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High schoolers barred from college-level courses

Each year when I ask high schools around the country to fill out the form for my annual America's Best High Schools list, I try to add a question to illumine an issue on which there is little research. This was my extra question for 2010:

"May any student at your school enroll in AP American History or AP English Literature if they want to? (If not, we would like to know what qualifications they must have -- a certain GPA? a teacher's recommendation?)"

I just calculated the results. They suggest the widespread habit of restricting access to AP may be losing strength, although not fast enough to suit me or the AP teachers who have influenced me on this issue.

I am beginning to contact schools for the 2011 list. Any that haven't heard from me by Thanksgiving and think they qualify -- a school needs to have given as many AP, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests as it had graduating seniors -- should e-mail me at

Next year the list will be in a different place, here at, and not on where it has been since it began in 1998. The Washington Post Co., my employer for 39 years, recently sold Newsweek, so I got permission to move the list here. I am grateful to the staff for the great job they did. I assume the current list will remain on that site for the next several months.

I expect that there will be even more schools next year reaching the list's standard for inclusion than the 1,735 we had this year. The number has gone up every time I have done the list, beginning with just 243 schools in 1998. But proportionally, the total is still quite small. The schools on this year's list represented only about 6 percent of all public high schools in the United States.

A school can qualify for the Challenge Index list if just half of its juniors and half of its seniors take just one AP, IB or Cambridge test each of those years. That doesn't sound like much to me, but more than 90 percent of U.S. schools don't meet that standard.

When I started the list, the problem was obvious. Most high schools did not think average students, those getting mostly Bs and Cs, were ready for a college-level course. It was common for schools to require a high grade point average or a teacher's recommendation before anyone could take AP, IB or Cambridge. Even more harmful were unwritten restrictions, the hardest to change, including the assumption that students not placed in the college prep track their freshman year of high school would not be AP material.

Research based on PSAT scores shows that only half of students ready for AP ever take an AP course. Students who take AP and do well on the exams perform better in college than similar students who do not take AP. Passing grades on AP are scores of 3, 4 or 5, the equivalent of a college C, B or A. But average students who get only 2s on an AP exam, according to one study, also do better in college than average students who did not take AP.

There has been some recent evidence that average students are getting more of a chance. A random survey of 1,024 AP teachers sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in 2009 had 69 percent saying the AP courses in their schools were generally open, while only 29 percent said there were limits like GPA or teacher approval. College Board surveys showed 61 percent of AP teachers and 53 percent of AP coordinators said their schools opened AP to all.

I phrased the question on my survey to be as specific as possible, asking about two popular AP courses that many average students want to take. Only 19 percent of the schools that made the Challenge Index list this year said access to AP American History or English Literature was not guaranteed for all students.

That is good news, but my survey sample is not very representative of high schools in general. The more open the doors to AP are in a public high school, the more likely it is to have enough students taking AP tests to qualify for the Challenge Index list. Schools that limit access are likely to be underrepresented.

Some of the College Board survey results suggest that when AP coordinators say that AP is open to all, they don't consider rules about grade point averages or teacher recommendations to be restrictive. In my experience, many high school educators are so accustomed to thinking of AP as a program for advanced students that the idea of open to all really means, in their minds, open to all in the college prep track.

Although 53 percent of the AP coordinators said AP was open, 52 percent in the latest survey said they looked at a student's grade in a required pre-requisite course before letting her into AP. Sixty-two percent said the recommendation of a teacher in that pre-requisite course could also influence the decision.

Teacher attitudes have power, no matter what the rules say. The Fordham survey found that only 38 percent of AP teachers shared the view of the teachers that have most influenced me -- the more students in AP the better, and that those who do poorly in the course will learn more from the experience than they would in a non-AP course.

Fifty-two percent of that same sample of AP teachers endorsed the traditional view that "only students who can handle the material should take AP courses -- otherwise it's not fair to them, their classmates, their teachers and the quality of the program."

I frequently encounter students and teachers who have proved that to be wrong. If a student is motivated, and a teacher energetic and encouraging, prior indications that the student might not be able to handle the course have little meaning.

As AP, IB and Cambridge programs grow, there will be a lot more data on this. Many high school teachers remain uncertain who is right about letting into AP, IB or
Cambridge courses anyone who wants to work that hard. What happens in their classrooms this year, with more students challenging themselves than ever before, will have much influence on how many more schools change their policies, and how they do on the Challenge Index.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | October 15, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  America's Best High Schools, Challenge Index, access to AP courses, data show more acceptance of average students in challenging courses, many schools bar students with average GPAs or no teacher recommendations  
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As you may know, I strongly support the College Board's Equity Initiative, and welcomed students into my AP chemistry class who were determined to move up out of their low-track courses.

Jay. I'm worried that your support for increased access might really be due to something else, though, and you might not really know it yourself.

All my Kaplan Venture Launch links are broken now. This one still comes up, but the page seems to be blank. You can still read the original title if you scroll across it: "Kaplan anounces Kaplan Ventures, investing in ApexOnline, Apollo International, Blackboard and Jobscience"

I believe that it was ApexOnline that was offering AP training through public districts. We certainly have no VAM data on the educational value of those products, but that wouldn' matter because the CEO superintendents who decide to buy it are appointed at the direction of for-profit providers in the "public-private partnership".

Maybe people you mistakenly respect are touting AP expansion for a reason you might not respect.

