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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.

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page, http://washingtonpost.com/education.


By Jay Mathews  | 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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Comments

Perhaps 9th graders would be better served taking classes in program like "Project Lead The Way" instead of Advanced Placement courses. I know I personally would choose PLTW for my child who is going to be entering the ninth grade in the Fall.

http://beta.pltw.org/

Posted by: MisterRog | February 25, 2010 5:24 AM | Report abuse

Why is that we are still so wedded to bright lines and easy answers? Of course-- many 9th graders are more than capable of taking AP and should be allowed (and encouraged!) to do so. It shouldn't be something only those students with strong advocates for parents get to take advantage of.

Schools need to do what is right for students and stop enforcing rules that only serve the easy administration of the education institution.

Posted by: EduCrazy | February 25, 2010 7:06 AM | Report abuse

I (as well as many parents that I know) emphatically agree with MisterRog, the Pre-Engineer Program "Project Lead the Way" is one of the most sought after programs in the area.

What's also great about PLTW is that students can enter the program from middle and continue throughout high school.

It is my understanding that student success rates are very high wherever the PLTW program is currently offered.

Posted by: TwoSons | February 25, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Schools need to recognize the diversity of their student population. My son skipped a grade, is now a sophomore, and loves his AP courses--all three of them. He finds the work in these courses much more engaging than the regular offerings and says this is the level of instruction he wishes he had had years ago.

Posted by: lutzena | February 25, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

AP World? No, for 9th graders - unless this is a 2 year course which it often is in many schools.

AP Human Geography and AP Government will lead to greater success.

Why not for AP World:
In my AP World classes taught to seniors, kids read a 1000 page text (all of it!) and four books - 3 non-fiction (a total of 500 pages) and one fiction book from a list (at least 200 pages).
1700 pages of reading, not including reading that needs to be done for hw - probably 2-300 pages there: example, last night the kids read William McNeill's "The Age of Gunpowder Empires, 1450-1800" a 35 page journal article.
So, 2000 pages of college level reading in one year.

If I taught to freshmen I would not do this (I am basing this on teaching the 12th graders I have now as freshmen - which for some, I did.). I would choose a
shorter text, teach more to the test (here are the 10 tricks for a dbq - a lesson I would have to teach several times during the year.), have to walk the kids through
the outside reading texts, all in all more hand-holding with kids learning less content and passing rates that would be lower.

All in all, not as good a class. But over 2 years doable, imo. But I would still choose a different textbook because of the reading level.

A quick check of the AP Human Geo. text I
have shows it to be 410 pages long. This
is much more doable. AP Gov. is more manageable too imo because the kids are surrounded by news and editorials and critiques of the U.S. government. Comparisons between the gunpowder empires of the Safavids, Mughals and Ottomans are less common in the media in my experience.

Posted by: worldhistoryteacher | February 25, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I teach AP World to 10th graders ans unlike worldhistoryteacher, I believe that some freshmen are capable of doing the course. I wouldn't have my students do much outside reading (in fact I don't have them do more than 30 pages now) and I would use one of the shorter texts available.

The other problem is that you need a special kind of teacher who is willing to not use the text as the end all and be all. The AP World course is an unusual course among history courses in that if you do it right you spend very little time on anything specific. You don't go into detail about the Hundred Years' War (heck I don't even mention it) or really anything else. Instead you focus on big patterns among societies (like comparisons between maritime empires and land-based empires). It's all a matter of how you scaffold it. But the problem is that traditionally you don't get those kind of people teaching 9th grade.

Posted by: Rob63 | February 25, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

How sad that worldhistoryteacher thinks she'd would dumb the course down. Isn't there enough of that going on in the education world? No, that's not the answer. Allow those kids that are capable of to take the harder courses as they are. If they can't handle the reading, then they don't belong in the course.

But every year, a high school of any size will have at least 5 to 10 freshmen that are reading or comprehending at a collegiate level. Why shouldn't they sit next to Seniors and take a real AP level course?

Why does education have to be one-size fits all?

Posted by: EduCrazy | February 25, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Come on, do you really think that there are 30 or so students per school who can a) handle the very difficult transition to high school while b) taking a class that advances them 4 grades. Taking an AP, if it is taught as a true AP class, means taking a college class. How many 14 years old can really handle the rigors of a college class? And, why would any parent want their child to be taking college classes at age 14. Let a 14 year old be and act like a 14 year old.

Posted by: teach1 | February 25, 2010 8:13 PM | Report abuse

Project Lead the Way and Advanced Placement are both commercially produced curricula, and have costs associated with them that must be supported by the school system. They are two different beasts and are geared to different audiences.

