Expanding AP: Does it hurt smart kids?

The Obama administration is pushing schools to admit more minority students to advanced classes. Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP

Expanding access to Advanced Placement classes is good policy, even if some students aren’t quite ready for the challenge, argues Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews. But he gave space in his column to two high achievers who charge schools are ruining AP courses by pushing in unprepared students

Daniel Guth, now at Cal Tech, and Jacqueline Stomski, now at the University of Maryland, took many AP classes at Annapolis High.

“The students who signed up for the AP classes by choice were not challenged to the degree to which they should have been, because the instructors were consumed with catching up the less-prepared students,” Stomski told me. Guth said he thought the less-ready students “are worse off and everyone else suffers from a reduced learning environment.”

Annapolis High ranks in the top 2 percent on the Washington Post’s list of America’s Most Challenging High School, which Mathews invented. It ranks schools by participation in AP, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests, not by how well participants score.

Stomski and Guth say “their school shoved so many students into those courses and made them take the tests just to look good on the list,” writes Mathews.

 Guth said when he took the two AP calculus courses, AB and BC, simultaneously “most of the time was spent reviewing precalculus to get students up to speed. For the actual calculus topics, the grading had to be such that students who didn’t learn calculus . . . still passed.”

That meant, Guth said, that he didn’t get the challenge he desired: “I was placed in Caltech’s remedial math class because I didn’t understand basic calculus enough from this class.”

When districts open AP to everyone, the passing rate typically falls, but the number of students who succeed goes up, writes Mathews.

In 1997, when (Annapolis High) restricted access to AP, as most U.S. schools still do, it had a 79 percent passing rate on AP exams and a total of 150 passed exams. Last year, it had a 34 percent passing rate on AP, and a 77 percent passing rate on IB, but it also had 599 AP and IB exams with passing scores.

In 2006, the percentage of graduating seniors with at least one passing grade on an AP exam was 21 percent. Last year it was 54 percent.

“Even students who have struggled in those programs tell me years later that the experience made college easier,” concludes Mathews.

Is AP for average kids? More schools say ‘yes’

Charter and magnet schools dominate the list of most challenging high schools, according to Jay Mathews’ 2016 index.

BASIS Oro Valley, an Arizona charter school, ranks first on the Challenge Index with the highest percentage of students taking the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and/or Cambridge tests. Other BASIS schools rank second and fourth.

BASIS also has three schools in the top 10 of the U.S. News list of best high schools, which is based on test scores and graduation rates.

Ninth-graders can take AP Chemistry at BASIS Oro Valley in Arizona.

Ninth-graders can take AP Chemistry at BASIS Oro Valley in Arizona.

Mathews designed the Challenge Index to identify “schools that have done the best job in persuading average students to take college-level courses and tests.” That’s why he doesn’t look at passing rates, which reward schools that restrict AP/IB/Cambridge to top students. He created a separate “public elites” index for schools that enroll “a high concentration of top students.”

Charters, which are 7 percent of high schools nationwide, make up one third of the top 100 schools on the list.

Skilled teachers can show show even “habitual slackers” that “struggling with a challenging course is less boring than sitting through a painfully slow remedial course,” Mathews believes.

At IDEA charter schools in Texas, where most students come from low-income Mexican-American families. 99 percent of graduates go on to college.

At IDEA charter schools in Texas, where most students come from low-income Mexican-American families. 99 percent of graduates go on to college.

I’m not sure I agree that all or most students belong in what are supposed to be college-level courses, especially if the “average kid” is now a remedial “slacker?” But some schools are getting students to take and pass high-level courses.

“In some of the poorest parts of Texas,” six schools in the IDEA Public Schools charter network made the top 50 on the Challenge Index, he writes. At 11th-ranked IDEA College Mission, for example, 91 percent of students qualify for a free or subsidized lunch.

Last year they had AP test participation rates twice as high as those of affluent public schools such as McLean and Whitman high schools, or private schools such as National Cathedral and Holton-Arms.

. . . Low-income students who take AP courses “are significantly more likely to graduate from college than students who never take an AP course,” said Michael Franco, the network’s vice president for secondary school programs.

The network has increased pass rates while expanding access, Franco told Mathews. “Last year, 81 percent of our seniors graduated with AP credit.”

More kids take AP courses, fail exam

Glenbard West U.S. history AP class

Teacher Meghan Rio leads a discussion in AP U.S. history at Glenbard West High in a Chicago suburb. Photo: Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune

As schools push disadvantaged students to take Advanced Placement courses, pass rates are falling on AP exams. Does AP help if students fail the exam?, asks Natalie Gross on the Education Writers Association blog.

