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Metro Monday: Should High Schools Bar Average Students From College-Level Courses and Tests?

Fifteen years ago, when I discovered that many good high schools prevented average students from taking demanding courses, I thought it was a fluke, a mistake that would soon be rectified.

I had spent much time inside schools that did the opposite. They worked hard to persuade students to take challenging classes and tests, such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge, so students would be ready for the shock of their first semester at college, which most average students attend. The results were good. Why didn't all schools do that?

I still don't have a satisfactory answer. It always comes up this time of year because of my annual rankings of public high schools for Newsweek, which is based on schools' efforts to challenge average kids as measured by participation in AP, IB and Cambridge tests.

Many school superintendents and principals who run schools that restrict access to those college-level courses and tests have disappointing results on the Newsweek list. Some of them object to my methodology. It is clear from my conversations with them that they are smart and compassionate people.

But after seeing what has happened in the Washington area, where all rules barring admission to challenging courses have been removed, I think the dissenters are wrong and should take a look at what educators are doing here.

In 2008, Newsweek received a letter from the superintendents of 39 small districts in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts, declining to provide data for their schools. If Newsweek already had the numbers, they asked that the statistics not be used.

"We all believe that all schools, communities -- and your readers -- are poorly served by Newsweek's persistent efforts to use a single statistic, the number of students who sit for AP or IB exams, to rank schools," they said.

This year, the protest was smaller and less organized, but I received some e-mails making the same point. Howard S. Smith, superintendent of the Williamsville Central School District in New York, said the Newsweek list had "limitations with respect to the assessment of school quality and reflect only a portion of what we do."

Tony Pavia, principal of New Canaan High School in Connecticut, said "judging a school based on one simple factor such as AP tests makes absolutely no sense, especially since it implies that anything other than AP students, AP classes and AP tests is essentially irrelevant to a school's quality."

Both last year and this year, I contacted the protesting superintendents and principals and asked them to treat our request for their data as a freedom of information submission. They were all professionals, just trying to make a point, and quickly agreed to send me their numbers.

In return, I promised to publish their objections to the list and keep alive what I consider a very useful argument.

The lists' critics are right about its narrow scope. Schools are rated by just one number: the ratio of college-level tests taken each year to the number of seniors graduating each year. As I have said many times, that narrow simplicity is useful for readers because they can understand exactly what I am doing, calculate their own ratios for any schools outside this area, and argue with their friends and me about the result.

Parents use the list to compare schools, exactly as I intended. That produces some useful insights, such as why there are so many schools with similar student bodies that do considerably better than many of the protesting schools.

New Canaan High, for example, has an AP participation rating of 1.230. That puts it in the top 5 percent of U.S. schools, but there are 120 schools in the D.C. area with better numbers. Langley High School in Fairfax County, with 7 percent low-income students, is demographically similar to New Canaan, where 2.4 percent of the students are low-income. Yet Langley's AP participation rate is 3.807, three times as large.

One important reason is that New Canaan, unlike Langley, prohibits students from taking AP courses if their grades in previous classes weren't good enough. It does not matter how much they want to take the course or how hard they are willing to work in it. Pavia, the New Canaan principal, said, "I do not believe that AP classes are for everyone any more than physics or band or ceramics or football is for everyone."

Washington area superintendents and principals have a different view. They think every student who wants to get a taste of college trauma in an AP or IB course ought to be able to do so. They tell me their open door to AP, IB and Cambridge courses raises expectations and inspires better instruction in lower grades. The number of students passing the exams remains very high, despite letting so many more students take them.

One of the Washington area superintendents who endorses that view is Morton Sherman of Alexandria. He also was one of the superintendents who signed last year's boycott letter to Newsweek, when he was superintendent of the Tenafly, N.J., schools. Sherman told me he does not like restrictions placed on AP enrollment like those used in New Canaan. In Alexandria, he is urging even more college-level course participation by introducing IB.