Posted by: mport84 | October 15, 2010 6:21 AM | Report abuse

Jay, it seems to me that when schools limit access to AP to the best students, that will push up the number of AP students who perform well in college compared to non-AP students. I suspect there's some blurring between correlation and causation here, and you yourself pointed that out in your previous article.

There are certain courses where prerequisites are more important than others. Math, science, and possibly languages (depending on whether they assume some previous knowledge). I don't think a student who gets a C in algebra ought to be in an AP Calc class, for example, because they just aren't equipped for the material without a lot of remediation, and that's going to cut into either class time or the teacher's personal time. It's great if they want to do it, but you can't make it mandatory.

Beyond that, it would be great if we had a large number of energetic and encouraging teachers (and subject matter experts) to teach AP courses. It would be even better if we had those people teaching EVERY course. But the fact is, we don't. There's only so many of the best teachers, and they're spread out among AP, honors, regular, and special ed courses, which means that there are a lot of classes at all levels where the teachers are just average. In those classes, the students will need to be more self-motivated to be successful. If they haven't shown themselves to be motivated and do well in the past, to me it's an indication that they will continue the pattern. On the other hand, volunteering for a difficult course is pretty good evidence of motivation.

Perhaps the solution is an "honors AP" course. All the kids that have proven themselves ready for the material, in terms of preparation, motivation, and classroom behavior take the honors AP course. The kids who don't meet those standards get a course with the same material, but probably don't get the benefit of the more disciplined, faster moving class. To help balance the disparity, have team projects with team members drawn from both classes.

The only problem is resources.

Posted by: tomsing | October 15, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Good comments:

For mport84---I see your point but I gave up trying to read minds long ago. I have been writing favorably about AP since 1984. I suspect Kaplan was not doing anything for that program back then. Since then, I am sure people who support AP have all kinds of motives, as happens in all causes. The Soviets were not fighting the Germans because they wanted free speech in Europe. But if what they are doing helps raise achievement, and I think AP does, then I don't object.

For tomsing---I like yr honors AP idea a lot, but the data show that whenever schools open AP to all the number of kids getting 5s increases. The marginal students usually do not slow down the course, and some of them prove to be less marginal than people thought. As for teachers, i believe that challenging courses can improve teachers in the same way they can improve students. If the teacher finds that the course pushes her to new heights, and is not a boring recital of stuff the kids should have learned in 6th grade, that can have an effect. I have NO research proving or disproving this, but I have some anecdotes, like my story in Supertest of what IB biology did for teacher Dan Coast.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 15, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Jay, thank you for your efforts.

I think the issues behind AP access are at least twofold: First, there is the issue of access for students of average capabilities, which you address somewhat more explicitly.

The second issue is with placement: We can't assume that a student placed in a non-honors track is not highly capable, talented, intelligent, or even gifted. Schools don't place students according to those criteria. They place according to grades, absenteeism, parental requests, teacher evaluations, etc. AP for all is sometimes the only way for these students to get into a course that is appropriate for them.

Posted by: hainish | October 15, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

A Fact
that Jay Mathews
and Kaplan, Inc. (Washington Post Co.) testing/test prep. corporation
try to ignore & subvert --

Many High Schools throughout the USA
allow students to take real COLLEGE COURSES
early FOR CREDIT --
whether in-person at local community colleges or universities
or also via on-line programs.
This is an option for
H.S. students (currently
as well as historically).
I myself earned course credits towards high school
graduation (and also college transcript credits,
as well) by being allowed to take
real COLLEGE COURSES as a senior in High School
in New Jersey in 1975!
I know those options &
opportunities exist!

Why is this fact
being deliberately ignored
or obfuscated by Jay Mathews & Kaplan, Inc. ??


Posted by: honestpolicy | October 15, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Jay, please provide a citation for your comment that 5's go up when AP classes are open admission. That would be very significant.

Tomsing, you're right that some classes have such an obvious need for prerequisites that there is no attempt (by students or admins) to place unprepared students in them. AP Math classes require College Alg/Trig; AP language classes require at least 3 years of prior instruction in that language; AP Science classes (usually) require the student to have taken the regular version of that science first. The argument is really over History, English, Government, Economics, Psychology, and other such subjects where there it's possible to do well without any particular prerequisite.

Posted by: jane100000 | October 15, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

for honestpolicy--I often mention dual enrollment courses, and count them as part of my local Washington area high school rankings. But they are not a very big part of college level courses in Fairfax County, and particularly not at Westfield, so there was no reason to mention them here. Va. college admissions people have told me, and I suspect also told the high schools, that they prefer AP or IB to dual enrollment credits. One Texas study indicates that students with dual enrollment credits do not do as well in college as AP students.

For Jane100000---The national College Board AP reports each year show increased participation, slightly decreased average scores because of that increased participation, but more 5s every year. The same thing happened in Fairfax county when it suddenly opened AP, IB and honors courses to all in 1998.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 15, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

I attend a public high school in south FL. To enroll in an AP class, a student must fill out an extensive form-past grades,gpa,all classes taken and teacher recommendations. If the student is denied entrance into an AP class, you have to get a parent to ''waiver'' you in and have a meeting with a guidance counselor. The latter is a facetious process.
The logic in this process is highly flawed.The purpose of Advanced Placement classes is for students to attain a higher level of education not currently offered via the regular and honors classes. Through this process, students are expected to gain a higher level of maturity preparing them for college level classes. So why must my parents allot what MY education consists of? The whole purpose it to stride toward independence;to be a fully competent member of society.

