Should 9th graders take AP?
[This is my column for the Local Living section of Feb. 25, 2010.]
My wife and I sometimes got emotionally involved with high school issues when our children attended. High school counts. Parents can get upset. So I paid close attention when two Arlington County mothers contacted me, separately, about a flap over Advanced Placement World History in ninth grade.
“Two Arlington high schools are offering AP World History to freshmen, and one [Yorktown] is refusing to do so, saying freshmen shouldn’t take AP,” one said. The other said, “I’ve gotten mixed responses from teachers, counselors and other parents. Some feel it’s unnecessary pressure at too early an age.” They asked that I not use their names because one works in intelligence and the other is a PTA officer who wants to remain neutral in public.
Being sophisticated Arlingtonians, they understand the puzzling socioeconomic subtext. Yorktown (15 percent of students are low-income) is the high school for the affluent northern part of the county. Washington-Lee (34 percent low-income students) in the middle and Wakefield (48 percent low-income students) in the south have more economically diverse enrollments. You would expect Yorktown to be the most in love with starting college-level AP courses early because of its many families obsessed with getting their children into the likes of Dartmouth, Vanderbilt or U-Va., but no.
I told my two informants I saw no reason why many 14-year-olds couldn’t handle the AP course, even if it was the equivalent of what 18-year-old college freshmen get in state universities. My nerdy peer group would have loved digging into the Hundred Years War (all that blood!) if we had had AP when we were that age. That variety of early teen is still common in this region.
I can hear some of you blaming me for the Arlington controversy because my annual ratings of high schools encourage AP, IB and other college-level tests. I think such courses improve schools. But the real heroes are selective colleges, which demand them on student transcripts, and parents and school administrators tired of the pabulum served up in regular high school courses, particularly in the ninth grade, in most of the country.
I visited AP government classes for ninth-graders when they began appearing in Montgomery County several years ago. The teachers were smart. The students were engaged. Those courses have continued with zero controversy, as far as I can tell.
But this being America, some people are going to take welcome opportunities too far.
College Board Vice President Trevor Packer, who oversees AP, alerted me to what has happened with AP Human Geography. It was designed as a 12th-grade college-level geography course, Packer said, but it “has been, in many cases, inappropriately scheduled in lieu of a standard ninth-grade geography course that has nowhere near the rigor or quality of a college-level geography course.” Forty-two percent of ninth-graders who take AP Human Geography get the worst grade on the exam, a 1 or the equivalent of a college F.
I can see why high school principals are tempted to substitute AP for the snooze fests that often pass as ninth-grade geography classes. I suspect even the kids who score a 1 learn more than they would otherwise, but Packer is right to be concerned. Ninth-graders taking AP World History nationwide do better. The portion of those scoring 1 is 32.percent. They don’t have to send their AP test grades to colleges. More than 42.percent get passing grades on the independently written and scored exam.
So it was hard for me to see Yorktown, and its thoughtful ex-monk principal, Ray Pasi, as a vehement opponent of AP for ninth-graders. I was right. “We are open to exceptions in cases where there is a strong demand for the course,” he told me. Yorktown has a team-taught English and history course that he said is just as exciting as AP for academically ambitious teens. They will have plenty of opportunity for AP at Yorktown when they are world-weary 15-year-olds.
Parents of Arlington County, relax. Your kids will be way ahead no matter what high school you choose. All three high schools are marvelous. Arlington’s magnet-by-lottery program, H.B. Woodlawn, leads the region in AP participation. The point is the county has a long record of great administrators hiring wonderful teachers. That is all you need.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| February 24, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories: Local Living | Tags: 9th grade AP, AP World History, Advanced Placement, Arlington County, Yorktown High, students too young for AP
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