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.

Survey: Students feel challenged

Most U.S. students say they feel challenged in school and must work hard to earn good grades, according to a new YouthTruth survey on academic rigor. However, as students get older, they’re less likely to say they learn a lot in class

Across all grade levels, only about 60 percent of students agree that their assignments help them understand the subject.

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.”

Second-chance system backfires

U.S. educators scorn “tracking” students into college-prep or vocational lanes, writes Marc Tucker in Ed Week. We brag that our system offers second chances — and third, fourth, fifth and sixth chances. Yet, our second-chance system ends up sorting students from first grade on, he writes.

Teachers know the low achievers will get another chance, so “they just keep passing them up the system, unchallenged and uneducated,” writes Tucker.

By high school, former Bluebirds are loading up on AP classes, ex-Robins are ambling toward unselective colleges and the Sparrows, if they haven’t dropped out, are headed nowhere.

Social class and parental education are more predictive of educational achievement in the U.S. than in most other industrialized countries, according to OECD data.

One alternative advocated by the Pathways to Prosperity network is to combine academics with work-based training that leads to skilled jobs. Some schools are collaborating with employers to provide pathways.

But many more are replacing tracking with covert tracking, writes Tucker.

How about 1) headed for selective colleges (at least a couple of AP courses with scores of 3 or better), 2) headed for open-admissions state four-year colleges and lower-tier private ones (at least an 8th grade reading level and some college credit), 3) headed for community college (same as #2), 4) headed for minimum-wage work (high school diploma/managed to show up for four years of high school), 5) headed for unemployment, poverty and prison (couldn’t read high school texts and so dropped out).

Vocational pathways are controversial unless they lead to college as well as careers. What’s not controversial is letting students pass classes labeled “college prep” with B’s and C’s, then go to community college or unselective universities, take remedial courses and drop out.

Your child is not special

Your Child Is Not Special writes J.P. Fugler, a speech and debate teacher in Texas. The straight A’s mean nothing.

He had a perfect GPA once because he avoided classes that might be difficult. When he got a 70 in the required keyboarding class — his family didn’t have a computer at home — he asked the teacher if he could come in early or late to practice.

Every day for six weeks, he practiced before and after school. “I went from being the slowest typist in the class to the fastest,” Fugler writes.”My grade skyrocketed to a 100.”

That doesn’t happen today. Blame for a low grade “is shifting from the student to the teacher,” he writes.

Parents think their special child deserves success. Hard work is for those other kids who aren’t gifted.

Flugler requires freshmen to study Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and understand Greek philosophy.

For the first time in their lives, some struggle in my classroom. Encountering a new feeling of inadequacy, they panic. Then, panic turns to blame. There is no introspection or attempt to change behaviors that led to failure. Parents take up the fight.

Children can fail “now or later,” writes Fluger. Now is better. Later, the stakes will be higher.

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.”

Less praise, more young scientists

Too Many Kids Quit Science Because They Don’t Think They’re Smart, write Alexandra Ossola in The Atlantic

“For most students, science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) subjects are not intuitive or easy,” she writes. (Barbie said it: “Math is hard.”) Overpraised children aren’t prepared to struggle, Ossola argues
Praising a child’s ability or talent too much makes them unwilling to take on challenges that might test their intelligence, Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor, tells Ossola.

By contrast, talking about a child’s actions — “their hard work, trying many strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their use of errors to learn, their improvement” — builds resilience.

 . . . we found that when we gave kids lots and lots of praise then discontinued it, they either lost motivation or they did a variety of strange and distorted things to get the adults’ approval back. . . . When you praise someone, you are making their actions and performance yours. So they’re looking over their shoulder and not owning their work.

Employers and career coaches have told Dweck that workers require constant validation and feel crushed by feedback. “We’ve created several generations now of very fragile individuals because they’ve been praised and hyped. And feel that anything but praise is devastating.”

Atlantic‘s Left-Brain America has more on STEM education. Here’s a story on introducing math and science concepts to preschoolers.