I just thought that was a small thing to point out.This issue,applications for AP classes,is such a frivolous topic. There are much for pressing issues to be discussed-you have such a great forum for it.

Posted by: jtowb | October 15, 2010 9:07 PM | Report abuse

"For tomsing---I like yr honors AP idea a lot, but the data show that whenever schools open AP to all the number of kids getting 5s increases."

Unless I'm missing something...isn't that obvious? More kids taking the class -> more kids at each score level.

In another recent post, you responded to me regarding challenge level dropping when APs are opened up. Specifically, you disagreed that opening the class would mean it would cease to challenge the top level students.

To me, that doesn't seem to make sense. The gap between the top and bottom in even an AP class when enrollment is open is so great that the material presented cannot possibly be appropriate for both.

I like the idea presented above of an "honors AP" class for that reason. It allows for a true challenge for the top level students, while still providing an appropriate level of challenge for the motivated students who are not off to the right on the bell curve. It means that AP classes will be able to give these students their very real benefits (which they cannot if tailored to the top, because more average students just become overwhelmed), and the very top students can still take classes that are intellectually demanding of them in the same way.

Posted by: PerpetualDissent | October 15, 2010 10:34 PM | Report abuse

If you want to see an example of open access you should look at Harding Charter Prep in Oklahoma City. It is an open admit public charter school, and ALL students are REQUIRED to take AP courses. The belief is, exactly as Mr. Matthews says, AP makes you a better student, no matter what your background or preparation.

This is equity in AP: no barriers coming from teachers, administrators, or from parents and students worried about their GPA.

I used to be a teacher at Harding Charter Prep, and believe me it is not easy teaching AP Chemistry to a class of students who are mostly in over their heads. But it can be done, and my former students, now in college, thank me for it all the time.

Posted by: chrotron | October 15, 2010 11:47 PM | Report abuse

I woke up from my end-of-week nap and found the most interesting AP conversation I've ever seen.

Chrotron, you are one of the few who has actually "been there", and taught AP Chem to an open class, so your judgement matters. But when you said, "all students are required to take AP", it set my teeth on edge. There is one person who outranks us all on this panel - jtowjb. Listen to him/her:
"The whole purpose (of) it (is) to stride toward independence."

Truly spoken, of AP and IB and of education in general, and I especially like that verb choice. It is an honor for any teacher to take up a classroom full of young people who have CHOSEN and even fought to take the decisive and difficult step into AP Chemistry. Progressive educators prize the union of intellect, power, and purpose above all other educational goals. We call it "agency".

I, for one, have never taught a class who weren't "in over their heads" (where they belong). So was I, despite or because of my magnificent technical preparation (UCSC) and high IQ score.

We were in it together. I am thinking you've probably been to that mountaintop, too, chrotron. Wasn't the choice of which AP courses to take left to the students? Chemistry is arguably the killer choice - it reflects a full year of university introduction to the discipline, with labs. The language, humanities, history and even math courses only cover a semester of college work. I thank jane 10000 and tomsing for their enlightening discussion of the implications of prerequisites for teachers of those courses. You've given me insight to understand colleagues I've been very impatient with.

Hainish also hit a nail on the head. The talent pool for AP science has been restricted among all demographics by early tracking and standards-driven grading policies. Gifted minority students and emerging English language students are especially hurt, but it affects any unusual child. When we open the gate for them, some will be high scorers right away, and some will not, but they will all benefit from taking ownership of their own gifts.

AP is still a high school course, though. The AP test (if it can be protected from for-profit-test-prep gaming) will take care of keeping the "bar" high. We can let students try for it by giving them really tough activities, and grading on the formula raw%/2 + 50 = scaled %. Let them have fun with the challenge. For God's sake, don't use AP to teach our most gifted children to hate or fear their wonderful young minds.

Posted by: mport84 | October 16, 2010 2:06 AM | Report abuse

"The talent pool for AP science has been restricted among all demographics by early tracking and standards-driven grading policies. Gifted minority students and emerging English language students are especially hurt, but it affects any unusual child. "

Oh, stop. There is very little tracking in schools, and since many "minority" (by which you really mean blacks and Hispanics) go to majority "minority" (same translation) schools, they aren't being hurt by tracking.

The simple truth is that only 23% of blacks get higher than a 500 on any section of the SAT, which is a far less difficult (and more democratic) test than the APs. For Hispanics, the number is 30-35%.

Putting someone (regardless of race) who can't achieve a 500 on SAT math into a calculus course, or putting someone who can't manage a 450 in the reading section into AP US History is an act of cruelty. These students are wasting their time twice--first by shoving material at them they can't master, second by not teaching them material they actually need to master (like algebra, geometry, and ninth grade vocabulary).

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | October 16, 2010 2:31 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and Jay, it's profoundly disingenuous to say "5's increase" without mentioning that failing grades of 1s and 2s increase at an exponentially higher rate.

"The gap between the top and bottom in even an AP class when enrollment is open is so great that the material presented cannot possibly be appropriate for both. "

This is true. But what Jay doesn't mention is that the vast majority of schools that offer AP for All are schools in which the majority of students are unprepared in the first place. The courses bear no resemblance to the real thing, and it's big news if one or two students (out of hundreds) pass with a 3. A few years ago, it actually made the Washington Post when a school had two kids pass the AP English test with a 3.

So fortunately, most AP classes with qualified students aren't being watered down. Instead, AP classes are being used as a way to allow low income kids and charter school students to functionally lie about their education (without knowing it) by creating fraudulent transcripts that say the kids have taken AP classes when in fact they did nothing of the sort.

