-3) assignments where you are the only one who cares about your grade. What choice do you have other than to suck it up and do everything?

Posted by: eloquensa | February 8, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

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