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AP debate: Jay rejects Valerie's forgiveness

My colleague Valerie Strauss, purveyor of The Answer Sheet blog on our shared Post education Web site, just posted a letter to me saying I wasn't, as she once thought, a vile merchant of student stress for rating high schools based on Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge test participation. My Challenge Index list was still a bad idea, she said kindly, but she now realizes it is the schools and parents who fell for my evil scheme--not me--who are to blame.
Uh, thanks Val. I always welcome plugs for the Challenge Index. A new ranked list of all public high schools in the Washington area (here's the current list) will be out in a couple of months. But I reject your theory about what has created AP fever in our schools.

Here is my reply:

Dear Ms. Strauss,

As always, I appreciate your efforts to point our schools toward enlightenment, even if in this case I think you have been led astray by people who have not spent much time in schools that have been reborn because of increased AP and IB participation, and don't know what they are talking about.

Also, I think you give me way too much credit for what has happened with college-level courses and tests--AP being the dominant program--in our high schools. You say that educators and parents have promoted AP to make their schools look good on the Challenge Index. You don't quote anybody saying that. If you find an educator who has the power to influence AP participation and embraces that view, let us know. I have never met one and suspect they are very hard to find.

The question you raise has interested me since I started the index in 1998, as a way to dramatize the idiotic policy in most high schools of denying motivated students a chance to take AP and other challenging courses. As AP participation has grown since, and people have blamed or credited me for it, I have done many interviews with educators, parents and students to determine if it was the Challenge Index that motivated them. The vast majority have denied it, and those that give the list some credit do so for reasons very different from the ones you cite.

There are two main explanations for the rapid growth of AP, one for each of the two different kinds of high schools we have in this country. The first kind--you can call them the affluent schools--are full of ambitious students from families with good incomes. Those kids want to go to college, particularly the best known colleges, and that desire is the most important factor in the culture of their schools. You and I know those schools well, both public and private. Most of the high schools in the Washington area fit that category.

But those students are not taking more AP courses and tests to make their school look good on the list. They laugh at me when I suggest that might be the reason. They are taking lots of AP (and IB) because the selective colleges they want to attend demand it. Also, they feel competitive with their friends who also want to do well in the college race. If Fred's buddy Jose is taking four AP courses this year, then Fred wants to take four AP courses too. Some also say the AP courses tend to be the best taught and the most interesting courses available to them.

Those affluent schools make up no more than 10 to 20 percent of the total. The other kind of high school--call them the regular schools--have much smaller numbers of students yearning for the Ivy League. Most of their students want to go to college, but to state four-year colleges or community colleges that don't cause much strain for high school students trying to get into them. Many of those students don't take AP at all, having been led to believe it is just for the smart kids.

Many of those regular schools are seeing a sudden growth in AP test taking because some of their administrators and teachers have read the data showing that it is average students who benefit most from taking college level courses and tests. When B and C students get that taste of college trauma in high school, they are better prepared for college, and do better in college, the research shows.

In these cases, I am willing to take a little credit, because the Challenge Index and my books on AP and IB have helped introduce some of these educators to the data on those programs, and have shown how much increased AP and IB participation has done to improve academic standards, and interest in learning, at those schools. The list has also given some political cover to AP teachers who struggle in the first years to bring students up to AP level. If their principals wonder whether it might be too difficult for their kids, and whether they should cut back on AP, they can say, "Well, maybe, but if we do that we will look bad on the Challenge Index."

It is very hard to find educators in regular schools who are sorry about embracing AP. Those "top schools" you cite who "dropped their AP programs" and allegedly "created even tougher, more challenging courses" are almost all very small and expensive private schools which did so for reasons that only make sense for very small and very expensive schools.

The one public school that has done this, Scarsdale High, serves one of the richest small villages on the planet and, in most respects, mirrors private school culture. The courses they have created to substitute for AP are interesting, and in some cases (not all) different from AP, but I defy you to produce any evidence that they are more difficult or challenging.

I can be blamed for a lot, but most of the AP surge would have occurred without me. You are kind to look for a way to forgive me, but I have to decline the honor. I hope readers will have a chance to take a closer look at schools in this area, such as Wakefield in Arlington, Bell Multicultural in D.C., Annandale in Fairfax or Wheaton in Montgomery, that have found ways to make AP and IB a force for good in the lives of many students who didn't think they ever could succeed in college.

Regards, your colleague,

By Jay Mathews  | November 5, 2009; 11:57 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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And to think I took AP courses in high school for the college credit. How selfish of me not to think of my high school's Challenge Index (which I had never heard of before moving to DC).

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | November 5, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

for afsljafweljkjlfe: I am glad we were able to save you from ignorance.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 5, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

ENOUGH with the Ivy League! Those are not the best schools for everyone. My husband attended an Ivy League as a grad student and had to be a TA for some chemE classes. Most of the kids in his classes fell into 1 of 2 categories. Those that were there because that's what the parents wanted; the students wanted to be doing some other program. And then there was the entitled group...Daddy was buying them a piece of paper with an Ivy League name it. So don't give them bad grades even if they deserve it...or Daddy will have to talk with you.

I also know a child who today is under high pressure to have perfect grades because the Ivy League is THE goal. If the grades aren't perfect, the parent becomes a bully.

The Ivy League is overrated.

Posted by: valerie11 | November 6, 2009 8:44 AM | Report abuse

Well yeah, the Ivys are run-of-the-mill engineering schools, anyone taking ChemE classes there would be better off at UMD or VaTech. So your husband got the kids buying schools for names that aren't even that good, pretty much worst case scenario.

Posted by: someguy100 | November 8, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

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