Of course, that's pretty bad. And I daresay in some predominantly minority schools, say 60-30 Hispanic/white, AP classes are getting watered down classes if the whites aren't wealthy enough to pull their kids out of the school if AP courses are messed with. But probably not too many. The real issue is fraud.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | October 16, 2010 2:41 AM | Report abuse

Cal Lanier - yes, there is tracking, and it is increasing in low income schools.

A score of 2 on the AP Chemistry test isn't failing - it correlates to "possibly qualified". My class of 2005 included a girl who scored a two, and she just graduated MIT in chemical engineering. MIT knew she had scored 2, and was glad to win her from Brandeis. There is no fraud involved in her transcript.

Everybody can see what color my students are - every bigoted accusation can target them. Every ignorant, racist scum can hold forth on their imagined defects, and accuse them of fraud, and maybe even find an ignorant, racist audience to approve. What a low thing to do, though, in the middle of the night.

Posted by: mport84 | October 16, 2010 7:01 AM | Report abuse

Holy crap! Did mport84 just call Cal_Lanier "ignorant, racist scum"??!!?? And mport84 is a teacher?

This is what happens when Progressives are forced to face FACTS - they respond with a vicious, emotional, unfounded attack on the messenger.

Sorry mport84, but an AP '2' does NOT represent a PASSING score for AP. I don't care if your students are purple or sky-blue pink.

Jay -

I'm sure all of the IB schools will be very disappointed that your List will no longer be featured in the "We're All Socialists Now", sold for $1, Newsweek. From where I sit, that is a blessing for American public education. As I told you from day one, your List is the primary reason my district bought the IB cow. Hopefully we will see fewer and fewer districts traveling down the IB path.

Open-enrollment is a farce for AP. These are college-level courses and exams. There is absolutely nothing wrong with requiring students to have maintained a GPA of 85 or higher or require teacher recommendations to take the class. Nothing. I sent you the AP/IB results from our HS. Out of 176 AP exams administered, 51, or 29%, earned '1's!!! And I have to pay for these failures out of my taxes?

Schools were pushing unqualified students into AP and IB to "nudge" their way up the Newsweek List - as passing the exams bore no relevance to the school's high standing on your List.

You had your run. No question, your List influenced educational policies and programs for American public schools. Imho, your List had the exact opposite effect of what you claim you wanted it to have. Instead of challenging students, it dumbed-down schools for our best and brightest.

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 16, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

Jay -

"For Jane100000---The national College Board AP reports each year show increased participation, slightly decreased average scores because of that increased participation, but more 5s every year"

That is not a cite. That is YOUR hearsay and propaganda. Not only that, it is a bold faced lie regarding increased '5's.

The following is the AP exam score distribution table from 1990-2010:

Over 20 years, despite the increase in the number of exams administered, the percentage of students scoring '5's has remained consistent in the 14-15% range.

What has NOT remained consistent, and what has demonstrated a steady and outrageous level of increase, are the number of exams attaining a '1'. Only 10.9% scored a '1' in 1990. Now in 2010, fully 21.6%, almost 700,000 students, scored a '1'.

The numbers don't lie.

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 16, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

Wow. I'm quite surprised that out of all the people who have posted here, I agree with lisa. The solution is not having everybody take AP, as this just leads to a dumbing down of the course, and as a result the exam.

This process of "course inflation" has been going on for quite some time, and is very damaging to the students who actually deserve to be in AP classes and are not challenged by normal classes at the school. The proposition by posters here to introduce an "honors AP" course proves my point, and induced my gag reflex when I heard it. I have been using the "honors AP" line as a joke for some time now, but to hear it propositioned as a legitimate solution just shows how far grade inflation has progressed.

Has anyone stopped and thought about the fact that there are already 3 levels of classes at most schools (Regular, Honors, and AP or IB). Right now, everyone is an "honors" student and takes honors classes, and AP classes are the new honors classes. I have an idea- why not make Honors classes more challenging (as they should be) so the low-achievers Jay is worried about can take honors classes if they really want to be challenged. Of course, this must be done without lowering the bar in these classes, as this is what led to course inflation in the first place.

AP classes and exams are already far below the quality of college courses and of AP exams even 10 years ago. Why should we continue to dumb them down?

Posted by: mcpsalum | October 16, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

I hope all schools will continue to move in the direction of having inclusive public school education rather than exclusive courses that promote elitism. At 15-18 years of age, no student should be denied access to higher level learning.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | October 16, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

My two cents as a teacher of college calculus. I'm seeing a lot of students coming in who took AP Calc but can't do basic algebra. This ends up hurting them in my class, because they don't have a good pre-calc background and they think they know calculus already (it is NOT primarily a course to teach you to use derivative formulas). At Maryland most of these students would have placed into pre-calc where they would have been given the solid foundation they're clearly lacking. I don't really know what's going on in high-schools, but I'd much rather see students coming in with a solid foundation rather than having a really weak background in more material.

Posted by: jb74 | October 16, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Jay, You make it sound like the number of 5s went up due to open enrollment. I have to assume that the increased number of 5s is the result of the growing number of students taking numerous AP courses, not as a result of "nontraditional" students enrolling in courses for the first time.

In my experience, more and more of the top students are taking five, six, or even seven AP tests in a year in order to compete for spots at top universities. Seemingly, this is a growing trend and I assume this explains the growth of 5s.

