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AP Wars: School Board Member vs. Teachers

I received an email recently from the member of a school board in an affluent American suburb. I don't usually allow anonymous comment on this blog, but in the AP wars---the national fight over how many students are allowed to take our most challenging courses--the politics are brutal. So I am just calling him Steve.

I received an email recently from the member of a school board in an affluent American suburb. I don't usually allow anonymous comment on this blog, but in the AP wars---the national fight over how many students are allowed to take our most challenging courses--the politics are brutal. So I am just calling him Steve.

He said student participation in AP in his high school has not improved much "in large part because we permit the faculty to establish admissions criteria for their subject area. The faculty has been concerned (too much so in my book) about diluting the AP classes and has not been willing to relax the criteria.

"The result in AP US history, for example, is that [more than 90 percent] of our students get 3 or above [considered passing marks on the 5-point test]. Our faculty views that as a mark of success [the national rate is about 60 percent]. I view it just the opposite. It has always struck me that if our students have that high a success rate, we are not giving enough students the opportunity to take the course.

"It's a common refrain that schools do a lot for the kids at the top and the bottom but not enough for the kids in the middle. School districts that do not open up AP courses to a broader array of kids may be doing a disservice to kids in the middle. Our school district is ready to tackle this issue, although it is not clear that our faculty is ready yet."

He says the board and the administration are trying to open up more discussions with AP teachers on the issue, and maybe focus on the effect more AP participation can have on average students' success on the annual state tests. Is he right to be concerned? If you agree with him, what would you do in his place to change the faculty's view?

By Jay Mathews  | July 27, 2009; 6:44 PM ET
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So how far down do you think we should go? Would it be acceptable for kids to get 1's and 2's on the exam? Should their parents be expected to pay $85 for them to do that or should the schools pay? Since the parents are concerned about their children's grades, is it OK for the class to be dumbed down enough for everybody to pass? If so, what will that do to the number of students who are able to get 4's and 5's on the tests? Is it OK for them to do worse on the exam, since they and their classmates will now presumably be getting higher grades in easier classes? Personally, I thought the whole point of AP was to give bright kids the opportunity to take college level courses while they were still in high school. I don't see a way to do that and also make it open to everybody. Something's got to give.

Posted by: margaret6 | July 28, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Margaret6 raises vital issues: The course should not be dumbed down. The great virtue of AP and IB is that they cannot be dumbed down without the teacher being caught (if all of the students take the exam), since the final exam is written and graded by outsiders. The data show that the high AP standard, and the difficulty of even getting a 2, means that those who do get 2s find that they do better in college than students who did not take AP. (This is not true of students who get 1s.) Just what to do about classroom grades is another matter, and one on which I have not made up my mind because the AP teachers who have influenced me seem to have different views. Jaime Escalante, who started me on this journey, did not give out a lot of high grades to students who struggled, but he also gave almost no Fs. He wanted the kid to have the whole year to catch on, and did not want to do what some other AP teachers did---flunk the kid out early so that the kid would not be able to take the AP exam. My instinct, and the instinct of some teachers I have talked to, is to give no less than a C to a student who is working hard. That means that with the usual grade point bump for AP that grade will translate into a 3.0, which seems fair to me, given the stress of the course. But everyone should take the AP exam. That is the best measure of how much has been learned, and thank goodness it is immune to dilution.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 28, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

If enough potential 1-2 scorers are allowed to take the course, I think that it is highly likely that the course will be diluted. It's hard to keep up the level of the class if at least 25% of the class doesn't have the background knowledge and study skills. Also, if there is a significant URM group, the administration may exert pressure for them to "succeed".

I think that there has been a dark side to the whole Challenge Index issue and that is the removal of honors courses and the associated push into AP courses. In large schools, there is no reason not to offer an honors option for those kids who do not have the background to score at least a 3 on the AP test. Such a course can and should be a challenge for these students. My own kids took the (required) prerequisite honors courses and followed them with the corresponding AP class. Both classes were content-heavy and challenging. Of course, if elementary and middle schools would do a far better job of preparing kids for real high school coursework, more kids would be ready for AP courses in their junior and senior years.

Posted by: momof4md | July 28, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I have taught AP history classes in a small rural high school for 10 years. The problem with honors classes is that they CAN be diluted. Honors students and parents are more concerned with GPA's. Since an Honors class is whatever you want it to be, it can be diluted. AP audits courses given under its name through the AP Audit process. The College Board reserves the right to prevent you from using the AP designator for a class that is not rigorous. It's not a perfect system but it provides cover to a teacher that wants to challenge their kids.
I do not know how you can screen kids for AP with any precision. There are some students that can easily be screened out--for instance, I had a student with a 3rd grade reading level that expressed interest until we explained what they would have to do. Since we can't absolutely predict who will pass and fail the AP exam, why not let the students make the decision? After all, they are nearly adults. Give them the facts and let parents and students make the call, not an educator that may have another agenda.

Posted by: sammons58 | July 28, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if sammons58 could email me at I want to know more about that school and its AP programs.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 29, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

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