Opening AP to average students

Opening Advanced Placement classes to more students hasn’t dumbed it down, argues Jay Mathews, an ardent AP booster, in response to the Fordham survey of AP teachers.

Restricting AP to A or B+ students makes no sense, argues Mathews, because research shows “average students who struggled in an AP course, and got one of the lower scores on the test—even a 2, the equivalent of a college D—did better in college than similar students who did not take AP.”

Fordham’s study suggests that, “AP is welcoming more students, but at the same time giving them the same challenging experience that students got when only the top brains were allowed to enroll.”

Most teachers surveyed denied that “administrators are pushing more unqualified minority or low-income students into AP courses, just to make the classes look more diverse.”

Sixty five percent of teachers say the number of students taking AP at their school has grown. Despite that growth, 55 percent say the quality of AP students in terms of their aptitude and capacity to do the work has improved or stayed the same, 86 percent say the level of difficulty and complexity of the material covered in the AP courses they teach has increased or stayed the same and 69 percent say the standards for grading AP exams have not been watered down. Also, sham AP courses seem to be on the way out. Seventy percent of teachers said their schools either required or strongly urged AP students to take the AP exams.

However, most AP teachers said “no” to the question: Is AP good for nearly everybody?

Question 12 asks which is closer to their own view: “The more students taking AP courses the better–even when they do poorly in the course, they benefit from the challenge and experience” or “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.” Thirty eight percent chose the first option, the one favored by the AP teachers who have most influenced me. But 52 percent chose the second option. Also, 63 percent of the teachers said it would improve their AP programs if they did more screening to make sure students were ready.

Screening typically looks at past grades but ignores motivation and maturity, Mathews writes.

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  1. Redkudu says:

    I found (at my previous school) that many of my English students (especially 9th graders) who asked me about AP classes weren’t very clear on what the class entailed. They used to see the famed “author project” tri-folds on display in the library and thought it was an art-based class that would be more fun than regular English, especially if they were avid readers. Little did they know the tri-folds were a culmination of 6 weeks’ worth of work in which students had to read 3-5 entire works by the author they chose to research, and then write a rigorous research paper not only on the author’s life, but on their writing style and conventions, etc.

    We did have the 85 or above grade requirement there, but that could be over-ridden by a parent signature. They also had to take a timed pre-test, based on released AP tests, to get a sense of what would be required of them. Afterward, I would sit down with them and go through an AP manual. I never discouraged my students from taking the course, but I made sure they knew exactly what they would have to do, in detail. I found that once they were well educated in what the AP course required, students made better decisions about whether or not to take it. (Surprise, surprise.) I had a few who tried and ended up back in the gen-ed classroom at the semester mark, I had a few who tried and succeeded in the course but not the exams, and a few who tried and succeeded in everything.

    I always felt that the educational process for the students was valuable and worthwhile – they may have had the grades, but needed to experience the exam and the “talk” to make certain they felt comfortable with the decision. Our school never pushed for “diversity” to the detriment of either the program or the student.

  2. I believe this analysis. A million years ago, when I was an AP student in the lousy but cheap South Carolina public schools, the classes took whatever warm body they could round up to get to the 15-student requirement for offering the class. Nobody expected everyone to get a 3 on the AP test, much less higher. The classes were elite because they were made up of serious students, regardless of grades or IQs. As long as you don’t dumb down the classes, they’ll benefit everyone who’s willing to take them.

  3. momof4 says:

    “As long as you don’t dumb down the classes, they’ll benefit everyone.”
    That’s the problem; there is pressure not to fail/remove too many, especially if they are from under-represented groups. I like the idea of having both honors and AP options.

  4. Parent2 says:

    Momof4, I think it depends upon the demographic makeup of the school. Jay Matthews credits his experience at his local public high school, which he writes “was often called the best school in the state.” In this case, he was not speaking of a school at which allowing more children into the class would flood it with the unprepared.

    There is a difference between limiting the class to those who are prepared, and those whom you think will earn a “5,” what Jay Matthews dubs the “Olympus Effect.” I’d argue that limiting participation to the top 5% or 6% of a good suburban high school could have a subtle downward pressure for all the students. It would work to set up a “washout” system, rather than a system which would look to prepare as many students as possible for advanced work.

    Again, it depends upon the school system. Our state doesn’t have gifted & talented programs, but I’ve read online about the agony of parents whose children fall one point under the boundary set to determine who is gifted. In many school systems, adding AP sections would not mean flooding the AP classes with unprepared kids. It might mean that more students would have the opportunity to take challenging classes.

    Limiting AP classes to a select few is dangerous in the long term. The fewer students take a class, the easier it is to cut that class. If you are concerned about teachers passing students who are not doing the work, I’d like to see the rating systems take the exam results into account.

    I also submit that AP and IB are set curricula. There are standards set outside the school system, which are maintained by the use of externally graded exams. I would far prefer such curricula for my children, to whatever curriculum a local high school might feel is currently most attractive, even if the school dubbed it an “honors” class. A locally produced curriculum could be wonderful, but the odds are against it.

  5. All this is interesting speculation, but I would invite those of you who are curious about AP criteria to visit the College Board site. Lots of misperceptions here, and none of this information is Top Secret.

    1. The CB has conniption fits about restricting its courses to GATE only. In fact, it is strongly in favor of open enrollment and increasing access. Of course, since everybody pays their $86 regardless of whether they score a 1 or a 5, this makes sense (but let’s keep cynicism out of it and assume Jay Mathews is not on their payroll).

    2. Paying/forcing kids to take the test is generally a bad idea. This is obvious if you’ve ever known a teenager. Every year, I read stories from the Lit/Lang scorers about whole folders (an entire school) of blank essays, spectacular drawings, and some really outstanding pornography. There’s your tax dollars at work. Best to have the students choose to take the test, and then perhaps offer some financial assistance if necessary.