I teach AP classes and I have never had a student get a four or a five who wasn't clearly AP "caliber". You make it sound like there are numerous students with low GPAs, poor attendance, and/or low Lexile scores who are allowed to enter AP classes as a result of open enrollment and suddenly "blossom" into students who score 5s on the exam. That is the stuff of Hollywood, not reality.

Don't get me wrong. I generally support open enrollment because I believe students should be allowed to challenge themselves. I also think we need more true counseling. There are students who will not benefit from taking AP courses who need to be told they should pursue other options because they don't have the skill set for AP at this time.

I have several students in my 12th grade AP Government classes who are reading at a 4th or 5th grade level. It is obvious in class and through assignments that they are grasping very little of the content. However, the culture of the school prevents staff members from being honest with these students. On top of this, we have now adopted a grading system that essentially prevents us from giving a failing grade on assignments or assessments.

Open enrollment has changed the dynamic in my AP classrooms. I can no longer teach a course that replicates the college experience. To do so would result in half the class understanding very little of what is going on. Trust me, the top students end up paying the price.

I assume you're aware of the disturbing number of colleges that have to provide remediation to students before they can take standard college courses. It is ironic that high schools are not allowed to provide remediation for students before granting access to college-level classes.

Posted by: EnricoPolatzo | October 16, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

In 2008 and 2009 I taught Advanced Placement courses in Economics [Micro and Macro] to Chinese high school students at an experimental high school in Beijing. The students, who came from wealthy Chinese families spoke reasonably good English and most had been studying English since the first grade. Nevertheless the course was difficult because of cultural differences. I had been hired because I was an American with an undergraduate degree in Economics, a JD and graduate studies at the London School of Economics. All of the students planned to attend US universities after finishing high school. They were all smart and very good students. Nevertheless when they took the AP exams most scored 2's. Only a few scored 3's. None scored 4's.
They were accepted at schools like Univ of Southern Cal, University of Illinois, and other mid ranked schools. None made it into Ivy League Schools. Most scored around 2000 on the SAT which they had to travel to Hong Kong to take. I focused on preparing them to take the AP exam. I became familiar with the exam. It is a very tough exam. My students were competing with American students at top US high schools. All in all I don't think most American high students should take AP courses. I think it does little to prepare them for college. While in Beijing my daughter, who was 13 when we arrived in Beijing was home schooled based on a tough curriculum. When she finished her home schooling at age 17 she scored 2100 on the SAT and was accepted by the University of Illinois where, at age 18, she is now a sophomore. She is close to being a straight "A" student. Speaks fluent Mandarin. She didn't take any AP courses as part of her home schooling. However, her home schooling was probably more complete than what she would have gotten at a standard US high school.

Posted by: jimeglrd8 | October 16, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse


You inspired me to post a special Breaking News alert to my readers:

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 16, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

"Every ignorant, racist scum can hold forth on their imagined defects, and accuse them of fraud, and maybe even find an ignorant, racist audience to approve. What a low thing to do, though, in the middle of the night."

I'm not racist. I am passionately dedicated to improving high school education. The well-meaning delusionals are doing exactly the opposite.

I am not citing SAT statisticis to argue that under-represented minorities are stupid. These stats demonstrate that there is no unmet need for AP in these populations. So when you argue, as you do, that "gifted minorities" are being held back, and that the "talent pool" is being neglected, I cite the data that shows you are completely wrong. If "gifted minorities" (URM) were being held back in AP, then we would see this reflected in much higher SAT/ACT scores. The SAT and ACT are challenging, but easier, tests, as they test low-level math, reading, and writing skills in challenging ways. If a significant population of blacks and Hispanics were underrepresented, as you claim, then SAT scores among these populations would be much higher.

Instead, low income blacks and Hispanics are almost certainly overrepresented as compared to low income whites. And, in general, black and Hispanic AP scores are dismal (if you take out the AP Spanish results for Hispanics, the drop is considerable).

There is no support for your claim. We aren't ignoring "gifted minorities". Rather, we are failing to educate many minority students because schools are taking Jay's advice.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | October 16, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

It's interesting to see this discussion on open enrollment and the assumption that those selected by "open" enrollment might not perform well.

40 years ago I started in a school that had AP classes; I came from a school that did not. Based on my IQ I was assigned into AP classes (the only thing they had to decide what class I should be in as my old school didn't differentiate). Counselors and teachers argued I should enter AP but the administration (head counselor)noted I was a junior and hadn't started with the rest of AP in freshmen year. It was decided I could go into English but not Physics, Chemistry or Math--as I was "too far" behind to catch up in Math. I got A's in English and tested out of college lit with a 4. Interestingly enough school "allowed" (i.e. the teachers let me) do work with the Physics, Chemistry and Math classes on an ad hoc basis--I never got credit. I didn't go into a science career area but did take college level calculus to round out my credits (did not have high school level cal first)--got 95 percent overall. My teachers always thought I had an interesting point of view (i.e. I was never an honors student (the schools criteria for AP--I was just some joe doe that got lucky and got into AP.)

Oh, did I mention that I took the AP math test even though I wasn't in AP Math? Tested out as a 3 (qualifying me to take college calculus) and shocked the AP program as they had very much tried to discourage me from taking the test.

You might consider me part of the first line of open enrollment. I have a BA (Anthropology) and MS (International Relations) from very reputable State schools and a 30 year career using those degrees.

My point--sometimes the program is less about who is able and more about who is willing.

A very small number of those in my AP English class did not test above a 2--an yet they, by the school's criteria, should many more people, like me, could have had an AP experience and profit from it, if the school had been willing to offer it?

