AP for the not-so-advanced

Eduwonk guest blogger Michael Goldstein of MATCH charter school disagrees with a column by teacher Patrick Welsh, who thinks too many non-advanced students are being urged to take AP courses, forcing teachers to water down the curriculum.

“It’s better for a child to have a great teacher in a regular course than a poor teacher in an AP course,” Welsh writes. C’mon, great rhetoric but that’s not the issue. Most of us would take a great teacher in ANY course over a poor one in our favorite subject. The real question is whether it is better for a kid to have a decent teacher in, say, a regular English 12 course where he can definitely coast, or a more rigorous AP English course where he’ll struggle, complain, get frustrated, perhaps study all weekend and pull a C- on a test, write twice as many essays, and read three times as many books.

Welsh’s answer is: stick with the easy course kid and stay out of the way of the really promising students. Kids coaxed into AP probably don’t have the skills and motivation to succeed. And they’ll fail in higher numbers. This is all bad.

. . . is trying and failing bad as Welsh contends? In fact, the College Board has data showing that even students who score a 1 or 2 on the AP test (too low to earn college credit) are more likely to succeed in college than kids who don’t take AP at all.

MATCH, which educates low-income minority students, works very hard to make sure that their students have a shot at passing AP courses.

Jenny D has more.

Someone makes that decision to make a course easier, to offer less demanding work, and to let students get away with doing less. Well, who is it?

Is it possibly the teachers themselves? They look around the room, decide kids can’t cut it, and water down the curriculum? Why are they doing that? Why don’t they stick to the tough academic work and let the students sink or swim? How do they know that all these kids can’t hack it? Or do the teachers themselves sabotage the opportunity to for more strenuous learning among larger groups of kids?

Read the comments too.

I think most students are capable of much more than they achieve; they haven’t been challenged till they try an AP course. Some kids will do far more than they would in a regular course, even if they don’t do well enough to earn college credit via the AP exam. Those who can’t handle the work can transfer before they earn a D or F.

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  1. Fuzzy Rider says:

    I gave up teaching AP classes because so many students were completely unprepared for them, and just as completely unwilling to do the work necessary to earn even a passing grade. The parents, of course, expected their children to get an ‘A’ for showing up, and a failure rate that reflected reality was taken as a sign that I was a ‘bad teacher’.

    In our district, because of the heavy push to AP and Pre-AP classes, teachers now refer to AP as ‘average placement’, the regular classes have essentially become remedial.

    AP classes are great- both of my children have entered college as sophomores due to AP exam credits- but unless standards are rigidly enforced, and unless parents, students and school administrators are willing to accept that class averages will be lower (though learning will be greater), AP will just become another meaningless educational fad. How much pressure will there be in a few years to make the AP tests themselves easier, so more students will ‘benefit’ from them???

  2. murphy300 says:

    Mr. Goldstein presents the classic false choice: We can put underachieving students in a rigorous AP English class they’re unprepared for, or leave them to twiddle their thumbs in “easy” English 12. Is there a rule against adding some rigor to that English 12 class, Mr. Goldstein? And while you’re at it, how about adding some rigor to English 9, 10, and 11? This would also address the concerns of Jennie D, who appears to be discussing the watering down of AP classes, although her comments would apply equally to those “easy” English classes that Mr. Goldstein talks about.

  3. I’m glad to see some more discussion on the AP topic. In my opinion, the worst thing that can happen to an AP student isn’t failing – it’s barely passing. They take their 3 and can opt out of required courses as a freshman, never really learning how to write, etc. I’d love to detail the billion ways in which that tragedy manifests itself over the next 4 years, but my fingers might wear down to the bone from typing. And that’s bad.

  4. lindenen says:

    What kind of crap ass schools accept 3? 3 is regarded as failing in my experience.

  5. I believe that a number of highly competitive colleges do not accept AP tests as a substitute for their own courses. However, AP tests are certainly comparable across applicants, so they help kids get accepted. But AP is hardly a fad. It’s been around for awhile.

    Back in the olden days, when I was still a journalist, I had conversations about AP with several superintendents. One told me that after thinking about honors, AP, general track, and remedial, he decided to eliminate the remedial track. Boom. It’s gone. Said that having kids in the remedial track was basically harming them. And so he told the teachers in his district to find a way to have every kid succeed (ie. Cs) in the general ed, college prep track. And then there was honors/AP for some. He had to change the thinking of all the teachers, K-12 in order to get the kids prepared.

    My second conversation was with the principal of a K-8 school that switched the HS where the kids would go. Parents wanted the kids to go to a more successful school, and so it happened. The principal said his biggest shock was having to revise and improve the K-8 curriculum. His kids didn’t know enough to handle the high school work. The principal said he’d never actually considered revving up the curriculum, the pace, and then supporting teachers who had to implement the demanding curriculum. But he did it, and the kids learned more.

    So…why can’t that happen in other schools, the end of remedial and the revving up of teaching and learning? why is that we are so sure that AP must be watered down, or limited to the elite few?

  6. Fuzzy Rider says:

    Consider this: AP courses in HS are supposed to be taught at the level of the college courses that they represent. If huge numbers of HS students are capable of true AP work, maybe we should be talking about reducing the number of years of HS, instead of pushing a substitute for college work.

  7. Cardinal Fang says:

    A public school in Redwood City claims that all of its students will be taking all AP courses in their junior and senior years. This school has an open admissions policy, so any student who applies can go there.

    I don’t see how this plan works for math. If a student is not ready for calculus, sitting every day listening to the teacher talk about derivatives is not going to make them learn, and trying and failing to differentiate functions is also not going to make them learn.

    In fact I’m a bit dubious about how it works in English classes. Students who are unprepared in English write poorly, but they also read and write slowly. If the excellent student can do the reading and writing in an hour a day, it’s going to take the unprepared student five hours. How will they find the time?

  8. As a current Pre-AP math teacher and former AP Calculus teacher, I am of two minds here. I believe that any student who WANTS to take an AP course should be allowed to do so. The key word is WANTS, not IS FORCED INTO. Too many schools (including my own) have put grade requirements in place with the select purpose of weeding kids out of the program. That I believe is a travesty. On the flip side, saying that every student shall take an AP course before they graduate is just as wrong. I believe that many kids today go through school being told that they just can’t cut it, so why bother trying to get into AP. And there are also kids being pushed beyond their capabilities into courses (especially mathematics) which they are not prepared for.

    There are many more kids out there who could benefit from the AP program, but there are also many who are not college bound who don’t belong in AP. Find the balance, people, and quit assuming that every kid in the US is going to a 4-year university. This kind of mentality is leading to the watering down of AP curriculums and doing our true college bound kids a great disservice.