    3. I’m a seasoned AP teacher. I know what it takes to pass the test. Yet, I can see myself pulled in two ethical directions. If the course is AP, I have a duty to stick to my approved syllabus and teach at a certain level. But what if none of my students is ready for that level? Do I stick to the AP rigor or do I “dumb down” the course and get the kids as far along as I can? What’s the point of blowing a whole class away when you could actually teach them? What if I have a class that’s mixed ability? Do I leave the less advanced kids in the dust? It gets tricky.

    4. The alternative is to have a very good honors or ACC option, which is what my school does. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for such a thing to be designed and implemented at the local level.

    5. Just for the record, my AP curriculum is designed by me, not the CB. All they do is approve it. English is a bit different in that they are both skills based courses, not content. And for the record, my APs are completely open enrollment — by my choice, and I have total control — unlike the ACC options that actually require a minimum GPA.

    6. And just personally, you know, I get some extremely good students every year (but never the GATEs — they’re in their own course), but what would the fun be if I knew they were all going to pass regardless of what I did? I wouldn’t be pulling my hair out coming down to the wire getting them to quit writing stuff like “The author uses diction to..” 🙂

  6. Parent2 says:

    Lightly Seasoned, I like your approach. It is like the approach of the very good school system I grew up in. Students could choose honors or AP courses by subject, and they were free to switch up or down. If students are not forced into rigid tracks, they do sort themselves out. I had many friends who did not want to tackle the honors or AP tracks, because they didn’t want to load themselves down with so much schoolwork.

    In comparison, our local school system has neither honors nor AP courses in the humanities–English, Social Studies, and languages. Other than a sheltered special needs section, the rest of the student body shares the same curriculum. The only AP courses offered are in math and science, and access is strictly controlled. The school’s principal boasted that no one in the AP Calculus BC course had received less than a 5. As his stated number of students in the course worked out to 6% of the school population, I was shocked. The system I had grown up in had around 15% of the class in AP, more if you took into account that some kids did only one AP, while others took APs in different subjects. I had never felt that the level of the AP classes were harmed by wider participation.

  7. momof4 says:

    Perhaps I did not make myself clear; I think that all qualified students should be able to take AP classes. Limiting participation to those most likely to get 5s on the exam is far too rigid. I am very familiar with high-performing schools in affluent suburbs (including Jay Mathew’s) and it’s likely that most of the students in those schools are capable of doing the work in many of the subjects, if they wish to do so. There is likely to be a problem in the sciences, however, since there may not be enough qualified teachers to offer more than one section. In one highly-performing DC area school, the same teacher taught all 3 sections of (the required prerequisite) honors physics class and the one double-period AP class. The same situation existed for biology and chemistry, although there were 3 sections of AP calculus BC.

    That being said, I think it is perfectly reasonable to require successful completion of a prerequisite course, such as honors world for AP Euro History. That ensures that everyone has the background knowledge. It’s not fair to the kids who have prepared to let in kids who don’t know the difference between the Renaissance and the Reformation or when WWI was fought or by whom. An alternative would be a pre-test option, with study guide, so students could prepare over the summer to take the test in the fall, because students who read on their own may well have the background knowledge.

    I would like to see far better coordination between school levels (elementary, middle and high) and far better advance planning for high-school options. In the suburbs I mentioned, it was usual to make a 4-year plan at the end of 8th grade, but that is too late. Elementary schools should PREPARE as many students as possible to take REAL ALGEBRA in 8th grade, with some prepared to take it in 7th. The same goes for the sciences, foreign languages and English/history. There should be a plan in place at least by the end of 6th grade, so that kids and parents know what classes are needed to prepare for AP classes. This would be a real help to parents unfamiliar with coursework and various options.

    I like New Hampshire’s option; at the end of sophomore year, students choose a vocational program or two years of intensive college prep. I’ve never understood why the vocational programs that were available to my parents’ and grandparents’ generation are now done after high school, at very significant cost to the students/families. In any case, all the information needs to get to the kids and parents MUCH earlier.

  8. Parent2 says:

    momof4, I think we’re in agreement on many points. I think it’s reasonable to make certain that students have the background knowledge upon which to build. On the other hand, too frequently the insistence on prerequisite courses can be used to limit enrollment. History is a case in point. One student may have taken Honors World History, and satisfied the requirements for placement. Another student may have not had room for the course in his schedule, but have read history voraciously since middle school. He may actually know more about world history than the student who completed the prerequisite course. There should be some flexibility in the system to accommodate students who have the skills to succeed. I would think that the prerequisite hurdles would be of particular concern to families changing school districts, or trying to rejoin school after a period of homeschooling.

  9. momof4 says:

    That is why I suggested a pre-test, which shouldn’t be unreasonable.

    I’d also like to see more discussion of the fact that a student can take the AP exam without taking the course; one of my kids did that with AP English Language and AP World Geography. There was a conflict between the Geography and AP Spanish, so the Geography teacher gave her the course outline, text and assignments and she studied on her own. The English Language was easy for anyone who could read and write well and really did not need the class time.

  10. momof4 says:

    Private schools often have placement tests; I’d like to see them in public schools. Obviously, they should be well-crafted, valid and reflective of the knowledge and skills needed at the next level. Where you learned the material should be less of an issue than if you learned it. This would help the transfer students and the schools receiving them.

  11. In my daughter’s old public grade school, GATE scores and thus entrance to the program were weighed by race and sex. (“Otherwise, the classes would be all Chinese!” was the refrain. So what if they were?)

    Her private urban Catholic high school let girls petition for AP, if they didn’t have the grades from the previous year. And writing the position paper just to get into the class could take a month of hard work, which seems right to me.