Average students in AP

Should average students take challenging Advanced Placement classes?

They can’t handle it, writes Patrick Welsh, a Virginia high school teacher and columnist in USA Today.

What is happening more and more around the country is that average students are being pushed into Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes to make schools appear as though they have high standards. In a sense, average kids have become a pawn of school boards and administrators who want to get good PR for boosting the numbers in supposedly rigorous courses. Administrators here in Northern Virginia boast about the numbers of kids taking AP courses but don’t talk much about students’ test scores.

Welsh calls for a middle track for average students who don’t want to be stuck with the slow students but can’t keep up with the best.

Yes, average students can learn in AP classes, replies Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. At Welsh’s school, requiring all AP students to take the end-of-year exam drastically lowered the passing rate. But students at a demographically similar high school nearby take even more AP classes and tests with a higher passing rate.

The Wakefield teachers have seen the studies that show that based on PSAT scores, far more students are capable of taking AP courses than actually do so. Those students that Pat thinks are average may just be underchallenged. Wakefield teachers find ways to lure them into demanding preparatory courses and then into AP and give them the time and encouragement they need to succeed.

I’m convinced that too much academic challenge is not an issue for most American high school students.

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  1. Jay has in the past suggested that there could be two AP sections — one for students who are ready and able to work at a level which might be needed to achieve a high AP test score and the other with more support and less emphasis on a high test score. That seems to me to address Patrick’s concern about students “over their heads” making a class worse for their more-prepared classmates while giving students “stepping up” to a challenge access to a college-level course rather than a bogus “Honors” section.

  2. I’m stunned by the casual acceptance of the strategy of tracking. Whenever I bring it up at work or at conferences I suddenly become a leper with Tourette’s syndrome.

  3. To me, the question is not “To AP or not AP.” The AP curricula and tests are but one way to skin a cat. The issue is all about standards, as far as I’m concerned.

    What the AP framework provides is rigor, along with accountability. The reason the program has taken off is that we have little confidence in local standards. AP provides an external measure of quality–a measure that can apply to all students across America. In some sense, programs like AP (or IB) are becoming de facto national standards. And why shouldn’t all kids be held to the same standards?

    That said, to hold all kids to the same standard is not to say that all kids will achieve it in the same way or at the same time. Herein lies the logic of tracking: provide instruction geared to the level of the student. Of course all students may be able (eventually) to get a 5 on an AP exam. But not all kids start out at the same place with the same training and the same equipment.

    I’m all for putting more and more kids in AP classes. But don’t expect that all kids are going to get a 5 on the test. We can (and should) hold kids to the same standard, but we should not be shocked when not all kids achieve it.

    One thing that has not come up, however, is that some teachers are undeprepared to teach to the level of rigor that the AP curriculum and test requires. I’ve sat in on many AP teacher trainings, and watched some teachers struggle with the basic content. If we offer more and more AP courses, we have to confront the issue that we may need to raise the bar for teachers, as well. I’ve also seen schools that offer what are labeled AP courses, that are simply not very rigorous because the teacher is not up to the task. The kids may get benefit from the AP structure, but they finish the course poorly-prepared for the AP test.

    The result in one suburban Denver district (and most districts, I am finding) is that teachers are, in effect, “tracked”: the better teachers with strong content knowledge teach the AP classes. The weaker teachers with less preparation teach the weaker students.

    How’s that for a new twist on “tracking”?

  4. I would like to offer a contrarian view. AP course is supposed to be the equivalent of a college course. Can a high school course be really as good as a course in a good college? Why do we need college freshman courses if they only as good as high school? I saw in a discussion board some really really good math students talking about whether to take AP Calculus. Their conclusion was that one should do it only if one is not going to be a math major. That may sound surprising. You take AP class only if you are not the best! Academic challenge does not necessary require learning more advanced material. It can be also be done by going more deeply into existing material. For a high school student, the most challenging math tests they can take is the AMC AIME USAMO series. Only students who think they are really good at math would take it. This test covers Algebra, Geometry plus basic Trigonometry. The AMC test is not easy but not super-hard either. Yet the average score is the equivalent to 6 out of 25. This shows that we need to study the basic subject in more depth rather than go for more advanced material. Now taking massive amount of AP classes is really a gaming strategy to enter into good college. I would like to see more depth in the basic classes, not more advanced material in AP classes.

  5. Wayne Martin says:

    We’ve probably been around this track before, but how effective are AP classes in getting students to the degrees in four years?


    Now, a series of competing, sometimes contradictory studies have begun to look at the effectiveness of AP and IB in meeting their central purpose — preparing students such as Palma for college. Some parents and students are questioning whether the college-level courses are placing too much strain on children and supplanting useful honors courses. And the College Board, which sponsors the AP program, has begun to ask schools to examine the content of their AP courses to make sure they meet the program’s standards.


    But at the same time, some academics have questioned the value of the AP name on a course. The AP exams are optional and can take place after students already have filed college applications.

    One 2004 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, tracked more than 80,000 incoming freshmen across the UC system to gauge whether taking AP courses in high school was a predictor of academic achievement in college. It found no correlation. (It noted that performing well on the AP exams, rather than simply enrolling in AP courses, better predicted academic success.)

  6. Let’s remember that an AP three is equivalent to a C at an average college. Thus, there is no surprise that students who have merely “taken” AP courses, regardless of whether they have passed the exam or scored well are not outstanding achievers at UC Berkeley.

    As to: “The result in one suburban Denver district (and most districts, I am finding) is that teachers are, in effect, “tracked”: the better teachers with strong content knowledge teach the AP classes. The weaker teachers with less preparation teach the weaker students”

    I think it would be a shame if our best teachers were assigned solely to AP classes. Indeed, it is likely that teaching an AP class helps inform teaching of “lower level” classes as well.

    Finally, let’s recognize that, in the year after high school, the majority of our students will be in college courses where they will have to achieve the equivalent of an AP 3 in 4 or 5 classes. Getting them prepared by asking that they pass at least one AP class in each of their last two years in high school hardly seems unduely burdensome in that context.