AP as academic shock treatment

‘Tis better to have tried an AP class and failed the exam than never to have tried at all, argues Jay Mathews. His Challenge Index includes schools with high AP test participation rates but very low passing rates. So he’s added a “Catching Up list for high schools that use AP as shock treatment for impoverished students who have been in the academic doldrums.”

On this new list are 29 schools with AP test participation rates high enough to qualify for the Newsweek list but with test passing rates under 10 percent.

. . . (Administrators) have tried raising achievement slowly with remedial education. It didn’t work, in part because the teachers and students had no worthy goal to shoot for. So they have made the AP test their benchmark, and in preparing for it hope to give low- performing students the strenuous academic exercise they need for college. Few pass the three-hour AP exams, so few get college credit. So what? They aren’t in college yet. This way they have a chance to accustom themselves to the foot-high reading assignments and torturous exams they will encounter in college.

A new Texas study shows graduates “who got a failing grade of 2 on the 5-point AP test — did significantly better in college than did similarly low- performing, low-income students who did not take AP,” Mathews writes.

Pushing low performers into AP classes may work at a small, catch-up school where teachers are prepared for the challenge. At a large school with a wide range of performance levels, it puts enormous pressure on AP teachers to teach both prepared and unprepared students.

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Comments

  1. (Administrators) have tried raising achievement slowly with remedial education. It didn’t work, in part because the teachers and students had no worthy goal to shoot for.

    I think there is merit in making people strive hard to achieve, but when did competence become an unworthy goal?

    A new Texas study shows graduates “who got a failing grade of 2 on the 5-point AP test — did significantly better in college than did similarly low- performing, low-income students who did not take AP,” Mathews writes.

    To me, this sounds like an en indictment of the ordinary instruction and not an endorsement of AP instruction.

  2. We have an open policy at my school, and as you can imagine, it’s a mixed bag. Even with it open to all, our departments have “pass” rates of 90%+, and we offer as many AP courses as any school.

    Clearly, there is validity to the idea that “the best education for the best is the best education for all” and “a rising tide lifts all boats.” However, there is also validity to the idea that course rigor is diluted by a shallower talent pool, and some classes can’t move as far or as fast if not everyone is capable.

    Additionally, there is the idea that not all kids should go to college – and clearly not all should go for bachelor degrees. Yet, if exposure to an AP course – especially Lang which preps for college-level writing – helps some kids find a clue about what their future prospects are, it’s probably a good thing.

  3. The amount of necessary background knowledge/preparation varies according to each subject. English language is an easy pass for those with good writing skills; to the point that one of my kids passed the exam as a sophomore, without taking the course and without studying in advance. Most of the other classes they took required a significant amount of subject-specific knowledge. Trying to teach real AP Euro content to a class that includes those who can’t differentiate between the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution or is likely to hurt the kids at the top, as is trying to teach AP Chem to kids who don’t have the math/science background.

  4. Hmm. Actually, English Langauge isn’t really an easy test. Pulling a 3 (the equivalent of a C in freshman comp) without any prep is fairly exceptional, and I wouldn’t extrapolate the experience too far. There’s actually some content knowledge required (although not like chem or calc, etc.).

  5. thaprof says:

    We are getting increasing numbers of students who have 4-6 “AP” courses on their high school transcripts with A or B grades, but nothing but 1s and 2s on the actual exams. Without exception in my experience, the low actual exam scores reflect their real knowledge.

  6. Oh, absolutely, thaprof. All those fluff AP courses were supposed to be eliminated by the syllabus process, but there are still teachers out there with a new syllabus teaching the same old stuff — it only shows when and if the kids take the exams (in our building, one department has a couple of AP classes but discourages the kids from taking the tests because so few pass — it pisses the kids off).

    Jay Mathews rates schools by courses offered, not exams passed. I think that’s an oversight.

    It is more than possible to have a challenging course without slapping the AP designation on it.