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AP More Open, But Not Dumbed Down

More than a decade ago, when I began investigating the odd uses of Advanced Placement courses and tests in our high schools, I tried to find out why AP participation was so much lower than I expected in my neighborhood public school, Walt Whitman High of Bethesda. At least one high school in neighboring D.C., and many more in suburban Maryland, had higher participation rates than Whitman, even though it was often called the best school in the state.

That is how I stumbled on what I call the Mt. Olympus syndrome. There were, I discovered from talking to students, a few AP teachers at that school who didn’t want to deal with average students. One of them actively discouraged juniors who were getting less than an A in a prerequisite course from taking his AP course when they were seniors. He only wanted students who were going to get a 5, the equivalent of an A on the three-hour college-level AP exam, where a score of 3 and above could earn college credit. That test, like all AP exams, was written and graded by outside experts, mostly high school and college instructors. The only way that teacher thought he could control the number of 5s was to make sure only top quality students--the academic gods of the Whitman High pantheon--were allowed into his course.

This made no sense to me, or the many AP teachers who had influenced me. There was some data then, and much more now, indicating that average students who struggled in an AP course, and got one of the lower scores on the test---even a 2, the equivalent of a college D---did better in college than similar students who did not take AP.

The Mt. Olympus syndrome was not the biggest hurdle average students had to leap to get into AP. The most common barrier was what educators call gatekeeping. Most schools appeared to have rules that barred any student from a college level course who did not have a strong grade point average--a B-plus average was often the minimum---or a teacher’s recommendation. There was also the issue of the sham AP courses. These classes were said to be taught at a college level, but very few students were encouraged to take the AP exam. So the sham AP teachers had little incentive to teach at that high level. If the students didn’t take the exam, no one would know the difference.

This week the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute has released a random survey by the Farkas Duffett Research Group of 1,024 AP teachers which provides the most hopeful news I have seen in a long time on the future of the program, and its accessibility to the middle-of-the-pack high school students I think need it most. Fordham has become a national leader in assessing AP and the similar International Baccalaureate program. It broke new ground two years ago with a study confirming the high standards of rigor and content in both AP and IB exams, based on analysis by professionals in the subjects being tested. The latest study, “Growing Pains in the Advanced Placement Program: Do Tough Trade-Offs Lie Ahead?”, takes us into classrooms, and suggests--at least in the eyes of the teachers running the courses--that AP is welcoming more students, but at the same time giving them the same challenging experience that students got when only the top brains were allowed to enroll.

Journalists don’t usually have a chance to learn very much about any one topic. Our work forces us to hop from one story to another, making us generalists for life. But I have been at the Post so long---38 years--that my editors have grown to tolerate my little obsessions, particularly AP and IB. No other reporter or columnist spends nearly as much time on those subjects as I do. When I find new data upending expectations about these programs, I am as excited as a birdwatcher finding a new species, and the Fordham report is full of wonders of that sort.

My favorite in the 60-question survey is the answer to question 10: “Other than expecting students to fulfill prerequisites, are your high school’s AP classes generally open to any student who wants to take them, or are there limits on access, such as GPA or teacher approval?”

My unscientific surveys of high schools over the last 13 years---conversations with teachers, principals and students, examinations of school web pages and collection of data on AP participation rates---seemed to indicate that most schools still have limits on access. But the AP teachers in this survey contradicted that. Sixty nine percent said the AP courses at their school were generally open. Only 29 percent said they had limits and 2 percent said they were not sure.

I asked Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who oversees AP, to share with me any other data on high school access limits he might have. His numbers suggest the Fordham survey may have understated the portion of schools that keep average students out of AP, but not by much.

An ongoing College Board survey of AP teachers has collected 4,000 responses so far. Sixty-one percent indicate that their schools practice open enrollment for AP. A much larger survey, the College Board’s annual questionnaire for AP coordinators at 12,437 schools, has 54 percent saying their schools open AP to all. Other questions on that survey seem to undercut the number, however. Fifty-three percent say they look at a student’s grade in a required pre-requisite course before letting him into AP. Seventy-three percent say the recommendation of the teacher in that pre-requisite course can also be a factor. And the teachers were not asked to assess the informal and cultural limits on AP participation, such as a tracking system that makes students in the lower groups assume they would not be allowed in AP even they tried.