My son by the way, with a degree in Physics and Math, never took an AP course (again because we moved around and he was in schools without a program then schools with a program who were unwilling to put him in an "advanced" class)--took the tests and tested out of English, Math, Physics and Chemistry with 4s and 5s. Finished college with two degrees because he "tested out"...he may also be a "unique" student but it doesn't say much for the program where a mobile population and "unique" qualities can't be accommodated.

Posted by: mil1 | October 16, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

SAT/ACT scores underpredict the performance of underrepresented why would someone relative SAT/ACT scores to justify restricting access to AP?

Posted by: hainish | October 16, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I read more and more that AP classes are not college level courses. What then makes AP special? Is it because of the way they are taught? The way kids are taught to pull facts together and write? I forget all the "things" used in AP classes but if it is the later then why aren't all high school classes taught the same way to all students regardless of them being regular, honor or AP? That way the kids have a better idea of what to expect from a college level course...I am sure I am missing something but AP and college classes are not the what is an AP good for? Why did they come about? My high school (top prep school in the city at that time) did not have AP when we were there...not sure this index really means anything...

Posted by: knoxelcomcastnet | October 16, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

You've asked a good question knoxelcomcastnet, and many people may wonder those things. I'll explain what I know of the course I know best, AP Chemistry.

The 180 minute test is designed to reflect the range of content actually taught in university courses, so it is "normed" by administering it to a large sample of college students who have just taken the comparable class, at a wide number of colleges.

The university chemistry course is the full-year sequence, with accomapnying laboratories, called the "Introduction to the Discipline". In university, this course would be the prerequisite for any upper-division chemistry course, and also part of the natural science cohort which enables a student to advance to upper division in biology, earth science, etc. It is also often considered the "gate-keeper" course for medical careers.

All students scoring B don't score equally well on the test, of course, but a score of 4 falls generally into the B to low A range. The 5 is sliced out so it matches the solid, high A, with as little bleed over as possible. the 3 has to be scaled to avoid including the D students, so many B students might land in that range, and some C students might fall into the 2 range. College admissions officers know all this, although it is hard for many high school counselors to grasp.

The official scale isn't reported as a letter, or as a pass/fail. It is fine to ask whether a student has demonstrated that she is "qualified", and the report reads:
1 no recommendation
2 possibly qualified
3 qualified
4 well qualified
5 extremely well qualified

Over 50% of students do qualify in chemistry - most other subjects have a higher rate. The decision to award college credit rests with the ondividual college. Most good universities will give general credits for 4 and 5 scores, but not accept the course as meeting their prerequisite requirement for the sciences. That makes sense, because any kid who passes is probably destined for higher things in the sciences, and needs a solid floor under her. MIT has their own "honors track" introduction, with about 30 kids, and that's where they put my 4 student. The 2 went into their regular course, with hundreds of others.

Increasingly, college freshmen in first year chemistry are veterans of the AP class, who scored at all levels. They need the AP background, I think, to make it there.

Posted by: mport84 | October 16, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

mport84 really owes Cal_Lanier an apology. Cal is NOT a racist.

On another note, since the greatest increase in AP scores has occurred in the '1' category, I think it is interesting to note that the College Board collected over $60 Million in 2010 exam fees from those '1's.

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 16, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

The drive to improve AP/IB participation must start early.
At the elementary school where I teach in northern VA, we insist that every "graduating" sixth grader be placed in at least one honors course when they hit middle school in seventh grade. We are a high-poverty school, so this is often questioned by those with a perception that our kids can't succeed at that level.

I wish we had a good way to track their progress. I know from personal contact that many of them go on to excel at coursework they would never have had access to, had we not insisted they be given a chance.

Posted by: mdennis74 | October 16, 2010 11:10 PM | Report abuse

"but the data show that whenever schools open AP to all the number of kids getting 5s increases." JM

Thank you to those of you who pointed out why the implication of the two parts of this statement, 1. Open access leads to 2. an increase in the number of 5's, is fallacious.

Posters should be aware that the College Board's "equity policy" does not mandate open access. Here's a portion of a correspondence I received from Trevor Packer, who directs the CB's AP program.

"A simplistic, but perhaps not too inaccurate, statement of the problem might be that many schools that should be providing open access, given the level of readiness among their student population, are not, whereas many schools that probably should not be providing open access are."

So as not to be accused of distorting the sense of what Mr. Packer wrote, I have in the past posted the entire correspondence here. Anyone wishing to read the equity policy which suggests that AP be open to willing and academically prepared students can see it on the CB's website (6th AP Report to the Nation).

I was intrigued by the comments from the AP teacher in Beijing. I also taught bright Chinese students in a law program (in English) this past summer at Tsinghua University in Beijing. My students were lawyers who were taking the Masters level program in order to get salary bumps. Although their English was generally good, I can understand how difficult it would be for 2nd language learners from here (China) to do well on AP exams when competing with native speakers.

As to those questioning the comparability of AP to college-level courses. The texts are college texts. The exams are constructed and graded by college and high school faculty. The exams are administered to college students so that the exam scores achieve comparability ratings- a 5 correlates well with an A in most subjects on most college campuses, a 4 equals a B+, etc. Those of you who quibble with the data should at least read up on the ways in which the College Board insures the validity of its program.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 16, 2010 11:49 PM | Report abuse

"A simplistic, but perhaps not too inaccurate, statement of the problem might be that many schools that should be providing open access, given the level of readiness among their student population, are not, whereas many schools that probably should not be providing open access are."