Posted by: altaego60 | February 25, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

My understanding is that students who have excelled in school and want to be challenged should have the opportunity to take an AP course. If my rising 14 year old 9th grade child is ultimately denied the opportunity to be placed in a specific AP course, even though she has mastered the material for a specific subject, what does that say about the Arlington School system which supposedly fosters an environment where student learning is aligned with curriculum, instruction, and assessment?

EduCarzy's comment summarized it perfectly -- schools need to do what is right for students and stop enforcing rules that only serve the easy administration of the education institution.

Posted by: ArlingonHBparent | February 25, 2010 10:07 PM | Report abuse

I see absolutely nothing wrong with offering AP classes to 9th graders. The difficulty, however, is not necessarily so much in the mental capacity of the students so much as whether their educational background will have them prepared for more rigorous work. In general, the education America's students receive has been significantly dumbed down since even just 50 years ago, and certainly pales in comparison to the level of education offered in many other modernized countries such as England and Korea. With the proper background, I think most 9th graders are intellectually capable of managing far more difficult work than they currently receive, but most of them have been sliding by for years rather than being truly challenged to learn and to be their best.

Posted by: topaz2911 | February 26, 2010 3:18 AM | Report abuse

AP World, from my understanding of it, would be a two year experience. If a school system wanted to teach an honors level World History I to 8th grade students based on Pre-AP teaching strategies prior to having freshmen take AP World History it could work. The students on this AP track could then take AP European History as sophomores, AP United States History as juniors, and AP United States Government and Politics as seniors. The only potential issue would be that of any state testing that would dictate a differing course order.
In making any AP social studies courses available to 9th grade students I would offer the following suggestions:
- Send both the 8th grade and 9th grade teachers of the classes to a Pre-AP and AP World workshop
- Under no circumstances make AP United States Government and Politics the 9th grade AP course. Instruction on Government is best done with 12th grade students on the cusp of being able to vote.
- Remove a significant amount of the normal middle school “safety net” for students (i.e. no flunking and/or low grades in higher tracked classes) so they can be prepared for the rigor of AP level work.

Posted by: Mostel26 | February 26, 2010 5:52 AM | Report abuse

I taught AP Human Geography to 9th graders, but our school now has our 9th graders taking World History. In any given year, out of 600 freshmen we have approximately 1 full class of AP 9th graders. We look at AP in the 9th and 10th grades as a chance to help them excel in future AP classes. As someone who has taught AP to 9-12 graders in 4 different AP courses, I can say the students who took AP in 9th or 10th grade, did much better in AP in the 11th and 12th grade than those who took honors or on level classes. At our school, the pass rate for 11th and 12th graders who took AP in the 9th and 10th grade is much better than our pass rate for students who waited until the 11th or 12th grade to try AP. The College Board isn't changing its standards for who passes the exams, let the 9th graders try, it will help them in the end.

Posted by: zoemol | February 26, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Why is World History year-specific? I can understand that AP English might build on the curriculum in early years, and math may have prerequisites, but what is there about the content of the a world history that can only be taught to older students? Why not just offer the course and, as happened in my (regular) world history course, let anyone in any year take it if they are capable of doing the work? Is it really so terrible if a freshman sits next to a senior in class?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 26, 2010 8:26 PM | Report abuse

I think it would be interesting to see the conclusions of studies that analyze the cognitive abilities of advanced 9th grade learners and the abilities that recommended for success in various AP courses. Though I have not seen conclusive research on this topic, my hypothesis would be that, by and large, 9th graders are not fully cognitively "ready" for AP courses.

Posted by: werd77 | February 27, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

While I'm obviously happy for my kids to take AP courses, I'm not that worried about which ones are offered and when. My kids will fill in the gaps by taking a few CLEP and DSST tests during summer vacation. Most universities offer similar credit for them as they do for AP. And there's no need to stress overly about the tests, as the kids are probably adequately prepared for them from their high school courses, and if they do fail one they can just retake it six months later.

Posted by: stevefoerster | February 27, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

I would like to reply to some comments:

Rob 63 wrote: “I teach AP World to 10th graders an unlike worldhistoryteacher, I believe that some freshmen are capable of doing the course. I wouldn't have my students do much outside reading (in fact I don't have them do more than 30 pages now) and I would use one of the shorter texts available.”