As the Fordham survey shows, AP teachers are pulled in different directions by their fear of admitting students unprepared for the course, their disapproval of systems that rate schools by AP participation (the prime villain being the annual ranked Challenge Index lists I do for Newsweek and The Post), their confidence in the continued academic quality of their course and the AP test and their denial of the suggestion that “administrators are pushing more unqualified minority or low-income students into AP courses, just to make the classes look more diverse.”

I have been influenced by book projects that let me observe AP and IB teachers coaxing many average students into their courses and giving them the extra time and encouragement to learn that produced good results on the exams. I am also impressed by College Board data showing that only half the number of students qualified to take AP in many subjects, based on their PSAT scores, actually do so. More AP participation is good news to me, and the Fordham report suggests that AP doors have opened much wider. Sixty five percent of teachers say the number of students taking AP at their school has grown. Despite that growth, 55 percent say the quality of AP students in terms of their aptitude and capacity to do the work has improved or stayed the same, 86 percent say the level of difficulty and complexity of the material covered in the AP courses they teach has increased or stayed the same and 69 percent say the standards for grading AP exams have not been watered down. Also, sham AP courses seem to be on the way out. Seventy percent of teachers said their schools either required or strongly urged AP students to take the AP exams.

However, when asked what is to me the key philosophical question--Is AP good for nearly everybody?--most AP teachers say no. Question 12 asks which is closer to their own view: “The more students taking AP courses the better--even when they do poorly in the course, they benefit from the challenge and experience” or “Only students who can handle the material should take AP courses--otherwise it’s not fair to them, their classmates, their teachers, and the quality of the program.” Thirty eight percent chose the first option, the one favored by the AP teachers who have most influenced me. But 52 percent chose the second option. Also, 63 percent of the teachers said it would improve their AP programs if they did more screening to make sure students were ready.

The problem with this attitude is that the screening done is almost always going to overlook two important factors in judging the academic possibilities of teenagers---motivation and maturation. A student who really wants to take AP U.S. history, and signs a contract promising to do the long homework assignments and participate in class, is likely to do much better than his or her sophomore year C-minus in world history would predict. That sophomore, in addition, could be a very different person when his or her junior year begins. Kids grow up, sometimes very quickly.

I recognize there are few individuals on the planet as absorbed with this subject as I am, but I think the Fordham report is rich in intriguing information for students, teachers or parents. You can find it on the Web site.

To quash any suspicion I am covering up answers uncomplimentary to me, here is what the surveyed AP teachers said about the annual rankings of schools by AB, IB and Cambridge test participation rates in Newsweek (The 2009 list will appear on in the middle of May, I am told, although we don’t have an exact date yet.):

Fifty-two percent of the AP teachers said they were very or somewhat familiar with the Newsweek list. As for its impact on their schools approach to AP, 34 percent said it had no impact, 22 said a little, 26 percent said some and 14 percent said a lot. What did they think of ranking the quality of high schools by using the ratio of students taking AP exams? I was pretty sure how that was going to come out. The list has been much more popular with readers, particularly parents, than teachers. Fifty eight percent said it was mostly a bad idea, 17 percent mostly a good idea and 25 percent weren’t sure.

Thankfully, I do not see much sign of the Mt. Olympus syndrome in this survey. (Even at Whitman it is now hard to find; the school’s AP participation rate is three times higher than it was when I encountered that teacher.) Most teachers seem to appreciate, as that Whitman teacher did not, the power they have to raise the achievement level of students, even those who might not get a 5. The portion of teachers on the survey who thought too few students wanted to take AP, 29 percent, was greater than the portion who thought too many wanted to take AP, 20 percent. (Forty eight percent said the numbers were about right.)

I have no doubt there are many more students who would benefit from being challenged in this way in high school. I hope that 29 percent find a way to coax more into their classrooms.