Man, this is so exactly right. It's why schools shouldn't be allowed to use grades as a gatekeeping device, and why the Challenge Index should take passing rate into account.

Ideally, the College Board should be required to provide a pre-assessment test.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | October 17, 2010 1:23 AM | Report abuse

"Man, this is so exactly right. It's why schools shouldn't be allowed to use grades as a gatekeeping device, and why the Challenge Index should take passing rate into account.

Ideally, the College Board should be required to provide a pre-assessment test."

I agree with the second paragraph, but not the first. I would not like to see anyone other than the individual schools setting policies as to who gets into AP at their individual schools and who doesn't. If those schools use grades, so be it.
School communities, parents, and students can petition the schools to get into AP (and I think that schools should be generally flexible about allowing students in) but ultimately I would not like to see a national pre-AP test crammed down schools' throats. If a particular school wants to adopt such a test (and I do think it would be great to have one), fine, but leave the AP decision where it is now, with individual schools.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 17, 2010 3:23 AM | Report abuse

Patrick, that's a reasoned and careful description of the Equity Initiative. The actual College Board recommendations to increase access are what real AP teachers support, if given the chance. We are also, perhaps, confronting a stealth marketing compaign for proprietary on-line AP prep and AP courses, which are being sold already to public school administrators by their for-profit business partners.

We are forced to have several different conversations about access, therefore. We muddle discussions about "average" students in middle-class or high-wealth schools, or about above-average students in low wealth schools or integrated schools. There is the question of whether the "top 15%" of students might have been accidentally weeded out of the pool. And then, there is the willful misuse of demographic statistics to generate stereotypes, and argue that minority groups couldn't possibly include any gifted children, because they would be brown or black.

I found the first-day conversation here enlightening. Apparently, humanities and English teachers really do face a tide of casual AP wannabees in middle class districts. That was never my experience in chemistry. There really has never been a mob of unqualified students beating at that AP gate. If a real seventeen year old was standing in front of you, begging for the chance to take the next step toward his own future, you would all fight for him too, I think.

My school is integrated, and my district is tracked in middle school. I give the same first-year chemistry tests to my honors and college-prep classes, and the highest scorers are spread across both tracks. The bottom half of the honors class generally scores in the mid-range of the college prep, which includes 20% ELL and SPED.

The requirement for a uniform policy means I was pressured to bar passionate students from my class, to protect other teachers from the disinterested "honors" cohort, whose families have influence. Those families were not risking their kid's GPA on chemistry, though, so I tended to discount my colleagues arguments. I suspect we are no playing out that same drama nationally and internatinally, with the kids separated into different schools, instead of just tracks.

Posted by: mport84 | October 17, 2010 6:20 AM | Report abuse

"leave the AP decision where it is now, with individual schools."

Thus allowing individual schools to commit fraud.

So a hardworking, low income URM kid in a suburban district, who has solid skills and a 3.2 GPA in basic classes, is passed over for an equally hardworking URM who went to a charter or inner city school and had teachers and a school ready, willing, and able to commit fraud. He has a 4.2 GPA, 4 APs on his transcript--and skills far lower than the first kid.

This isn't a meaningless hypothetical--I can personally name several kids in both categories.

The individual school's ability to "set AP policy" (ie, commit transcript fraud) has statewide and national implications, and thus they shouldn't be allowed to set that policy. The College Board has the responsibility and the right to ensure its brand (and the higher GPA that comes with it) isn't being misused.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | October 17, 2010 7:17 AM | Report abuse

Cal's suggestion for an AP competency pre-test is an excellent one. Of course, it is common sense and unbiased, so why would our public schools do it?

With the elimination of tracking (which supposedly destroys Johnny's self-esteem) in many public schools, teachers have had to sit through endless seminars on "differentiation of curriculum". One component of this process, consisted of pre-testing the heterogeneous students in the beginning of the year to determine what they know and what they don't know. Then the poor classroom teacher was expected to break out the curriculum 5 ways to Sunday for the different ability levels in the same classroom.

I always argued against this system in favor of tracking because, well, teachers are human and it's difficult enough to deliver ONE level of curriculum with all of the behavior issues in a class and having to "differentiate" it amongst 25-30 kids.

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 17, 2010 8:52 AM | Report abuse

mport84, can you clarify what you mean by AP Chemistry? Is it a second-year chemistry class, dependent on your students' having done adequately well in a first-year chemistry class (whether Honors or regular)?

Posted by: jane100000 | October 17, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse

"The College Board has the responsibility and the right to ensure its brand (and the higher GPA that comes with it) isn't being misused."

I guess there is a certain consistency to your logic here since if you want FIRE setting free speech policies for colleges you would also want another outside group (i.e. the College Board) setting high school policies.
Fortunately, the College Board (I've had this discussion with Packer) has absolutely no interest in trying to dictate AP policy to high schools to that extent. Syllabi, ok. Telling individual schools who can or cannot be admitted into the schools' classes, no way. If the CB attempted something like what you propose, you could watch the AP program sink into the type of irrelevancy IB now enjoys.
Sorry, exchanging Jay's orthodoxy (let anyone in who wants to get in) for yours Cal (let anyone in, and only anyone in, who has an appropriate pre-AP test score) is not the answer. Individual schools should continue to set AP admit policies.
And please stop with the grade fraud nonsense. Even the College Board admits (based on its own research) that HSGPA better predicts FYCGPA than does its own standardized admission's test.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 17, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

"you could watch the AP program sink into the type of irrelevancy IB now enjoys."