My problem with Rob63's post here is that this is supposed to be a college level course and Rob63 doesn't have the students "do much outside reading." Anyone see a problem here? I assume the 30 pages - is 30 pages a week. This is the length of an average chapter and that is what the homework in my classes are on the usual weekly basis. (The rest of his post I agree with)

I agree that there are probably 5 or 10 freshmen (that's about it) that could handle it. But as I mentioned earlier 50-60 students could handle AP Human Geography and/or U.S. Gov (Comparative Gov. I think would be a better senior course than U.S. and U.S. Gov. does not have to be a senior course either)

As to the question - why is AP World year specific - the writer is correct it does not have to be. But for someone like me who knew it was year specific (12th grade) it allowed me to pick a tougher text - Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's The World which has a strong authorial voice is quite provocative and was I know not written for high schoolers than one of the approved texts which are more textbooky, for lack of a better word. If I was teaching it to 9th graders I would never use that text, nor would I use it if I were teaching at a community college - too tough and too much handholding would be required whereas a simpler text would not require as much handholding (but lack the strengths mentioned earlier).

All in all, the point I am making is that students at my school learn skills over the three years before senior year that make them able to do a true college course - this includes a 2 year AP U.S. course.

Posted by: worldhistoryteacher | February 27, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Gee, I wish worldhistoryteacher and others would make their courses as rigorous as a freshman course at a local, average 4-year college. Get the syllabus to get a sense of workload and/or make a call to a prof who teaches the course. The median SAT scores for the top 25% of our students (around 150 students) are in the 1950 to 2000 range. Thus, there are almost certain to be 10 to 15 9th graders who can do the work and deserve to have the choice of competing with 11th and 12th graders in a rigorous course.

And, as a former school board member, don't offer a class if you don't have enough students who have at least a decent chance of passing it. Taxes are high enough already without offering classes for only 10 to 15 students.

Finally, we who teach at colleges would probably be very appreciative (I certainly would) if students were given the opportunity to fail a high school course if they didn't do the work. Then they might be prepared to skip the Thursday night beer blast in favor of doing the reading (and starting the outlines) needed to succeed when they reach college.

Posted by: mct210 | February 28, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

MCT210 makes a few interesting points, but there are a few things that hamstring high school educators in our pursuit of making classes as academically challenging as possible.
1) Some educators in the public school system are faced with an extremely infantile mentality on the part of some parents. Too many would demand a nonsensical level of safety nets for their 9th grade children’s grades if they were placed in an AP course with 11th and 12th grade students.
2) Most of my best 300 and 400 level history classes in college were composed of 10 to 15 students. This was also true of my best graduate classes. Class size directly impacts student learning. The STAR study settles this discussion. How is an AP teacher supposed to give any valuable feedback on student work with large class sizes? Increased class sizes always lead to less academic rigor.
3) I sincerely wish I could be able to fail more students who simply refuse to complete their work. Too many parents are quick to make a school’s life difficult if their child fails a class. Compound parent flack with the utter ridiculousness of current special education law that is forced on the public school system and you have 95% of the cause of why students don’t receive that failing grades they deserve.

Posted by: Mostel26 | February 28, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

"Come on, do you really think that there are 30 or so students per school who can a) handle the very difficult transition to high school while b) taking a class that advances them 4 grades."

Yes. A student who qualifies as gifted in 7th grade in the Duke University Talent Search has scored as high as an average 12th grader. In other words, gifted kids are already operating at 5 grades above their grade level.

Posted by: she-bear | February 28, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

A reply to MCT 210:

"Gee, I wish worldhistoryteacher and others would make their courses as rigorous as a freshman course at a local, average 4-year college. Get the syllabus to get a sense of workload and/or make a call to a prof who teaches the course. The median SAT scores for the top 25% of our students (around 150 students) are in the 1950 to 2000 range. Thus, there are almost certain to be 10 to 15 9th graders who can do the work and deserve to have the choice of competing with 11th and 12th graders in a rigorous course."

I get some of MCT 210's post that high school history teachers should be teaching a course similar to a college course.
Fortunately, though I won't - the WHAP course is much more focused on the "new world history" whereas too many, imo, college faculty who teach the course stick to older methods - often referred to as "west and the rest" i.e. mostly Western Civ. with world add-ons.

Also, the WHAP course I teach is more rigorous than the world history intro course offered at college. I am in contact with many college professors including nearly all of the authors of the texts that one would use for WHAP. They confirm this.

"And, as a former school board member, don't offer a class if you don't have enough students who have at least a decent chance of passing it. Taxes are high enough already without offering classes for only 10 to 15 students."

Agreed up to 15. But classes with 15 students are ideal.

"Finally, we who teach at colleges would probably be very appreciative (I certainly would) if students were given the opportunity to fail a high school course if they didn't do the work."

They are in my school.

Posted by: worldhistoryteacher | March 3, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

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