By Washington Post editors  | May 1, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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THis is wonderful news. I have personal experience with a student who worked hard in an AP class - B+ level - but who got a "2" on the AP exam. Yet the next year in the same subject area she is handling the material easily and extremely well. This student has learning disabilities, that inhibit her reading speed. This made the homework assignments take up much more of her time than for the average student - no skimming. AP or IB exam grades are essentially meaningless. What matters are those two soft skills Jay mentions; motivation and maturity. With those all students can succeed.
And when they succeed at AP or IB, the whole world opens up to them. Options abound.
We are so fortunate to have Jay's obsession with opening up our schools to all who want to succeed regardless of past history. Society as a whole will gain immeasurably from the achievements of the many hundreds of thousands of students who will benefit from AP or IB and who, without Jay's gentle pushing via the Challenge Index and his writings (books and articles), would not have had the chances they now can take advantage of.
It's so good to see that our schools are listening, learning and acting, and letting more and more students demonstrate their motivation and maturity by willingly strapping on difficult challenges.
This made my day - heck, it made my month!

Posted by: LoveIB | May 1, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

IB = still a scam, still a disaster, still a trojan horse for the UN.

Posted by: username | May 1, 2009 8:52 AM | Report abuse

So let me get this straight....

52% of teachers surveyed believe:“Only students who can handle the material should take AP courses--otherwise it’s not fair to them, their classmates, their teachers, and the quality of the program.”

62% of the teachers surveyed felt that your List has "some -to- a lot" of impact on their school open enrollment policy

... and 58% of parents think your List is "mostly a bad idea".

Of course, NOWHERE in your article do you mention the DECLINE in the pass rate on AP exams.

Luckily for you, idiot administrators and BoE's still find your List is a wonderful sales tool for their budgets and don't care what their teachers or parents think.

Posted by: lisamc31 | May 1, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

There's a reason that over 6 of 10 AP teachers would like to see some screening. Consider what's happening to AP. Since 1988 the percent of passing tests (3 and above) has declined by about 10% (from 67.3% to 57.7%- about half a percent per year). But those failures have not been born equally. 4's and 5's have dropped by only about 2% in the twenty-year period. The smartest kids, in other words, aren't that different and it's likely that the students taking multiple exams generally have held their own. But the drop off has not been in scores from 3 to 2 but from 3 to 1. In 1988, only 10% of scores were 1's. In 2008, that figure is 20.9% of all exams.
The answer is to switch focus to insure adequate AP preparation with increased emphasis on a rigorous pre-AP program.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | May 1, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Very interesting stats, Patrick. Thank you for sharing those.

Posted by: lisamc31 | May 1, 2009 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Forcing average students to sign "a contract promising to do the long homework assignments"?

That sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to me. Nobody should be forced to read that much Blum, and anyway doing that much reading completely misses the point of AP coursework.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | May 1, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the comments. For Lisamc31, that's 58 percent of teachers, not parents, who say it is a bad idea. As the column says, most of my fan mail is from parents, but a lot of teachers--clearly not a majority---say they like it too. Patrick's comment puzzles me, since he is usually so astute about numbers. He focuses on percentages, when the real story here is the raw numbers---MANY more students getting 3s, 4s and 5s on exams than the old days when access was so severely restricted. Also many more 2s, which the Texas data indicates means that those students are going to do better in college than those who do not take AP. Passing rates almost always drop when participation increases, but in the dynamic of a real high school, which with Patrick is quite familiar, that increased participation is a big plus because more students get to experience a challenging course and test, and figure out what they have to work on. Patrick is absolutely right that we need better pre-AP programs, but they will have little use, and students will not be motivated to apply themselves to them, if we do not open AP to all students who want to take it. And that contract that the sensitive reader thought would be so hard on a student would be, at least the way I see it, voluntary, and a way to assure those teachers who worry about kids being prepared that at least in this case the kid has formally promised to apply himself.

Posted by: Jay_Mathews | May 1, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse


With all due respect, you wrote:

>>>>>>>>>"The list has been much more popular with readers, particularly parents, than teachers. Fifty eight percent said it was mostly a bad idea, 17 percent mostly a good idea and 25 percent weren’t sure.">>>>>>>>>>>>

If the 58% were as you claim, teachers, where are the percentages for parents?

>>>>>>>Also many more 2s, which the Texas data indicates means that those students are going to do better in college than those who do not take AP>>>>>>>>>>>

It does? What proof do you have to back up that statement?

