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Extra Credit: Students Speak Out on AP and the Challenge Index

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

-- Jay Mathews

By Washington Post Editors  | March 26, 2009; 9:43 AM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  
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In your responses to students commenting on AP and the Challenge Index you gave what I believe are contradictory responses. One student wrote in questioning the low passing rate in PG, including the fact that some schools had a zero passing rate. Your response brought up the Texas study that claimed that even students who receive a 2 do "better" in college than students who don't take AP exams.

Another student wondered about money being spent on AP and implied that that covers up the lack of good teaching. You replied that the exams create a higher standard and thus the teachers can't dumb it down if all students take the exam.

How do you justify these two responses in relation to each other? How do you determine if a teacher isn't dumbing it down when you are okay with kids receiving 2's (or 1's) and schools having zero passing rates? Is it okay at some schools to have zero passing rates? Which schools are okay with their teachers having low passing rates and which schools demand high passing rates? How then can those scores be used to determine how effective a teacher is, or if the course is being dumbed down? How can a teacher not "dumb it down" when open enrollment means some students won't have the necessary background knowledge for the teacher just to start in September at a higher level than she/he would for regular or honors would be expected for an AP course?

My point is AP doesn't actually "force the teachers to teach to a higher standard" if you and your challenge index are fine with low or even zero passing rates.

Posted by: researcher2 | March 26, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I must say I'm struck by the defensive, even belligerent tone of your responses to these kids and their concerns. While it's perhaps understandable that you'd rise vigorously to the defense of your Index and the AP program, I'm not sure you've taken the time to try and understand the other side of the argument these kids and others are trying to make. Things just aren't as neat and clean in the real world as they are in academic studies or opinion columns. I would humbly suggest that if the purpose of the AP program is really to help kids better prepare for college -- not to give schools something to brag about, or you something to write about -- then a little more open-mindedness and balance on your part is in order.

Posted by: rico18 | March 26, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Which school systems pay for AP exams? In Montgomery County we have to pay for them directly.

Posted by: poparoni | March 26, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

"Your school, the county's only selective admission magnet, has always done well on AP."

There are three selective Science and Technology Mangets in Prince George's County -- Roosevelt, Oxon Hill and Flowers.

Posted by: veruca | March 26, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

It looks like the students are all saying the same thing, but you refuse to take it to heart. The truth is: your ranking system hold a lot of sway in this area, and it has unintended consequences. I graduated from high school in Fairfax six years ago, and your rankings were cited for a lot of my school's administrative decisions. We got more AP classes, but the administration cut many advanced classes taught by creative teachers because it didn't come with an AP test. Teachers were encouraged to teach to the AP test to the exclusion of teaching discussion and writing skills that are far more useful in college than having passed an AP test. The administrators also demanded extremely high AP scores, which forced teachers to grade extremely harshly. Of about 60 students taking AP US history (in 3 classes), I was 3rd in my class, got a 5 on the exam, got an 800 on the history SAT II, and got a B in the class.

You may think your list harmless, but people take it very seriously and a large amount of education policy is directed towards gaming the ranking by doing what ever it takes to cram kids into AP classes. At this point, I think your ranking is just a ranking of how attention each high school's administration pays to you.

Please come up with a more creative and holistic way of measuring school quality. Each school put out a list of its seniors and there plans for next year. I suggest you get these lists and rank the schools based on the quality of colleges its graduating class attends--adjusting for income. College acceptances are a much more relevant indicator of a school's quality than number of AP classes taken.

Posted by: bwwww | March 26, 2009 9:04 PM | Report abuse


You're free to approach AP however you believe is appropriate. I imagine it was a major decision for you to also include in some of your reporting the passing percentage for schools. If someone would develop a rating that gave credit for all AP exams taken but gave more credit for higher grades (1 through 5 scores perhaps), I'd read it and give it more weight than your index. That way schools would receive recognition for encouraging everyone to try AP and also for actually helping them achieve on an AP test.

But hang in there with what you believe -- "you can't please everyone so you better please yourself". - Mark T.

Posted by: mct210 | March 27, 2009 8:13 AM | Report abuse

For schools large enough, how about 2 sections of an AP class - one for kids who qualify - have the prerequisites and high grades and the other section for kids who want the challenge of an AP class but do NOT have the prerequisite courses or high enough grades in them. That way everyone who wants to can take AP courses and you don't have to worry about dumbing down the class for the kids who are actually prepared for them.

Imagine the school orchestra consisting of everyone who ever wanted to play an instrument, but only half of them had ever taken lessons.

Posted by: efavorite | March 27, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Just a quick "Amen" to efavorite's idea. The AP "B" classes would also be great for teachers who are convinced that their own curriculum is superior to AP. Some of their students would pass anyway and others would get the benefit of an AP alternative -- without the "pressure" and "narrowing" that AP may cause.

Posted by: mct210 | March 29, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse we go again, relying on data-driven measurable results, simply because they are easier to measure. I really would like Mr. Mathews to listen to what these young people are saying, and be willing to admit that his "challenge index" has, indeed, promoted the practice of putting in inadequately prepared students in these classes, just so schools receive a better rating. If Jay does not think this is the case, maybe he needs to do more research and gather more data for his data-driven views.
I would also like to know just what qualifications Mr. Mathews has to have become our "education guru"? It would be nice to know, since there are far too many pundits and politicians shaping education policy who have very little experience in public school classrooms.

Posted by: pjlsan | March 29, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

I hope the fact that I printed all these student comments, that I ran in full the anti-AP complaints of the Independent Curriculum group, that I have published more AP critiques than any other columnist, would show that I share the commitment of these posters to an open mind. But it would be a big bore if I let them sit there, and not respond. I have to call them as I see them, or I'm not doing my job. My experience is 27 years watching hundreds of teachers in action, at hundreds of schools around the country, resulting in many articles and 4 books about schools and one about college admissions, with all manuscripts shown to all sources to check for accuracy. But I am still learning, and appreciate comments like the ones above.

Posted by: jaymathews | March 31, 2009 11:38 PM | Report abuse

In other words, if I read extensively about a certain topic over a period of years and conduct "ethnographic research", I, too can make pronouncements, shape policy, and create "challenge indexes".....sorry, but that sounds a bit "ivory tower" to me, Mr. Mathews.
How about actually teaching in an urban setting? If one has had no first hand experience as a practitioner, I don't find these type of pronouncements very authentic. Oftentimes, those of us who are actually "in the trenches" and dealing with the reality of educational bureaucracies that are based on theoreticians, pundits, and politicians, get quite frustrated by the constant policy shifts and teacher-bashing going on in our country.
Maybe we can get Michele Rhee, Arne Duncan and Bill Gates to actually try out teaching, as well. I would be far more inclined to view them as real leaders if they knew, first-hand, the realities of teaching in today's classrooms.

Posted by: pjlsan | April 2, 2009 7:31 PM | Report abuse

Pardon me....I spelled Michelle's name wrong in my previous post.

Posted by: pjlsan | April 2, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse

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