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Want your school to try Advanced Placement? Here's how.

I have written this weekly online column for almost a decade. From the beginning, one of its goals was to be ahead of every other media outlet in news and arguments about Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and tests.

I had been investigating AP and IB for two decades, and concluded they were the most beneficial programs in American high schools. Some people disagreed. That means, over time, that more has been written here about those programs, both good and bad, than anywhere else.

Much of this conversation has focused on the upper tier of high schools where AP and IB are common. That highest 10 percent of schools have more or less turned into AP or IB academies, mostly because that is what the selective colleges, the ones their students and parents lust after, want them to be.

AP and IB are college level courses in many subjects that end with college level exams written and graded by outside experts. Students who score well on those exams can receive college credit, but the programs' most important benefit, in my view, is giving students a taste of what foot-high reading lists and essay-filled exams are going to be like in college, and raising the standard of excellence in our mostly mediocre high schools.

The vast majority of U.S. schools don't do much with AP or IB and are beginning to realize that they are missing out on something, although they are not sure what. (There is a tiny group of small private schools that are trying to rid themselves of AP, for reasons often discussed here that have little to do with America's education problems. (We will revisit them again soon, since I can't resist making fun of their fantasy that they are the wave of the future.)

School board members, principals, parents, teachers and counselors from public schools discovering AP or IB often write me and seek advice, because they have heard this column is AP/IB Central. I am obviously in favor of both programs, but try to introduce them also to the thoughts of those who wonder if such challenging courses are good for most kids. They also get a lot of information from the College Board, the sponsor of AP, whose members see the program as a way to prepare more students for higher education.

Now a new source of independent information about AP, The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, has issued one of the most detailed and useful reports ever on the program, particularly for schools in rural and urban areas where parents and teachers doubt their kids are up to taking college courses in high school.

The report, "Raising Rigor, Getting Results: Lessons Learned from AP Expansion," is by David Wakelyn, program director of the center's education division. Available on the association Web site, nga.org, it manages in 16 pages to explain what AP is, trace its growth and report the results of a concerted effort to expand the program in six states--Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Nevada and Wisconsin.

The six-state initiative began in 2005, focused on minority and low-income students in 51 high schools in rural and urban districts. They ranged from schools like Oak Hill High School in Wales, Me., which had no students in AP in the 2005-2006 school year, to Edward W. Clark High in Las Vegas, Nevada, which had 372 AP students that year.

As Wakelyn describes it, the NGA took an amazingly intelligent approach to softening the natural resistance to change at these schools. Usually well-intentioned reformers with money tell school districts in some detail what they have to do to get it. In this case the study organizers simply offered some data showing that, based on PSAT results and other findings, those schools had many more students ready for AP than were being allowed to take it. They described programs that had worked for other districts. Then they wrote some checks and told the pilot schools to do with whatever made sense with the money.

I have been writing about different ways to do AP since 1982. I thought I had seen everything. But these educators came up with ideas that were new to me. Clark High in Las Vegas required all sophomores who had scored proficient on a standardized reading test to take AP English Language and Composition in their junior year and AP English Literature in their senior year. Deering High School in Portland, Me., asked students which AP courses they wanted---a shocking departure from standard procedure--and discovered a previously unknown yearning for AP computer programming. At the Clark County (Las Vegas) Virtual High School, credit was awarded not by how much time the students spent in their seats, but whether they fulfilled the course requirements and took the AP exam.

The schools tried dozens of approaches to preparing both students and faculty for the courses. Alabama established teams of middle and high school teachers who coordinated their activities. Maine paid mentors $2,500 stipends to meet three times a year with new AP teachers. Wisconsin and Nevada instituted weeklong statewide summer institutes for teachers. Their state governments in many cases came up with more money.

The results of the first three years of the initiative in those 51 schools were promising. Nationally, during that time, the percentage of seniors with a passing score on at least one AP test sometime in high school edged up from 14.8 to 15.2 percent. The NGA's pilot schools started from a lower point but had more growth, from 6.6 to 8.3 percent. With 55,000 students in the pilot program, its size roughly matched the number of students in some small states. But the percentage of seniors in those states who passed an AP test rose only from 6.2 to 6.5.

There is much room for improvement. In 2000, 405,000 seniors across the U.S. took at least one AP exam. In 2008, that number had climbed to 758,000. But an examination of PSAT scores shows that 600,000 students who did not enroll in AP likely would succeed in AP Calculus and AP English Literature.