>>>>>>>Patrick is absolutely right that we need better pre-AP programs, but they will have little use, and students will not be motivated to apply themselves to them, if we do not open AP to all students who want to take it>>>>>>>>>>>

Here's where your thinking is completely backwards. Even if a school does improve the difficulty and quality of courses which serve as a pre-requisite for AP, if a student knows that they don't have to earn an 85 average to get into AP because their school goes by the Jay Mathews' "everybody's a genius if they only try" theory, they are not going to be motivated to apply themselves ahead of time. Why bother? If they can slack off with a C and still get in, why work so hard? You see? You have it backwards. A kid has to know that they have to cough up a certain level of dedication and work to be allowed the privilege of taking a college-level course while still in high school.

Posted by: lisamc31 | May 1, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Lisa. I think i can be accused fairly of leaving that part of the column a little too ambiguous, although I would have hoped the careful reader would have noted that I said at the beginning this was a survey of AP teachers, so there would have been no parent data available in it. Here's the proof of the statement about 2s:
We will have to agree to disagree about the dynamics of high school. I hope you get a chance to spend more time inside more of them, and talk to more teachers. As I pointed out in this column, setting a GPA standard on AP admissions feeds the disfunctional class and clique biases that still rule, under the surface, in many schools. A kid sees none of his older siblings, or their friends, going into AP, but all the affluent kids and their friends do. It creates an assumption that AP is for them, and not for me. The schools that have had the most success in turning that attitude around, and getting all kids ready for AP, with good test scores, are the ones that have removed the GPA and teacher recommendation requirements. Your thought is logical and sensible, but doesn't work in the real world, as many logical and sensible things do not. We are not a logical or sensible species.

Posted by: Jay_Mathews | May 1, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Any AP class where >25% of the students score less than a 3 and/or >10% score a 1 indicates to my mind that there ought to be more stringent enrollment criteria. Or else schools ought to be offering 2 sections of the AP course, one for the high achievers and one open to the hoi pelloi.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | May 2, 2009 1:12 AM | Report abuse

I have been raising the possibility of something like CrimsonWife's inspired suggestion since 1998. AT a big AP conference I said if schools don't like mixing traditional upscale AP students with the kind of kids that Jaime Escalante taught at Garfield High in East LA, why not have a separate section for them. We could call it, I said, "AP for Dummies." I thought the president of the College Board, sitting right in front of me, was going to have a heart attack. But there is merit to the suggestion. A good teacher in such a circumstance could get those "marginal" kids rolling and would not have to put up with a lot of nose in the air sniffing from the elite kids. That is the concept. But to my surprise, I have found whenever I have spent time in one of those mixed classes, that the two kinds of kids bond very quickly, and the number of complaints I have gotten from upscale kids in mixed AP classes in the last 11 years can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Posted by: jaymathews | May 2, 2009 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Oh good Lord - "AP for Dummies"? Have you completely lost your mind? There is NO merit in your suggestion, whatsoever! You are proposing tracking based on F&RL! What nonsense!

So the wealthy elite white kids haven't "complained" about the African-American kids like Escalantes class? Gee, what a surprise. Do you think that maybe that's because they're NOT racists, as you try to paint them?

Posted by: lisamc31 | May 2, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

"I am also impressed by College Board data showing that only half the number of students qualified to take AP in many subjects, based on their PSAT scores, actually do so." This is the first I have heard about using PSAT scores to determine AP readiness. What are the criterion?

Our school district in Texas has decided that 100% of middle school students must take Pre-AP everything. What do you think of that approach?

Some of the parents of gifted students are afraid we will again be dumbing down the curriculum and thereby slowing the gifted kids' learning.

Posted by: she-bear | May 2, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for the link to your past article... but I have to ask, how can you ignore the following from the College Board report:

Degree Completion
Based on results from their study, Morgan and
Maneckshana (2000) observed that most AP Exam
takers completed a bachelor’s degree in four years.
Recent work by Dougherty et al. (2006) showed that
Texas public higher education students who took a high
school AP course and earned an AP Exam grade of 3–5
had higher five-year graduation rates than students who
took an AP course and earned an AP Exam grade of
1–2, students who took an AP course but no AP Exam,
and students who had no AP experience.

Posted by: lisamc31 | May 2, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Jay -

Allow me to travel back in time with you to something you wrote in 2004:

Jay MATHEWS, "Advanced Courses in High School May Not Mean Success at College: Report Urges Students to Take Exams After Honors Programs," The Washington Post, December 23, 2004, p. A7. SUMMARY: "College-level courses offered in high school, such as Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB), do not appear to improve academic performance in college, unless students take the tests at the end of each course.... But...performing well on the difficult exams is a better predictor of success in college than nearly anything else in a student's high school record."

