Me vs. smartest critic of AP in low-income schools
This was going to be a piece about a great new book about Advanced Placement, "AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program." I promise to summarize its conclusions before this column ends.
But I want to focus on the most interesting contributor to the volume, a Texas economist named Kristin Klopfenstein who is author or co-author of two chapters and one of the four editors of the book. She has become the most articulate and knowledgeable critic of using AP to raise achievement in low-income schools, a movement I have been supporting for a quarter of a century, I decided to call her up, discuss our differences and report what she had to say.
Klopfenstein is an associate professor of economics at Texas Christian University, currently on leave to work as a senior researcher at the Texas Schools Project at the University of Texas-Dallas. In the new book, she is the sole author of a chapter that argues that people who say AP saves taxpayer money and reduces time to college graduation are wrong. Since I am not one of those people, I didn't ask her about that chapter, but about a chapter of which she is the lead author, with Mississippi State University economist M. Kathleen Thomas as co-author, entitled "Advanced Placement Participation: Evaluating the Policies of States and Colleges."
Klopfenstein has spent many years looking at AP in public schools, aided by a terrific state data base in Texas that follows students from grade school into college. Other researchers in Texas and California have produced studies that suggest that taking AP courses and exams in high school leads to more success in college than avoiding or being barred from AP, as happens with most college-bound students. Klopfenstein told me those studies should not be given great weight because they show correlation, not causation.
In the chapter she wrote with Thomas, Klopfenstein is critical of both the Bush Administration and the Obama administration for funding "the expansion of AP in schools with high concentrations of low-income students." The hundreds of principals and teachers across the country who have told me that enrolling more impoverished students in AP, International Baccalaureate or other college-level courses can enhance student chances of succeeding in college are misguided, she says.
"Because the likelihood of success in AP is determined largely by prior academic experience and readiness for college-level work, it is unlikely that many of the students who are the target of such an AP expansion will benefit. The assumption that the correlation between the AP Program and college success is causal leads well-intentioned administrators and policy makers to mandate 'helicopter drops' of AP Programs into schools that have neither a rigorous academic pipeline nor the resources to support the program," she said in the book.
I jumped right on that. I said that in the many high schools I had visited where AP or IB had energized the teaching and led, teachers there thought, to impressive student achievement gains, the rigorous academic pipeline and resources Klopfenstein wisely thought were necessary developed only AFTER the AP courses had been established and opened to all. Practically and politically, administrators had no way of arranging those supports until they had a target everyone could shoot for---AP courses and, in particular, AP tests written and graded by outsiders that could not be dumbed down by the classroom teachers.
To my surprise, Klopfenstein agreed with that scenario, as least as a general proposition. She said that AP, IB and local college courses open to high schoolers could serve as a useful target to build a stronger academic culture in a school. She acknowledged that that had happened at Garfield High School, where I first saw 28 years ago how successful AP could be in raising expectations and achievements for impoverished children. The notion that you had to have the AP courses before you could build the supports for them was conceived by that classroom genius, Jaime Escalante, whose death Tuesday is being mourned by educators across the country.
Klopfenstein also said she accepted the College Board's research showing that in some subject areas, only half or fewer of students who are ready for AP, as indicated by their scores on the PSAT test, ever have a chance to take AP.
These areas on which Klopfenstein and I agreed were in line with much of the rest of the book, a collection of papers by scholars and experts on all facets of AP. Several chapters are by Philip M. Sadler of Harvard, Robert H. Tai of the University of Virginia and other researchers who worked on the influential Factors Influencing College Science Success study. Among their conclusions: AP science courses have on average more experienced teachers and better integrated lab work than regular science courses. High school students who take AP science courses are morely likely to earn science degrees in college. Students who pass an AP science test and then take the same introductory course in college do better than students who have not passed AP. Awarding bonus grade points to students who take honors or AP coursework in high schools is supported by the fact that they earn higher grades in college science courses.
I was mildly irked by historian Tim Lacy's chapter, which concludes that AP has become "a potentially tragic morality tale about corporate-style revenue grabbing and the subversion of AP's non-profit ethos." He is entitled to his opinion about AP's owner, the College Board, but he neglected to say the same could be written, and often has been written, about nearly every large and prestigious non-profit institution in the country, including Harvard University, whose press published the book.
Like Lacy, Klopfenstein suggests the College Board has been overselling itself, and AP. I told her I thought that contradicted her view that AP, as well as the non-College Board IB program and local college courses, could galvanize a failing high school and lead it to create the structures that raise student achievement, even for disadvantaged students.
She told me not to go overboard drawing conclusions from the many schools I had studied where AP or IB had seemed, to me and the schools' teachers, to have changed the culture. "It is suggestive, it is informative," she said, "but to suggest because this worked for a school I have seen that it would work for all schools is a very disturbing approach."
We agreed that a program had to be able to maintain high standards against great odds when raising the level of achievement in public schools where standards have traditionally been low. But there we got stuck. AP had not proved itself to her, she said. She was going to continue to look at its costs and benefits, and warn school districts that it might not be worth the money they are spending on it.
Okay, I said. We know that AP, IB and local college courses have helped successfully raise and maintain high standards in some high schools. Are there any other programs that have done that? Are there any single schools in impoverished neighborhoods that have done that on their own? I said I didn't know of any. Klopfenstein said she didn't either. But, ever the confident researcher, she said that was not what she was working on at the moment, leading me to think she might investigate that issue eventually.
She also told me something I didn't know, always a plus for me. She said Texas would soon require end-of-course tests for all high school core subjects. Those new exams, she said, could be a useful target for schools that want to invigorate their academic culture but think AP is too tough for their ill-prepared students.
Many of us who work or live in Virginia and have watched the development of its end-of-course tests since the 1990s likely will have doubts about her suggestion. The Virginia high school Standards of Learning course exams have none of the essay questions that make AP and IB tests so supportive of good writing instruction. In some cases you can pass a Virginia end-of-course test even though you get nearly half the questions wrong.
That is a topic for another day. It is invigorating to talk to Klopfenstein and have all of one's assumptions challenged. I suspect this will not be our last conversation.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| April 2, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: AP critic vs. Jay Mathews, AP studies differ, Kristin Klopfenstein, accepts the fact that AP has occasionally help set a higher standard for schools., downgrades the impact of AP on low income students
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