Advanced mis-Placement

“What the hell am I doing in AP?” asked Veronica, a  Haitian immigrant who’d earned a D in the regular 11th-grade English class.

To boost the number of minority students in AP, Boston’s English High assigned unwilling and unprepared students to AP classes based on their “potential,” not their demonstrated abilities, writes Junia Yearwood, a retired English teacher, in the Boston Globe.

Veronica and many of her classmates asked for transfers to easier classes. They were denied.

Consequently, I was forced to continue teaching my 12th grade AP students material they should have learned long before: the eight parts of speech, basic sentence structure, and the correct conjugation of regular and irregular verbs. When Maureen’s essay on an AP sample test included ’’have tooken’’ for ’’have taken,’’ and when Grace interrupted my explanation of a periodic sentence with the question, ’’What is a clause?’’ and when all the other students admitted they were just as puzzled as Grace, my crash course in English grammar became necessary and urgent.

“Underperforming” English High could boast that its AP enrollment was second only to the city’s exam schools.  But many of her AP English students ended up in remedial reading and writing classes in college.

About Joanne


  1. Targets are great when there is a strategy to get there. When schools just play the numbers game, students lose. Laying the Foundation, a non-profit, provides training, resources and lessons to teachers in grades 6-12 so that they can challenge students early and provide the rigorous curriculum necessary so that Veronica would be ready for that AP class. Our schools have a goal of creating a college ready climate and work with us so their students can succeed in AP.

    School leaders that play the numbers game need to go so. Having students in AP is a noble goal, but only if you lay the groundwork early so tha they are ready.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    You’d think a school would put the students’ interests first, wouldn’t you?

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Why would you think that?

  4. MagisterGreen says:

    Well, let’s face it…if a 12th grader who’s taken all these classes beforehand can’t handle AP English, then we might have to ask questions about where that child’s education went wrong. And as much as we might like to blame it on the child, the child’s environment, parents, background, etc…, etc…, etc…, at some point someone might ask whether or not the school failed. And that’s not a conversation many in power in education want to have.

  5. I wonder if there were any high-performing students who WANTED to be in AP who were kept out in the name of letting in those with “potential.”

    I know people will hate me for this, but I’m wondering if we shouldn’t bring back “tracking.” I’d have gone crazy (and probably started acting out) if I had been forced to sit in a class where I knew everything and the teacher was teaching to ‘catch up’ the people who didn’t have the background.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    (I don’t hate you, ricki. But I’m not going to stand too close to you when you talk like that, either! I don’t like being collateral damage.)

    The second thing a teacher should do in any class is figure out where people are — really, not on paper. It’s different on the college level, I think, where the professor can assume a certain amount of academic polish and accomplishment, and if the student doesn’t have that, well… tough cookies. But at the high school level, I think every teacher should design his or her own two-day placement exam to figure out what exactly is reasonable to expect in a semester or school-year’s time from the students he or she actually has.

    Potential is a funny thing: until it’s realized, all we can do is guess. After it’s realized, well, the presence of potential is a bit of a truism. I suppose that it’s a bit problematic: either a person has potential or not, but we can’t tell. We can tell, though, whether it’s LIKELY that a person has potential. So we start identifying *that* and we call that likelihood itself “potential”. But that’s not really potential — that’s just our epistemic shorthand for “seems like it might have some promise.”

    It is, of course, shockingly easy to delude ourselves about such judgments, particularly when we have something invested in the outcomes.

  7. Is the outrage here really that an unprepared student was placed in an AP class?

    Or is it that she had to go through 11 years of english classes before someone taught her the 8 parts of speech and basic sentence structure?

    If this kid had to be in an AP class to get that kind of instruction, then I don’t resent her being there one bit.

  8. CarolineSF says:

    This is based on a misunderstanding of what AP classes are intended to be:

    “…if a 12th grader who’s taken all these classes beforehand can’t handle AP English, then we might have to ask questions about where that child’s education went wrong…”

    No. AP classes are intended for a top tier of high academic achievers who are ready for college-level work while still in high school. Of course, policies that force unprepared kids into AP classes are also based on a misunderstanding of what AP classes are supposed to be.

  9. Or is it that she had to go through 11 years of english classes before someone taught her the 8 parts of speech and basic sentence structure?

    Right, because it’s not even remotely possible that she’s been taught it time and again and didn’t care or couldn’t learn.

  10. Yeah, Cal, it’s remotely possible. I’ll give you that.

    But in a public school world that embraces TC reader’s and writers’ workshops, and that considers direct, explicit grammar instruction a bad thing, which is more bloody likely?

    (Ah, but this is a minority student, so we naturally go for the less likely explanation that flatters white people.)

  11. This is happening everywhere. Some many ranking systems and school districts look to number of kids in AP classes as and indication of academic success. (They generally do not look at AP scores).

    In my own district there is definitely an AP for everyone push kind of like college for all. CarolineSF is right; AP was originally designed for high school kids ready for college level work. If all kids are ready now, then lets get rid of high school and put them in college.

  12. Verbal scores on the PSAT and PLAN correlate very strongly to AP English scores. It’s not really a potential guessing game.