“Cicero’s J.S. Morton High School District has pushed its mostly low-income students to take tough Advanced Placement courses and exams — just like teens do at elite high schools,” reports Diane Rado in the Chicago Tribune. The number of students taking AP exams doubled in five years, but “passing rates plunged.”

Trevor Packer, head of the AP program at the nonprofit College Board based in New York, said even students who get scores below 3 can still benefit from AP by attending a rigorous class, becoming familiar with a college-level syllabus, experiencing intensive reading and other benefits.

. . . “We are fundamentally opposed to the gatekeeping that was happening 20 years ago and it continues,” said Packer, referencing roadblocks — such as test scores or grades — that keep kids from getting into honors and AP classes in high school.

However, in 2013, Packer told Politico reporter Stephanie Simon that research showed college grades and graduation rates were no higher for AP students, unless they earned a passing grade of 3 or better.

Earlier research that showed benefits for all AP students was flawed, he said, because it didn’t control for other predictors of college success, such as family income and high-school grades.

A new Illinois law requires state colleges and universities to grant college credit for students who earn a score of 3 or higher on AP exams, Rado notes. Last year, 62.8 percent of public school students did that well.

At an EWA seminar in Los Angeles, Robert Tai, a University of Virginia researcher, said that students who passed AP science exams with a 3, did poorly in first-semester science courses.

Tracking is linked to higher AP scores

Tracking in eighth grade — usually in math — correlates with higher scores on AP tests at the end of high school, concludes the 2016 Brown Center Report on American Education.

In eighth grade, the tracking question currently boils down to whether high achieving students who are ready for a formal algebra course will get one—or whether all students will take the same general math course.

States with larger percentages of tracked eighth graders produce larger percentages of high-scoring AP test takers, the study found. “The heightened AP performance held across racial subgroups—white, black, and Hispanic.”

There was no relationship between tracking and and the number of students taking AP tests — just to the number who earned a 3, 4 or 5.

Another section looks at how Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are changing instruction in math and reading.

Teachers are teaching more nonfiction in fourth and eighth grade, NAEP data show.

In addition, “data and geometry are receding in importance in fourth grade math, and course enrollments in eighth grade math are shifting away from advanced courses toward a single, general math course,” the report notes.

Eighth graders study algebra at San Francisco's Presidio Middle School in 2011. Photo: Lenny Gonzalez, MindShift

Eighth graders study algebra at San Francisco’s Presidio Middle School in 2011. Photo: Lenny Gonzalez, MindShift

That suggests fewer achievers will start on the path to passing AP Calculus.

San Francisco Unified middle schools no longer teach algebra, as part of the shift to Common Core standards, reported Ana Tintocalis for KQED last year.

For years, all eighth graders took algebra and many failed, said Lizzy Hull Barnes.  Now no one will take algebra till ninth grade.

This “is a social justice issue for SFUSD,” writes Tintocalis. “District officials say the controversial practice of tracking students — or separating them based on talent and ability — is simply wrong.”

A perfect score

Cedrick Argueta, right, is congratulated by his calculus teacher, Anthony Yom, left. Photo: Al Seib, Los Angeles Times

Of 302,531 students who took the Advanced Placement Calculus exam last year, only twelve earned a perfect score, reports the Los Angeles Times. Cedrick Argueta, the son of a Salvadoran maintenance worker and a Filipina vocational nurse, was one of them.

At Lincoln High in a heavily Latino neighborhood of Los Angeles, students shouted, “Ced-rick! Ced-rick!” when Principal Jose Torres announced his score, reports the Times.

Math has always just made sense to him, he said. He appreciates the creativity of it, the different methods you can take to solve a problem.

“There’s also some beauty in it being absolute,” Cedrick said. “There’s always a right answer.”

He credits “everybody else that helped me along the way.”

Both parents are immigrants. His father, Marcos, never attended high school. His mother, Lilian, said that she told Cedrick and his younger sister to finish their homework and to “read, read, read.”

His math teacher, Anthony Yom, says all of his AP Calculus students have passed the exam for three years running. Last year, 17 of 21 earned a 5, the highest score.

Yom, 35, said he treats his students like a sports team. They’d stay after school, practicing problem solving for three or four extra hours, and they’d come on weekends. On test day, they wore matching blue T-shirts sporting their names, “like they’re wearing jerseys to the game,” Yom said.

