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Is AP for All A Formula For Failure?

I spend much time with aggressive Advanced Placement teachers. They tell me, quite often, that students must be stretched beyond their assumed capabilities. Whenever I try to pass on this advice, however, I become a target for ridicule and disbelief from readers.

Here comes more of that stuff. Newsweek unveils this week my annual rankings of America's Top High Schools, with a new twist that skeptics will find even less congenial.

The latest list, to appear on, will include about 1,500 schools that have reached a high standard of participation on college-level AP, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests. The bad news is they represent less than 6 percent of U.S. public high schools. The good news is that 73 percent of Washington area schools are on the list. The interesting news is that some of those schools have begun to require AP courses and tests for all students, even those who struggle in class.

Newsweek and The Washington Post use the Challenge Index, which I conceived in 1998 and have been fiddling with since. This time I am adding a separate Catching Up list for high schools that use AP as shock treatment for impoverished students who have been in the academic doldrums. On this new list are 29 schools with AP test participation rates high enough to qualify for the Newsweek list but with test passing rates under 10 percent. Seven are in this area: Coolidge, Bell Multicultural, Friendship Collegiate, SEED, Thurgood Marshall and McKinley Tech in the District, and Crossland in Prince George's County.

Some people might call this the straggler list. I don't. I have spoken to the administrators of many of those schools. What they say makes sense. They have tried raising achievement slowly with remedial education. It didn't work, in part because the teachers and students had no worthy goal to shoot for. So they have made the AP test their benchmark, and in preparing for it hope to give low- performing students the strenuous academic exercise they need for college. Few pass the three-hour AP exams, so few get college credit. So what? They aren't in college yet. This way they have a chance to accustom themselves to the foot-high reading assignments and torturous exams they will encounter in college.

Each year, more data suggest that this is the right approach. A new study of 302,969 students who graduated from Texas high schools shows that even low-performing students -- those who got a failing grade of 2 on the 5-point AP test -- did significantly better in college than did similarly low- performing, low-income students who did not take AP. Nationally, most high schools are so lax in their duties that half their students heading for college never take an AP, IB or Cambridge course and test and thus have little clue what awaits them.

Many AP teachers I know spend much of their time coaxing such under-served students into their classes. That is true at Bell Multicultural High School, the first public school in this area to require all students to take AP. And not just any AP. They must study AP English Literature and AP English Language, especially difficult for the many children of immigrants at Bell.

Daniel Gordon, a Harvard University Law School graduate I watched teach at Bell last year, said the prospect of a college-level exam is a big motivator for students. One of them, Esmeralda Posadas, said, "It forced students who don't speak English at home to focus all their attention on it. It is not run- of-the-mill." Only three students got a passing score of 3 or higher on the exam in 2007, but Posadas was one of 31 who got a score of 2.

AP teachers with that kind of attitude are not the majority. A recent Fordham Institute survey revealed that only 38 percent of AP teachers believe "the more students taking AP courses, the better," while 52 percent said "only students who can handle the material" should take AP. One of my favorite bloggers, Fairfax County instructional technology specialist Tim Stahmer of, frequently says too many unprepared students are being channeled into AP and urged to go to college.

My response is, what harm does that do? They work harder in high school, and if they graduate still determined not to go to college, they will discover that those AP skills are just what they need to get the best available jobs or trade school slots.

If they don't take an AP class and test, they will never know whether they could have handled it. Many students from non-college families discover they can. Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has been beefing up instruction in lower grades and luring students into college-level courses for years, with impressive results. The portion of impoverished Montgomery AP students who passed the tests increased from 12.3 percent in 2002 to 22.4 percent in 2006.

The Catching Up schools aren't losers. They are strivers, fueled by the high spirits of teachers who keep telling me how much more their kids can do than they expected. Their schools are exciting. History students are writing an essay every day. English students are publishing books. Those who think this is a good idea are still a beleaguered minority, but we are growing. Watch out.


By Washington Post Editors  | June 8, 2009; 11:20 AM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Experience Corps: Tutoring That Works
Next: New Challenge Index Twist: Catching Up


Apparently the column was reposted and the comments got lost, so I'll repeat the gist of mine.

The arguments against AP for All seem to fall into two categories - discipline problems in the classroom and unprepared students slowing down the pace of the class.

To me, the solution is to teach the college level courses the way they'd be taught in college. If a student is a disruption, kick him out of the class. Obviously, you can't just leave high schoolers to their own devices like you can a college student, but you could make him spend the rest of the day shoveling mulch or scrubbing dishes in the cafeteria.

If a student is unprepared for the class, just go on teaching. Don't call on him if he doesn't add anything to a discussion. Don't slow the class down so he can catch up. Let him take the initiative to seek out help on his own time, the same as a college student would be expected to do. And by the way, colleges have prerequisites for most of their courses, and especially for their honors courses - you have a reasonable expectation that the students in the class are prepared for the material.

If you want to expose high schoolers to the college experience, I say you go whole hog.

Posted by: tomsing | June 8, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

A major consideration needs to be given to how the goal of “AP for all” affects students all the way down to the youngest grades. Once the goal has been established, the district works mightily to rush students through extremely important foundational learning so that they may complete state required tests (such as NYS Regents) earlier. [The NYS Integrated Algebra test is traditionally a ninth grade exam but is now being given to all eighth graders in my district.] This will enable students to get those pesky required tests out of the way early so that their schedules will be freed up for AP in junior and senior year of high school.

In order to facilitate this, all children are placed in advanced honors level math in the middle school. Though we are told they will be ready for this since they have been on a rigorous path since elementary school in order to be prepared, many families find that even with Herculean efforts their child still continues to drown in honors level math. The district touts its number on the Newsweek list and justifies the exorbitantly high school taxes because of how great our schools are. Many, many families hire tutors or send their children to programs like Kumon in order to keep up.

One could wonder, if the curriculum is so difficult for many, doesn’t the district worry about how students will perform on the NYS regents? Therein lies the dirty little secret. The cut score for passing has been lowered to such a ridiculous standard that students can pass by scoring 31/87! Obviously, districts across NYS are having no trouble passing the Regents exam and are, in fact, showing record gains in test scores. But are the students learning math and reaching the degree of mastery which will give them the foundation they will need to move forward? Math is hierarchical and mastery is required at each level in order that higher level math can be understood.

I have to wonder if students are really better prepared for college. Despite record numbers completing calculus in high school the numbers of students requiring remedial math in college is also growing exponentially.

I have to ask, “What’s the rush?” Why do students need to earn college credit in high school? Why don’t we leave college courses for college and do a better, more thorough job with students before they get there?

Posted by: proudparent | June 9, 2009 12:01 AM | Report abuse

In my comment above I meant to say that in MY district all students are taking the algebra regents in 8th grade. This is not true in all NYS districts.

Posted by: proudparent | June 9, 2009 12:03 AM | Report abuse

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