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 edexcellence.net 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 Newsweek.com 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.
Washington Post editors
| May 1, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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