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Jay on the Web: Is AP the Only Way to Challenge Students?

Every year, Jay Mathews compiles The Challenge Index, a ranking of schools based on a simple formula - the number of AP, IB, and other college-level tests given out at any given high school divided by the total number of graduating seniors from that school year. The index is not meant to be comprehensive but to give parents, teachers, and students an idea of how much a high school challenges its students.

This week, the blog Schools Matter featured an essay by user teacherken calling foul on Jay's index. Teacherken, who says he is a high school AP U.S. Government and Politics teacher and actually graded AP tests this year, makes a case against The Challenge Index, arguing that schools challenge students in many more ways than just through AP and IB tests:

One can certainly argue for students being challenged. I do not believe an Advanced Placement course is the only way to accomplish that. In fact, I have found teaching AP to 10th graders has in some ways restricted my ability to challenge my students as much as I did when I taught the course to 9th graders, and did not have to worry about "coverage" - the amount of material my students had to learn to be prepared for what might appear on the AP exam. To give just one example, there is no defined universe of Supreme Court cases that could appear. I cover in some form or other almost 100. Yet this is not a course in legal history or in the Supreme Court.
Mathews does not currently include cross-registered courses in the calculation of his index. We have students who run out of the math, including Calculus B/C, sometimes by their sophomore year, often by the junior year. This is one case where we offer courses through cross registration with local universities. We have a man from Catholic U who teaches Calculus III and Differential equations. These course do not get a weighted GPA, nor do they count as part of the Challenge Index. Thus even though we are definitely challenging these students, the Index gives us no credit for doing so…
I am not opposed to Advanced Placement. I would not continue to teach my three sections, which next year may contain over 100 students, if I did not find value in the program. I know that some students sign up for the course for the weighted grade. Others do hope to receive the college credit. And a few sign up because they want me as a teacher, particular those who are younger siblings of students I have previously taught - although in a few cases that decision is made by the parent rather than the student. I always have some students who really are not prepared to do the work required. Still, I believe that I am able to stretch the vast majority of my students, and I always especially enjoy those who stretch me as a teacher - that helps keep me fresh. Insofar as I am challenging my students, Mathews is right about his emphasis on AP, although I believe I could challenge them even absent the AP designation…
I do hope we do not continue down the path of our current obsession, believing that more AP is inevitably better. The quality of the instruction is not necessarily better nor more challenging merely because the course has an AP designation - after all, one can have the most wonderful syllabus and still not be able to communicate its contents to the students, nor to engage the students in the process of learning.
And I wish, almost certainly futilely, that we would stop distorting the meaning of AP by using it as a means of 'ranking' schools.

You can read teacherken's full entry here.

By Sarah Mimms  | June 24, 2009; 10:32 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  AP, The Challenge Index  
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I agree with teacherken that ranking high schools is not a good practice. As we have seen with the U.S. News and World Report rankings of colleges, institutions quickly find ways of improving their rankings without making real advances in what students are learning. In some districts (including one in the metro DC area) superintendents have set the goal of of having every student take one AP course before high school graduation.
To challenge students, we need a national school curriculum based on sound research into questions such as "What districts' students perform better throughout college?" Admittedly, this is a difficult goal to achieve, but it might do much to reduce concerns about the quality of education. In addition, it would be useful to establish authentic assessments. Educators (and I am one) asked to assess students often devise instruments and indicators that validate what they are doing in the classroom. It might be better to assess students' abilities to perform tasks identified by employee development specialists in government and the private sector. These specialists recognize the skills that employees need to succeed, and they are sufficiently familiar with pedagogy--and probably assessment--to know how those skills might be displayed.

Posted by: jlhare1 | June 24, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Of of his suggestions for students to be challenged is for them to take real college classes at the local college, an option for all in this internet age.

I continue to believe that the line between high school and college should be blurred, with students taking college classes in what interests them. That interest will do much to help them succeed. The gap between HS and college is 3 months; surely nothing magical happens over that summer.

I note with sadness that no parent commented on your community college posting (besides me) and hope that you use your bully pulpit to educate parents of high achieving students on the benefit there (both intellectually & to help get them into college), and on the inspirational value of the community college class to the uninspired student if they take a class in what actually interests them.

You did so much for AP; please bang the drum for community colleges as an option next.

Posted by: Lizz1 | June 24, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

At best, the challenge index a good idea gone wrong. Hopefully publishing teacherken's essay is a way to acknowledge this and begin to move on.

Posted by: efavorite | June 29, 2009 10:03 PM | Report abuse

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