Keywords - Performing Well = Passing = Better Predictor of Success

Posted by: lisamc31 | May 2, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I think that more students taking AP classes is a great thing. There are plenty of students who need to be challenged more.

I taught science for 11 years and definitely agree that students learn more doing poorly in a challenging course that doing well in a class that is not challenging.

The trick will be to keep the standards high in the courses as more students enroll. This is not an easy task with GPAs being foremost in parents' and students' minds. It is unfortunate that grades have become the priority while learning seems not to be so important. The key is to make sure that the learning takes precedence. This will take teachers with a thick skin as they receive pressure from all sides.

It doesn't surprise me that there are still many teachers and schools that like to play the gatekeeper role. It makes one feel good when everyone does well in your class, but hand picking your students isn't the way to do it.

Total Registration, LLC - Helping high schools simplify the AP exam registration process by having students register for exams online.

Posted by: mikeeco | May 2, 2009 7:11 PM | Report abuse

"mixing traditional upscale AP students" "nose in the air sniffing from the elite kids"

Oh please. This is just offensive, Jay. Surprise: Some kids want to learn. They don't care if they're black, white, red, green or purple. As long as they come ready to learn.

Posted by: winker425 | May 2, 2009 8:03 PM | Report abuse

To Winker 425, I agree completely. To Lisa, I was kidding about AP for Dummies. Lighten up! The suggestion is so un-PC i thought you would get it right away. Also to Lisa, you are citing old studies. The column link I gave you is citing more up to date stuff, with a more sophisticated analysis comparing students with similar SAT scores, both high and low. We journalists try our best to stay up with the news. And to she-bear, the research looked at the PSAT scores of students who later were successful on AP tests, and then looked for what percentage of all students with such PSAT test scores took AP. In many cases more did not take AP than did. The pre-AP for all program you describe is good in intention, if they keep the standards up, but that is hard to do because there are no independently written and scored pre-AP tests to measure against.

Posted by: jaymathews | May 4, 2009 12:06 AM | Report abuse

I have been reading with interest your position on admission to AP courses. I was one of the AP teachers who thought everyone should be welcome to try an AP course. I also recognized that not all students were prepared to succeed in my AP course.

My suggested options were to allow students to struggle or ask them to drop the course. I came up with a different solution. All students were registered as AP students in my class until four weeks into the year. At that time, I conferenced with each student (and parents if appropriate) to determine whether the student should stay registered as an AP student or change their registration to Honors student. Counselors and administrators loved this solution because there was no change in the student's schedule - only the type of credit they were earning.

What a difference that made! A few students each year who were not academically prepared to succeed in my AP course were encouraged to stay as honors students. They received the same high quality instruction, the same assignments, the same assessments and the same lab work. I differentiated the grading for those few students. All students in the class understood the grading differences and accepted the two systems without a problem.

This is a win-win-win-win-win solution. Lesser prepared students experienced an AP course without the pressure to make the grade on the AP exam, and the AP students still received the high quality instruction that helped them be successful on the AP exam. In addition, the AP students learned a lot from their more "hands-on" peers and the lesser prepared students learned a lot from their more "academically inclined" peers.

This is not an original idea. Colleges have been doing this for years. Many teach courses for senior undergraduates with first year graduate students. I only adapted the idea to make it work in my high school AP course.

Posted by: sande14 | May 4, 2009 8:59 AM | Report abuse

Sande14--- Please email me at I want to know more, and maybe write about it. You may think it is not original, but it looks new to me. I have never encountered a high school teacher who has done this.

Posted by: jaymathews | May 4, 2009 9:50 PM | Report abuse

At my university,the Sciences have high attrition rate.. here is what students say:

"The only ones passing Chem for science majors
had AP Chem...she thinks she is teaching them, but they already new the material."

"I did not even have to take the first Bio
for the major, but even with AP Bio, I can
only get a C."

"I am getting killed in Cal seems like
half the class already had AP Calculus."

Posted by: atmanman | May 5, 2009 2:31 AM | Report abuse

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