Cedrick also earned perfect scores on the science and math sections of the ACT, he said. He’s taking four more AP exams this year, including Calculus BC.

He hopes to earn a scholarship to Cal Tech to study engineering.

Hunger Games or The Odyssey?

Katniss Everdeen is the hero of the Hunger Games series.

A rising junior, she’d joined an elite group of students for a summer enrichment program on a prestigious college campus. They were preparing for Advanced Placement English in the fall. She thought she was ready, writes Brooke Haycock for Education Trust.

The teacher asked them to pull out the first book they’d be reading that fall in AP in their schools.

The private school students’ backpacks unfurled as they reached for their copies of The Odyssey and works by authors like Emerson and Goethe.

“And we pull out,” she paused for effect, “The Hunger Games.”

The girl was used to listening to a teacher lecture and reading the text.

“Everything in this summer program, like, every single class is conversation. And just constantly, as you read, as you discuss, you’re taking deep notes. You’re constantly taking notes and learning.”

. . . “In this summer program, we read only original authors. So you’re reading Lucretius, you’re reading, um, Aristotle. Those are the ones we read in our one week there. Um, Metamorphosis of Plants by Goethe. And, to me, it was just so crazy, like, how many of those kids knew those things already and had been exposed to them.”

“We’re going to be taking the same AP test,” the girl said. “The exact same test. We need to know the same exact things.”

This is the real inequity: High-aspiring, hard-working, capable students are set up to fail in college.

Who will teach computer science?

All New York City public high schools will offer computer science in 10 years, pledges Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Who will teach computer science? asks Naomi Schaefer Riley in the New York Post. Public schools already have trouble finding qualified math teachers and it will be even harder to hire computer science professionals, who have much more lucrative options.

IBM worked with New York City public schools and the community college system, to create P-TECH, which prepares students for technology careers.

IBM worked with New York City public schools and the community college system, to create P-TECH, which prepares students for technology careers.

Tech CEO Daniel Gelernter doesn’t look for a degree in computer science when he’s hiring a software developer, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “University computer science departments are in miserable shape: 10 years behind in a field that changes every 10 minutes.”

If universities can’t keep up, how can the city’s public schools? asks Riley. “The equipment will be outdated before it’s even installed. And the kind of knowledge that will actually be useful in the real world is changing constantly.”

De Blasio hopes computer science classes will help prepare students for technical careers. But will they?

A number of years ago, a girl I mentored told me that she planned to attend the John Jay High School for Law because she wanted to become a lawyer and her middle school guidance counselor told that school would start her down the right path.

When I explained that to be a lawyer, you needed to go to law school and in order to go to law school you needed to go to a good college and in order to go to a good college you had to learn a lot in high school and that John Jay was one of the worst in the city, she and her immigrant mother looked flabbergasted.

Nationwide, a quarter of high schools offer a programming course; 6 percent teach Advanced Placement computer science.

New York City officials aren’t talking just about AP. They want to expand computer science from elite high schools to schools where most students are below grade level in math and reading, reports the New York Times.

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson, who financed the new Academy for Software Engineering, believes the program shows that all students can benefit from computer science classes.

But I’d guess the academy hires computer science teachers who understand computer science to students who have some interest in the subject.

For years, California offered bilingual classes without having anywhere near enough bilingual teachers. It didn’t work.

AP lessons are online, free

Free Advanced Placement courses in calculus, physics and macroeconomics are available on edX, reports Nick Anderson for the Washington Post.

Davidson, a private college in North Carolina, worked with high school teachers and the College Board, which oversees AP, to develop online lessons.

“Perhaps it is best to think of them not as MOOCs, but as massive open online lessons, or MOOLs,” writes Anderson. They’re meant to “supplement live teaching, not replace it.” However, the courses could help a motivated student with a weak teacher — or none at all.

Other MOOCs by edX partner universities target AP biology, computer science and chemistry, writes Anderson.

Philanthropist Steven B. Klinsky, is funding an MIT-Harvard venture to create a MOOC pathway to earning a year of college credit for free.

Nancy Moss, an edX spokeswoman, said some of the high school offerings have drawn 10,000 or more students. “The enrollment has been phenomenal,” she said.

Klinsky envisions “a freshman-year catalog of more than 30 introductory courses from top colleges in an array of subjects as diverse as calculus and Western civilization,” writes Anderson. “The MOOCs would include quizzes, tests and online discussion groups, with texts and other materials provided free online,” and a nonprofit partner could provide mentoring and tutoring.