 

Tech levels reading, but is it too easy?

Should we tailor difficulty of a school text to child’s comfort level or make them sweat? asks Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report. Schools are using technology to adjust texts to students’ reading levels.

Newsela, an online reading program for students in grade three through high school offers stories about current events “written to multiple levels of complexity,” writes Paul.

File photo.  (AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach)For example, a standard news story might start:

“A man who traveled from Liberia to visit family members in Texas tested positive for Ebola on Tuesday, marking the outbreak’s first diagnosis outside of Africa, health officials said.”

An easier version would read: “A man who traveled from Liberia to visit family members in Texas tested positive for Ebola on Tuesday.”

Even simpler: “A man in Texas has tested positive for Ebola.”

For those who don’t know what “positive” or “Ebola” means: “A man in Texas has a deadly disease called Ebola.”

A Newsela executive tells Paul that student often adjust the reading level up to learn more about a news story that interests them.

This is catching on quickly in schools, where teachers are expected to teach the same content to students at very different levels of proficiency. Students can read about breaking news. There’s no need for stacks of leveled readers.

However, it contradict’s Common Core’s insistence that all students read the same complex texts, even if it’s a struggle to understand what they read.

In students’ words: Challenge us

When students who transfer from low-performing to high-performing high schools, they realize what they’ve been missing, writes Brooke Haycock in The View From the Lighthouse. It’s not enough for teachers to care about their students. They have to care about students’ learning.

At Elmont Memorial High School, teachers “get to know you so they can help you — so they can teach you,” says Keisha. “They’re, like, first your teacher — but your friend too. My other school, it was more like, they’re your friends but they kinda missed the teacher part.”

At Granger High School in rural Yakima Valley, Wash., George, a junior, reflected on his relationship with a math teacher at his old school: “He was really nice but he never made us do anything. And, like, if we were late for another class, even if it was our fault, we could just go by his classroom and he’d write us a pass. At the time, I liked it. And he was my favorite teacher. But now, I’m kinda mad, because I realize we weren’t learning anything. I don’t think he meant to do that — I think he was just more worried about us liking him.

“When educators can connect rigorous learning to student goals and opportunities beyond school and make students feel worthy and capable of real rigor, students don’t complain about the work or question its relevance,” writes Brooke Haycock, who’s writing Education Trust’s Echoes from the Gap series. It takes getting used to, students say. “In many cases, this is the first time they’re being asked to do anything that is genuinely hard.”

Some high school classes are easy and unfulfilling, say low-income achievers who talked to Ed Trust researchers for the Falling Out of the Lead report.

Actor David Duchovny’s high school basketball coach “respected me by demanding that I respect myself and a game,” he writes. “I never knew if he liked me. That wasn’t so important. He saw potential in me, and I began to respect myself.”

High-challenge high schools

Once again, Oakland’s American Indian Public Charter High has topped the Washington Post‘s list of the nation’s most challenging high schools. The index measures the percentage of students taking a college-level exam. It also shows the percentage of students who qualify for a subsidized lunch and the percentage of graduates who passed at least one college-level test.

The Oakland school board revoked the charter of three high-scoring American Indian schools last year, due to financial improprieties. AIPCHS and its sister schools remain open on appeal.

The list excludes selective schools, such as Stuyvesant in New York City, and schools that attract primarily high achievers, such as BASIS Scottsdale, a charter that became very popular with parents of high achievers. Mathews explains:

We do not include any magnet or charter high school that draws such a high concentration of top students that its average SAT or ACT score exceeds the highest average for any normal-enrollment school in the country. This year, that meant such schools had to have an average SAT score below 2005 or an average ACT score below 29.3 to be included on the list.

The Challenge Index is designed to identify schools that have done the best job in persuading average students to take college-level courses and tests. It does not work with schools that have no, or almost no, average students. We put those schools on our Public Elites list.

Here are alternative ways to rank high schools.

Two-thirds of the most challenging schools don’t field an 11-member football team, writes Mathews.