The Challenge Index--Jay's Response
Here's Jay Mathew's response to my blog post from earlier this morning.
It is kind of slippery here, with all that buttering up. But I refuse to be roasted without a few yelps of protest. The first complaint would come not from me but from the vast majority of Americans who have ever attended public high schools. You say that "using APs as a ranking tool puts enormous pressure on schools to add more and more AP courses, squeezing out creative classes, limiting what the best teachers can do in their classes, and turning high school into a dull grind for too many of the better students."
I ask your readers: When exactly was this Golden Era when high school was NOT "a dull grind for too many of the better students," or for just about everybody, for that matter. Your distaste for the Challenge Index rests on the false assumption that AP and IB courses somehow bring dull rote learning and tedious academic chores to what has been a vibrant atmosphere in our high schools. The opposite is true. Ask AP and IB students why they choose those courses over their schools' other fare, and they will tell you because those courses are better taught, more challenging, more interesting and much more likely to exercise their analytic and critical thinking skills because---unlike most high school course finals---the AP and IB tests are full of thoughtful questions that require written essays that must be graded by human beings.
The AP and IB tests are authentic and incorruptible, to boot. The people who write and grade the exams are experts neither the students nor the teachers know, getting together in grading sessions in which the exam takers are not identified. The standard high school course dynamic is the students trying to find some way to persuade the teacher to reduce the homework and dumb down the test, and the teacher sometimes doing that for fear that too many bad grades will mean angry visits from parents, or the principal. That can't happen in an AP or IB course, since the test is beyond their control. That lets the dynamic become a much healthier team effort, students and teacher working together to get ready for that exam.
You say adding more AP "means eliminating the really cool Shakespeare elective or the uniquely rigorous European History seminar that made that particular school someplace special." Here is my challenge to you, and if you succeed I will do an entire column about what you have discovered. Find me one instance, that I can confirm by calling the school, in which an AP course ever replaced a really cool Shakespeare elective or a rigorous European history seminar. This is one of those urban myths that falls apart if you spend as much time talking to high school teachers.
The only complaints of this sort that I am getting is from a few very expensive and exclusive private schools, like the ones your kids attend and mine attended, where some faculty members fidget under what they consider the iron grip of the AP curriculum. Exactly 13 of them have dropped AP---notice, AP didn't replace the cool Shakespeare seminar, it was the other way around. One public school, Scarsdale High, is thinking of doing the same, but even in their case no AP course has replaced some cool alternative. I think it is fine for such schools to experiment with non-AP alternatives. They can afford it. Their parents are all college educated and the kids will go to good universities no matter what.
But in the real world, high schools lack the resources to build such courses and sustain them on their own. They might get a great teacher who invents a great course that lasts for awhile, but without any backing, such as an exam that no one can dumb down, those efforts usually fall apart. They need AP or IB. The point of the Challenge Index is even when they have these courses, most schools let only their top students into them. To the others, the poor average students, they say, "We're sorry. We know you are going to go to college, but we are not going to let you take a course and test that will prepare you for college." It's idiotic, but it is the majority view. Only five percent of U.S. schools reach the modest Challenge Index benchmark of one AP or IB test per graduating senior.
I am flattered that you think the Challenge Index has caused the growth in AP and IB in the Washington area. What it has done is a bit more subtle. The successful AP and IB teachers and pro-AP and pro-IB school board members I talk to say the list has given them some ammo to use against the many people who buy the majority argument and say, "You're letting those average kids take AP and IB? What a terrible idea!" The good guys in the argument reply, "Yes, and if we give them enough time and encouragement, they can do it." But they can also say, if the political winds blow against them, "Well, if you keep restricting access to AP and IB, we will look bad in the Post, and our real estate values will decline."
Anything that gives more kids a chance to experience the thinking and analysis of a well-taught AP or IB course is okay with me. And I think the more powerful spur for AP and IB around here is that the selective colleges have decided that high school students need a taste of college learning before they get to college, and if they don't have the courage to try it in high school, they are not likely to get into those schools.
It makes for more pressure, sure, but I have yet to find a Washington area high school student who told me that he or she decided to take a few more AP or IB courses so his or her school would look good in the Post. If you find students who say that is their motivation, send them to me and I will write a column about them too. They take AP and IB because those are the best courses in their schools, and they are much better than the equivalent courses I remember back at Hillsdale High in San Mateo, Calif, a hundred years ago.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: dc | December 8, 2006 12:42 PM
Posted by: crc | December 8, 2006 1:00 PM
Posted by: Chris | December 8, 2006 1:06 PM
Posted by: Challenge Misnomer | December 8, 2006 1:09 PM
Posted by: Army Brat | December 8, 2006 1:44 PM
Posted by: prof | December 8, 2006 2:27 PM
Posted by: David | December 8, 2006 3:28 PM
Posted by: Chris | December 8, 2006 4:22 PM
Posted by: OverEducated | December 8, 2006 6:39 PM
Posted by: Sheila | December 12, 2006 5:55 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.