Every year on newsweek.com I rank the top high schools in the country based on their participation in AP and IB exams. It doesn't take much to make that list. A school could do it by having only half of its juniors and half of its seniors take just one AP exam each of those years. But only 6 percent of American public high schools meet that standard.

When I talk to educators in states like the ones that participated in the NGA study, they say they never thought that their students would be up to such a thing. College courses in high school? Well, maybe for our smartest kids, but we don't want to set the rest up for failure, they say.

There is plenty of data showing that NOT getting average students into AP or IB is what will lead to failure in college. Even students who only score 2s on the 5-point exams, which is below the 3-point passing mark, do better in college than students who don't take AP.

The National Governors Association has provided a blueprint for many more schools to try this. For the sake of their students, lulled into the hopeful fantasy that sliding through high school won't hurt their futures, I hope they give it a chance.

By Jay Mathews  | October 30, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
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Comments

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics Regarding the Advanced Placement Program


Regrettably, the National Governors Association report contributes to misinformation about the College Board’s Advanced Placement program.

NGA’s authors write:
“The number of students taking AP courses rose 65 percent over two years, and the number of minority and low-income students taking AP exams more than doubled.
Performance on the AP exam, as measured by the percentage scoring “at mastery”-defined as scoring a 3 or higher on the exam-... increased from 6.6 percent in 2005-2006 to 8.3 percent in 2007–2008.”

We don't know if performance on the exam did in fact improve. Since many more students took the exams in 2007-2008 than in 2005-2006, the passing percentage on the exams should have increased correspondingly. That's because NGA reported passing percentages, not based upon the number of students taking the exams, but upon the entire school populations at the pilot schools, whether students tested or not.

Unfortunately, NGA has not provided statistics as to the numbers of students at the pilot schools during the target periods nor data as to percentages of test takers passing the exams. By computing success percentages based upon increased participation rates, the NGA report covers up failure rates based upon the performance of test takers.

The current obfuscatory means of calculating AP success began in 2005 when the College Board started reporting results based on graduating seniors and converting that into passing percentages, which had nothing to do with passing percentages based on test takers.

The problem is that like NGA other groups are using the deceptive data to promote AP. ExxonMobil, has committed $125 million in support of AP, for example. Based on the NGA report, ExxonMobil declared that “students in 12 Alabama high schools achieved an 81% increase in passing scores on Advanced Placement mathematics, science and English tests under a national education programme funded by ExxonMobil."

That is misleading. In common parlance, an 81% increase in testing results means that 81% more students taking the tests passed. But all the new figures tell us is that by the end of the pilot program many more students took AP exams and therefore more students passed the exams.

NGA is interested in increasing minority participation in AP. Increasing minority AP participation is certainly a worthwhile goal, but the question is at what cost and the method of calculating success based upon increased school participation hides the cost.

The NGA report ignores the fact that pushing more unprepared students into AP classes generally results in higher failing percentages of test takers, particularly among minorities.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 30, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Finally, I can agree with Mr. Matthews on something. I don't teach in a public school, but at a private school that values AP. I think AP courses are extremely valuable. Students who take them expect rigor and are ready to challenge themslves.

However, I don't care whether or not my students pass the exam (some do, some don't). They are much more prepared for college level writing as a result of taking the course (I teach English) whether or not they pass the exam. Fortunately, I teach at a school where the parents and the administration agrees with this approach.

Posted by: sfteacher | October 30, 2009 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Sigh. Patrick, give us a break. As you have already demonstrated, you can get that information from the College Board easily. I am looking at their 2007 annual report, which gives the totals of all exams and the number of 1s, 2s, 3s, etc. All you have to do is pull out your calculator.
The number of seniors who have a passing AP exam seems to me a better measure of what is happening in the schools. Of course as participation goes up, passing rates go down. That happens in nearly all standardized exams. What we want to know is: is the NUMBER of kids having success in AP climbing? The percentage of seniors who have had success in AP gives us a better grasp of that, combining both factors of participation and mastery.
You say:
"The NGA report ignores the fact that pushing more unprepared students into AP classes generally results in higher failing percentages of test takers, particularly among minorities."
That is true, but is also results in larger NUMBERS of successful test takers. You are also ignoring the research indicating that one group of allegedly failing test takers, those that get 2s, show better results in colleges than students of similar backgrounds who do not take AP. You also have not demonstrated any harm to students who get 1s. I have interviewed them at schools like Bell Multicultural in DC, and they are clearly excited that they had the chance to try an college-level exam, and feel much more ready for the next stage in their schooling.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 30, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