  13. My school puts every student who gets a commended score on a TAKS test in 8th grade into a pre-AP class in that subject as a 9th grader. There is no other screening tool — and parents are not consulted. The result is just what one would expect — kids whose scores weren’t good enough clamoring to get in (and sometimes being denied because of that score) and others being told that they are stuck with the higher level class and underperforming due to a lack of ability or a lack of interest. We teachers are left with the choice of high failure rates or watering down — none of which is fair to anyone. And then we have to weed out the kids who don’t belong in an AP class when they seek to enroll in one.

  14. Fred the Fourth says:

    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

    When I started at UC Berkeley in ’74, over 50% of the incoming freshmen had to take English-P because they were unprepared for the nominal first course, English-1A. The elementary schools had failed them back in ’64 by not teaching reading before moving on to grammar, by not teaching grammar before moving on to literature, etc.

    On the other hand, the “AP” aspect of AP classes today is largely a bureaucratic illusion. I constantly hear reports from students who tested 5’s in various AP classes, who say that they struggled or outright failed when trying to skip over the college classes that Advanced Placement was touted as allowing them to skip. No doubt my sample is biased, being largely based on students at MIT, Stanford, and Cornell, but I stand by my conclusion.

    AP is wonderful if it exposes advanced HS students to advanced material, but let’s not kid ourselves that HS AP classes are anything like high-end university work.

  15. CarolineSF says:

    To cast blame where blame is due, it’s the Newsweek high school rankings — which are very high-profile and very influential — that use the number of AP* tests taken per student (per junior and senior, I believe) as the SOLE criterion for ranking schools. The outcome of the tests is not considered, only the number.

    *Or a small number of similar and far less common tests, such as IB.

  16. Sean Mays says:


    Newsweek uses an “Excellence and Equity” metric as well:

    E&E = % of ALL graduating seniors who score 3 or higher

    This includes kids who take the class and do well (excellence) and the kids who are enrolled (equity). So a high score implies kids doing well and high participation rates.

    It would be nice if they broke out each of the E’s I guess; but that kind of clarity might reveal some interesting disparities in the mid range schools.

  17. “AP is wonderful if it exposes advanced HS students to advanced material, but let’s not kid ourselves that HS AP classes are anything like high-end university work.”

    AP classes are designed to be college level. It could be that scoring a 5 is not the same as doing great in a “high-end” university class, but doing well in most university classes is not the same as doing great in a “high-end” university class.

    Most students who score 5’s on AP tests go on to college to do just fine. The problem is that tons of students are being forced through material they are not ready for which is mighty discouraging.

  18. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Rankings without transparent data are worse than useless unless you’re interested in getting inside the head of the ranker.

  19. CarolineSF says:

    People always argue when that fact about the Newsweek rankings is pointed out, because it’s so nonsensical. The E&E feature is new, but I believe it’s a score given to each school but that doesn’t affect the rankings, which are still based entirely on the number of tests taken per capita.

    From Newsweek, a Q&A with Jay Mathews, creator of the ridiculous rankings feature, officially called the Challenge Index:

    1. How does the Challenge Index work?
    We take the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge (AICE) tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors graduating in May or June. …

    3. Why do you count only the number of tests given, and not how well the students do on the tests?
    In the past, schools have often bragged of their high passing rates on AP or IB as a sign of how well their programs were doing. …
    I decided not to count passing rates in the way schools had done in the past because I found that most American high schools kept those rates artificially high by allowing only top students to take the courses. …

    NEWSWEEK and The Washington Post, however, have added a new statistic developed by the College Board that indicates how well students are doing on the exams at each school while still recognizing the importance of increasing student participation. It is the Equity and Excellence rate, the percentage of ALL graduating seniors, including those who never got near an AP course, who had at least one score of 3 or above on at least one AP test sometime in high school. That is the “E&E” on our list. “Subs. Lunch” on the list stands for the percentage of students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches, the best measure of the percentage of low-income students at each school.

    The average Equity and Excellence rate in 2009 was 15.9 percent. In the 2010 NEWSWEEK list, we give the Equity and Excellence percentage for those schools that have the necessary data.

    (End of Newsweek quotes.)

  20. Sean Mays says:

    Thanks Caroline. Yes, it doesn’t figure into the ranking as published, I suppose you could “add it in” if you wanted by creating a weighted average..

    I haven’t looked into all the AP’s, but the College Board has some nice info on their site. Statistics like 37% of AP Bio kids earn a 1 on the exam; AB Calc is similar. How much are these kids really benefitting?

    This trend of AP mis-palcement is part of what’s driving nearly 10% year over year growth in AP exams. I worry, acheivement on the whole is stagnant to down, yet AP exams taken rise rapidly. Whatever happened to mastering the basics of high school and leaving college for college?

  21. SuperSub says:

    Sean, its the whole causation idiocy that permeates ed-policy makers and wonks. Students who took AP’s back in the 80’s and 90’s had a significantly higher college graduation rate. Combine that with an insane and unrealistic push for universal college and you get mental midgets who will desperately look for any way to boost college graduation rates.
    So, they believe, the simple exposure to an AP class is a magic pill that will cause students who previously would have not gone to or failed out of college to amazingly graduate. You know, because secondary ed is really just too simple for students and they don’t succeed because they are bored.

  22. Sean Mays says:


    Indeed; the same correllation/causality problem cropped up with high school math (among other places). Ooooh! Lookee, students who complete Algebre II in high school graduate college at WAY higher rates! Algebra II for all = College degrees for all. QED as my math and physics profs used to say.