He just doesn't think I should be summing up schools with one number. "IB or AP by themselves do not give a complete picture of quality," he said. He was too busy this year to make an issue of it, he said, but will be getting back to me next year.

I can't wait.


By Washington Post Editors  | July 13, 2009; 3:44 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Advanced Placement, Cambridge, International Baccalaureate, classes, high school  
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while I have no problems with students seeking out challenging courses, I have deep reservations about AP classes being used as substitutes for the high school curriculum. In addition, I have found too often that students who rack up these AP and IB credit courses are, in fact, not well prepared for 200-level courses in college. Classes taught in high school are not the same as classes taught in college, they are certainly not structured the same way. I strongly feel that students benefit from taking those introductory courses in college. In no way do I feel that high school freshman and sophomores are ready to take college-level course, yet all too often that's what I see. There needs to be an effective balance.

Posted by: RedBirdie | July 13, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

In my experience there are schools in MoCo where if you aren't in the Honors or AP section the class is so disorderly that learning is very difficult.

If opening AP classes to less than stellar students moves them into classes where the the students aren't all asleep or disruptive that's a positive thing.

However I think it's an inadequate solution to classes that are not good places for learning.

I'd also be interested to know whether the highest scores are lower in open AP classes. Although I feel sick whenever I hear that gifted students aren't attended to enough in public schools, I do have to wonder if a broad section of students pulls down the top group.

Posted by: RedBird27 | July 13, 2009 6:33 PM | Report abuse

Whether or not "average" students are encouraged to enroll in AP/IB courses is sometimes a function of the principal's willingness to provide the supports that some students may need to be successful, the so-called "twice-exceptional" student comes to mind, and the flexibility of the Guidance department to make changes to a student's class schedule after the term has started and the student realizes he is in over his head (often, for the reason mentioned above).
One Fairfax County High School has been on a downward trend in the Challenge Index standings for the last five years, having dropped 97 points by consistently discouraging students from enrolling in challenging classes.

Those who disparage the Challenge Index for failing to assess performance data, as the above mentioned principal does, need to recall the basic principle that children desire to live up to the expectations that the adults in their lives have of them. The easy way is not necessarily the right way.

Posted by: Notyourmomma | July 14, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

I would have no problem with open enrollment policies for AP/IB courses if schools offered two sections- a faster paced one geared at challenging the school's brightest students, and a gentler paced one for everyone else. That way the smart kids don't wind up bored in a "dumbed down" version of AP/IB.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | July 14, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Pavia, the New Canaan principal, said, "I do not believe that AP classes are for everyone any more than physics or band or ceramics or football is for everyone."

Why aren't these things for everyone? I was certainly exposed to all of these things through general music, art, and gym classes and found that if I worked hard enough, my lack of natural talent in those areas could be overcome.

There is no reason that the school should discourage students from challenging themselves in any area - whether it is advanced ceramics or AP Physics.

Posted by: elissak | July 14, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

@CrimsonWife: You seem to think that anyone but the "brightest" students will slow down the course, although research consistently shows that effort plays a much larger role in student achievement than IQ. If teachers hold everyone in class to high standards, those students that are dedicated and willing to work harder will rise to the standard.

Posted by: elissak | July 14, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

In athletics and performing arts, schools typically offer two levels of participation: selective and non-selective. If I've got the talent, I can play on the varsity team or sing in the select choir. If I can't make the cut but still want to participate, I can play intramural ball or perform with the open chorus.

And yes, I know from personal experience that bright kids do indeed get bored in heterogeneous classes. Despite all the language about teachers "differentiating", in actual practice courses get taught to the mid-level ability of the class. The more average students enrolled in the course, the more the teacher has to slow down the pace and reduce the intellectual challenge.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | July 14, 2009 7:36 PM | Report abuse

I would be very grateful if Notyourmomma would email me privately at and tell me more about this Fairfax County school on a downward trek. I can check my numbers and figure out which one it is, but yr insights would be invaluable to me.

Posted by: jaymathews | July 17, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

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