I question the assumption that every student who scores reasonably well on the PSAT should be enrolled in AP Calculus and AP English Literature. I scored well enough on the PSAT to be a finalist for the National Merit scholarship but very nearly failed calculus my senior year. My teacher took pity on me because he could see how hard I was trying and gave me a very undeserved C. But there's no way I would've come anywhere close to passing the AP exam.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | October 30, 2009 8:31 PM | Report abuse

"Sigh. Patrick, give us a break. As you have already demonstrated, you can get that information from the College Board easily. I am looking at their 2007 annual report, which gives the totals of all exams and the number of 1s, 2s, 3s, etc. All you have to do is pull out your calculator."

Yeah and loads of people other than you and I are reading the appendices to these reports Jay. Fortunately, Trevor Packer has said that he is going to ask the numbers crunchers if they can put this info front and center with the next AP Report to the Nation.


"Of course as participation goes up, passing rates go down."

Again obvious to whom Jay? You and I for sure b/c we are just a little obsessed with the issue. But when the average person reads that higher percentages of students passed AP exams than the year before how many of them realize that the percentage is based largely on kids who didn't even take the exam? I'm not suggesting the College Board discontinue glorifying itself by publishing passing percentages based on graduating seniors, I'm just asking that the CB tell the whole story up front.

"The NGA report ignores the fact that pushing more unprepared students into AP classes generally results in higher failing percentages of test takers, particularly among minorities."
That is true, but is also results in larger NUMBERS of successful test takers. You are also ignoring the research indicating that one group of allegedly failing test takers, those that get 2s, show better results in colleges than students of similar backgrounds who do not take AP. You also have not demonstrated any harm to students who get 1s. I have interviewed them at schools like Bell Multicultural in DC, and they are clearly excited that they had the chance to try an college-level exam, and feel much more ready for the next stage in their schooling."

Take a look at what expansion has brought about in terms of 1s and 2s. Those percentages have reversed themselves in 20 years so not only do you have a 10% higher failure rate but you also now have many more 1s than you used to have.

I can't argue with your anecdotes about how AP even benefits the 1s, which BTW was not born out in the research you cited about the 2s. What I can do is repeat my questions. What evidence do we have that AP failure is benign? (We simply don't hear from the kids turned off to college b/c of AP classes they failed). What about those kids who were held back in an AP class b/c the teacher had to teach to a large portion of kids who weren't ready for AP?

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 31, 2009 9:18 AM | Report abuse

I have seen Advanced Placement coursework play a pivitol role in the transformation of a public high school. I have no experience with IB, but common sense says that it has the equivalent potential.

AP is simple and effective. High expectations. Utterly dependent on smart, well-educated, inspiring teachers. For most students, some sweat equity is required. It's the perfect storm.

So researchers and publishers can have their say, and I appreciate their interest and their right to argue the details amongst themselves. But where I live the value of AP is an established fact. Our 300 students will take over 800 exams this year, all paid for by the District. Some 30 to 40 percent of our 80 graduates will earn AP Scholar status (over 10% already have) and they will have opportunities to attend some of the finest schools in the nation. Some will begin their college careers as sophomores. Others will use credit from AP courses to expand their elective options at the university level. Those students who choose not to go to college will have received an extraordinary public high school education. That's our job. The Advanced Placement program is our most important aide.

Keep pushing, Jay!

Posted by: bobdunton | November 3, 2009 12:13 AM | Report abuse

"I question the assumption that every student who scores reasonably well on the PSAT should be enrolled in AP Calculus and AP English Literature."

As a high school counselor, please know that most schools do not place students in AP classes based solely on PSAT scores; it's only part of the data we examine to place students. I would not place a student in AP Calculus if they did not perform well in Precalculus or Trigonometry. Yet part of the conversation with students includes the data showing that, other factors being equal, students who have been exposed to appropriate rigor in high school have a better chance of graduating from college.

The message has nothing to do with the AP test; students need to challenge themselves without self-censure. If students think, "I can't pass the AP exam, so I shouln't take the AP class" then they are thinking wrong. The class is a prep for college and passing the exam is purely icing on the rigor cake.

Posted by: HSCounselorCP | November 5, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

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