Whoa ho! Attempting to distract from Jay's constant pushing of IB over AP and the fact that over 1/3 of its programs are here in the U.S. Patrick?

I would be THRILLED if IB was irrelevant. But it's not. It's part of a MUCH bigger global Progressive movement to takeover American public schools and you're worried about The College Board issuing pre-tests and requiring students to demonstrate a STANDARD OF EDUCATED ABILITY to be allowed to take its AP courses/exams which are in turn, recognized by universities for college credit? What is wrong with QUALIFYING for a level of coursework?

Did you get cut from the football team or something, Patrick? ;-)

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 17, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

"I guess there is a certain consistency to your logic here since if you want FIRE setting free speech policies for colleges you would also want another outside group "

This is seriously goofy. I don't want FIRE setting free speech policies for colleges. I want colleges to follow the law, and am perfectly happy for FIRE to point out if they aren't.

"If the CB attempted something like what you propose, you could watch the AP program sink into the type of irrelevancy IB now enjoys."

Nonsense. Any pre-qualifying test would be so simple that it would only affect two things: the schools that commit fraud (with all the good will in the world) and the College Board's profits.

The latter is why the prequalifying test will never happen, of course.

So what I'll accept as second best is the grading system I've proposed before.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | October 17, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

"Nonsense. Any pre-qualifying test would be so simple that it would only affect two things: the schools that commit fraud (with all the good will in the world) and the College Board's profits." ~ Cal_Lanier

Exactly. $120 million is a lot to lose. (total gross for 2010 AP 1's and 2's)

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 17, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Linda, yes, AP Chemistry is a second year chemistry course in almost all schools, with good performance in the first year course and concurrent enrollment in Algebra II or higher as prerequisites. Course prerequisites are completely appropriate for AP classes, I think all would agree.

Current civil rights law holds that access to the prerequisites can't be discriminatory, so honors placement itself can't legally be a prerequisite for any educational opportunity unless it reflects the demographic composition of the student body. Even if there is no intent to discriminate, such a situation is held by the courts to constitute a 'pattern and practice' of discrimination.

Since my district's tracking decidedly doesn't meet that test, I was cheerfully threatening to seek legal remedy if CP level A students were barred. They have completely swung around now, but that was a radical position 5 years ago.

Posted by: mport84 | October 17, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

For Cal and Patrick---Oh dear. A pre-assessment test for AP. They had those at Scarsdale High when my son was there. Because of a conscientious teacher there, Eric Rothschild, we know that that kept a lot of people out of AP who would have gotten much from it. He felt guilty that eager students were kept out of his AP US history course because they did not do well enough on the entrance test. So one year he told regular history class students he would help them prepare to take the AP exams, if they were willing to put in the effort. He gave them some essay assignments and had some weekend prep sessions. 55 took the test. the results: 15 4s, 21 3s and fifteen 2s. He didnt do it again because it was too much a strain--his fault, or maybe the school's fault---failed to see that this make a mockery of the need for the entrance test. I still don't understand why great teachers like you two, who know how much you can teach a student, would think that it is right to keep out of an AP class kids highly motivated to soak up what you would give them, just because of their score on a single hour-long test.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 18, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

I have been teaching an AP course for almost ten years and though the demographics in my class have changed to represent greater open enrollment, I am disappointed to read that people think that a teacher would "dumb-down" the class. My job is to prepare all my students to take a test in May and I hold them all accountable to the same standards. Some of them will get there with much less effort than others, but my goal is to make sure that when they return from college, they feel like my class prepared them for the rigors and challenges faced there. Shouldn't we be encouraging the raising of the bar - for all kids? Most teachers take their responsibilities very seriously and it is a disservice to our hard work to think that having fewer innately gifted students means we would not put in as much effort.

Posted by: TeacherInVA | October 18, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

" 55 took the test. the results: 15 4s, 21 3s and fifteen 2s"

So that means there were also 4 '1s'. So this Honors class (which may not have received the identical curriculum as an AP class for the entire year) was "prepped".

What this little exercise tells me is that had those same students been given an AP pre-test, 19 families or taxpayers could have saved $86 each or $1,634 in just that one class.

Just exactly what sort of "satisfaction" do you believe a child receives when they get a '1' on an AP exam? Why do you insist on setting some kids up for failure?

Posted by: lisamc31 | October 18, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

Jay, as if the real issue are kids at Scarsdale.

Look, I agree that many kids who can do the work are kept out. The pre-assessment test would do the *opposite* of weeding out those kids. They would be shown to be ready to take the course despite indifferent grades.

I'm not worried about the kids at Scarsdale High but the kids at Thurgood Marshall High, who are taking the classes despite being at the lowest level of remedial ability.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | October 19, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

It depends on what your goals are. If you expect all students to pass with a 3 or above then restricting entrance makes sense. If you feel that the child who gets a 1 or a 2 is still better off by being challenged then by all means have open enrollment just accept that you will have some low grades and low scores. By the way the students all know which tests have the reputation as being easier AP's so they take those to bolster their transcripts. Also, no one has mentioned the incredible disruption that happens around mid-October when students who are misplaced try to get out of their AP class because they are getting a bad grade. Then they have to be moved to a different course and make up 5 weeks of work which of course the teacher is expected to reteach. The problem has been increasing for several years now because my school pressures more & more kids to take more & more AP's so that the school can move up on Jay's list!

Posted by: sopranovcm | October 20, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

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