Most teens aren’t challenged

The overstressed, overscheduled American student is a “myth,” argues Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News in response to Frank Bruni’s New York Times column on “exhausted superkids.” Or, at the very least, it’s a problem for a small percentage of teens.

Most U.S. high school students aren’t racing from one activity to another, Pondiscio argues. He cites a 2006 study based on a nationally representative longitudinal database of 5,000 families and their children.

The average teen spent five hours a week at sports games and practices, faith-based activities, doing volunteer work, and meeting the demands of afterschool programs and other obligations. Forty percent of teens spent no time at all in organized activities during the school week.

Only 6 percent of U.S. teens averaged 20+ hours of organized activities per week. The overactive do better “across a broad array of outcomes, from childhood to young adulthood, than youth who are uninvolved,” observes Joseph Mahoney, a co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at Elizabethtown College.

Bruni worries about students taking too many AP classes. Two-thirds of U.S. high school graduates take do not take a single AP class, writes Pondiscio.

 From 2011-2014, despite enormous growth in the program, fewer than 8 percent of high school students took more than five AP classes before graduation. Raise that to seven or more APs in high school, presumably the sweet spot of “exhausted superkid” status, and the number drops to less than 5 percent of the 3 million 2014 high school graduates.

Meanwhile the College Board estimates there are at least twice as many, some 300,000 academically prepared students, who either did not take an AP course in which they had potential, or attended a school that did not offer an AP course in that subject.

Pressure to achieve is a problem for the privileged few, Pondiscio concludes. (They happen to have parents who buy books.) “The far greater concern is almost certainly the undertaxed American child, who lacks access to rigorous academic coursework, the incentive and opportunities to participate in organized activities, or both.”

New APUSH framework is ‘flat-out good’

College Board has released a new Advancement Placement U.S. History (APUSH) framework in response to critics. The rewritten framework isn’t just better, writes Rick Hess and Max Eden in National Review. It’s “flat-out good.”

World War II wasn't just about interning Japanese-Americans.

World War II wasn’t just about interning Japanese-Americans.

The 2014 APUSH framework was “an unqualified mess,” they write.

“Larry Krieger, a retired high-school history teacher, was the first to flag the single-minded focus on American wrongdoing, racial division, and left-wing heroics,” write Hess and Eden. Stanley Kurtz attacked the framework’s politicization of history.

After first dismissing the criticism, College Board “reached out to critics, solicited feedback from the public, promised that the framework would be reworked for 2015 — and asked to be judged on the result,” write Hess and Eden. The new framework is completely rewritten in a “more measured, historically responsible manner.”

In the section on World War II, the 2014 framework highlighted:

Wartime mobilization provided economic opportunities for women and minorities; American values were compromised by the atomic bomb and the internment of Japanese Americans; and the Allies won owing to our combined industrial strength.

. . . In the 2015 version, the first bullet now reads: “Americans viewed the war as a fight for the survival of freedom and democracy against fascist and militarist ideologies. This perspective was later reinforced by revelations about Japanese wartime atrocities, Nazi concentration camps, and the Holocaust.” The framework still notes the internment of Japanese Americans and the moral complexities of dropping the atomic bomb, but these are now situated in a broader, more textured tale.

In 2014, the first of seven organizing themes was “Identity” — with an “emphasis on race and gender grievances,” they write. Now the theme is “American and National Identity.” It deals with “our shared history — with racial divides and gender politics presented as one part of that larger story.”

The framework now addresses economic growth and American entrepreneurialism where before the only economics to speak of consisted of allusions to inequality and exploitation.

Astonishingly, discussion of religion and its import was largely absent in 2014. That is no longer the case.

Whereas in the 2014 framework one could be forgiven for thinking that the Declaration of Independence was consequential only insofar as it inspired rebellion in Haiti, the new framework makes clear that the Declaration “resonated throughout American history, shaping Americans’ understanding of the ideals on which the nation was based.”

A half-million students take APUSH every year. Their teachers now have an “honest, fair-minded framework for teaching the grand sweep of American history,” conclude Hess and Eden. “There is no effort to paper over the darker chapters of America’s past or its continuing struggle to live up to our founding ideals (nor should there be!) — but these are now presented alongside our nation’s ideals and staggering accomplishments.”

The new framework is better, but still flawed, writes Kurtz, who thinks College Board needs competition. The new AP European History framework has all the anti-West bias of the 2014 APUSH, he adds.