AP doesn’t help if kids can’t pass exam

John Headley teaches Advanced Placement psychology at Woodstock High in Crystal Lake, Illinois. Photo: H. Rick Bamman/Shaw Media

Advanced Placement enrollment has more than doubled over the past decade as more high schools open up classes to less-prepared students and try to boost participation by lower-income and minority students, writes Jenny Brundin of Colorado Public Radio.

However, taking an AP class doesn’t help students who don’t pass the exam, concludes Philip Sadler, director of the science education at Harvard’s Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Sadler conducted three studies of more than 20,000 students, he said at an Education Writers of America seminar in Boston. Students who earn a 1 or 2, equivalent to an F or D, on the AP science exam don’t earn higher grades in college or perform differently than similar students who never took an AP course.

AP teaches college content — for those who learn it — but doesn’t expose students to the “learning milieu” of college, he said.

In an AP course, he said, the class size is typically small, the teacher keeps tabs on students every day and monitors their progress. That doesn’t happen in college.

Jason Manoharan, a vice president at the College Board, said students who score a 1 or 2 on an AP exam are more likely than non-AP classmates to graduate from college on time.

He said 10th grade PSAT scores show hundreds of thousands of students have “AP potential,” which means a better than 60 percent chance of earning a “3” or higher on an AP exam. But they don’t take them.

“Those students are disproportionately minorities, disproportionately low-income,” Manoharan said. “These are kids who would likely pass an AP exam if they took one.”

Sixty percent of students who take an AP exam earn a 3 or higher , Manoharan said. That proportion has remained steady for a decade, even as AP participation has soared.

Smart, autistic kids need challenge

Special education isn’t designed for “kids who have both an intellectual disability and a sharp intellect,” writes Education Post‘s Beth Hawkins. Her 14-year-old son, who’s on the autism spectrum, “has a voracious thirst for knowledge.”

His favorite author is H.G. Wells. He loves Japanese calligraphy. Last year he produced a documentary about William Higinbotham, a member of the team that produced the first nuclear bomb and the inventor of the first computer game.

Corey also has Asperger’s. He can’t tolerate the noise a pencil makes on paper, intuit when sarcasm is inappropriate or easily turn his attention from one activity to another. Until this year, the vast majority of the interactions I had with his teachers were essentially discussions about how to make him into a compliant, neuro-typical kid.

A special-ed teacher suggested he might go to a not-very-selective college with a program for autistic students, she writes. Corey is set on the highly rated Macalester College.

To get there he’ll need help persisting when confronted by rigor. The resulting sense of mastery would be liquid gold in terms of motivation. But the only tool in many schools’ kits for managing these tough moments is to remove the challenge.

In Corey’s case, this meant frequent trips to an isolated room where, under the guise of “social skills,” he played board games. No wonder he hated school.

Corey now attends a “public charter school organized around entrepreneurship where a number of students like him are excelling,” she writes. Working with adult mentors, Venture Academy students “decide how they learn best.”

Hawkins hopes K-12 schools will raise expectations, inspired by the increasing number of colleges and universities that are offering supports for students with autism.

Most students with academic disabilities can meet the same expectations as other students, writes special-ed teacher Mark Anderson. He opposes a New York proposal to water down high school diploma requirements for students with disabilities.

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.