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.

States drop exams, give retroactive diplomas

States are dropping exit exams and giving retroactive high school diplomas to former students who never passed the exam, reports Catherine Gewertz in Education Week.

Georgia, Texas and South Carolina have issued thousands of diplomas to people who passed high school courses but failed the exit exam.In California, 35,000 or more people could qualify for diplomas. Arizona and Alaska also will issue retroactive diplomas.

Misty Hatcher is working toward a degree as a networking specialist at Lanier Technical College in Oakwood, Ga. --Melissa Golden for Education Week

Misty Hatcher, who received a retroactive diploma, is working toward a networking degree at Lanier Technical College in Oakwood, Ga. Photo: Melissa Golden, Education Week

“States are eliminating comprehensive tests in math and English/language arts in favor of end-of-course tests or other measures of high school achievement,” reports Gewertz. Many argue exit exams are “useless because they’re often pegged to 8th- or 9th-grade-level skills.”

That is, the exit exams were too easy.

California dropped its exam because it wasn’t aligned to Common Core State Standards. That is, it was too easy.

So people who couldn’t pass a test of eighth- and ninth-grade skills will receive high school diplomas.

Only 13 states still require students to pass an exit exam to earn a diploma, down from 25 in 2012, according to Jennifer Zinth of Education Commission of the States. Some states are now dropping end-of-course exams too.

They’re too hard.

Hanna Frank, Education Post’s social media manager, threw away her high school diploma, knowing she hadn’t earned it. She took remedial courses at her local community college, using up most of her financial aid, and managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in five years.

Core aligned? Not so much

In Checking In, Education Trust asks whether classroom assignments reflect higher Common Core standards. The answer is: “Not so much.”

Analysts looked at more than 1,500 assignments given by 92 teachers at six middle schools in in two urban school districts.

Thirty-eight percent were aligned with a grade-level standard — and the rate was lower in high-poverty schools.

Only 4 percent of assignments “pushed student thinking to higher levels,” concluded the analysis. Eighty-five percent “asked students to either recall information or apply basic skills and concepts as opposed to prompting for inferences or structural analysis, or requiring author critiques.”

Many assignments were “over-scaffolded,” the report found. “Much of the work was actually done for the students rather than by them.”

Attempts to motivate and engage students were “superficial,” according to Ed Trust. Teachers tried to provide “relevance” through pop-culture references and art activities.

In their attempt to align teaching to Common Core standards, schools and teachers are replicating what’s taught at workshops and picking up online resources, the report concluded. “The majority of assignments included keywords and phrases found in the common-core standards, fostering a comforting sense that ‘we are aligned.’ Unfortunately, this is not the case—much of this is window dressing.”

This is not surprising.

Low-income kids want college, but few are prepared

Ninety-six percent of low-income ACT takers plan to enroll in college, yet only 11 percent are prepared to pass college classes, concludes an ACT analysis.

Half the students in the lowest income quartile failed to meet any of ACT’s college readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math, and science.

Forty-five percent of low-income students met the English benchmark, compared to 64 percent of all students and 26 were ready for college reading, versus 44 percent of all student. Only 23 percent tested as proficient in math and 18 percent in science, roughly half the numbers for all students.

Not surprisingly, low-income students who take a “core or more” curriculum (four years of English and three years each of math, science, and social studies) do better than peers take a lighter load. While only 25 percent of “core-or-more” students from lower-income families met the benchmark, that compares to 4 percent of less-than-core students.

However, African-American students who complete the recommended college-prep curriculum are much less likely to be prepared for college than other core-or-more students, reports ACT and the United Negro College Fund.

These students may be taking classes with a “college prep” label but watered-down content, lower expectations or less-qualified teachers, said Steve Kappler, a vice president at ACT.

Core-or-more blacks met the ACT college readiness benchmark at a rate of 36 percent in English, 19 percent in reading, 15 percent in math and 11 percent in science.

Nationally, 67 percent of students who took the core or more met the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in English, 47 met it in reading, 46 in math and 41 in science—essentially anywhere from double to triple the rate of African-American students who took the core or more.

“A vast majority of African-American students desire a postsecondary education, but they’re clearly not prepared for it,” said Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of UNCF. “We must work together to bridge that gap from aspiration to reality by providing quality education and policies focused on college readiness.”

Too much homework for kids, too little for teens

Kindergarten, first- and second-graders are doing too much homework, while high schools students are doing too little, concludes a study of Rhode Island students published  by the American Journal of Family Therapy.

Duke Professor Harris Cooper’s “10-minute rule” calls for a maximum of 10 minutes a night in first grade, plus an additional 10 for every subsequent grade, writes Laura Moser on Slate. “That means that a third-grader should be doing roughly 30 minutes a night and a twelfth-grader should be doing 120. And kindergartners shouldn’t be doing any.”

“Primary school children received about three times the recommended load of homework,” based on the 10-minute rule, writes Moser. Kindergartners were averaging almost 25 minutes a night, while first- and second-graders were up to 30 minutes a night.

However, high-schoolers were averaging less than an hour a night instead of the 90 to 120 minutes recommended.

In affluent, educated communities, students are assigned lots of homework. Some of them actually do it. I don’t think homework loads are high for disadvantaged students.

The study was featured on CNN, writes Alexander Russo, but got bad reviews from education analysts on Twitter. 

Remediate in high school, not college

Education Realist’s policy proposals start with banning remediation at the college level.

 My cutoff would be second-year algebra and a lexile score of 1000 (that’s about tenth grade, yes?) for college, but we could argue about it. Everyone who can’t manage that standard after twelve years of K-12 school can go to trade school or to adult education . . .

The community college system could be split into a tier for college-level work and another for adult education, Ed Realist proposes. Money spent on remediating college students could beef up adult education, which has “withered and nearly died.”

(Some states already separate “community colleges,” which offer academic classes, from “technical colleges,” which do only job training. The tech colleges have much higher success rates.

Instead of placing all students in college-prep classes, high schools should offer remedial classes to those who need them, proposes Ed Realist.

In 1997, Chicago Public Schools wanted all freshmen to take algebra, so all remedial and pre-algebra classes were dumped. . . . A decade ago, Madison, Wisconsin did the same thing. California effectively banned pre-algebra in high school by docking test scores of students who weren’t taking algebra in 8th grade (drop one score category) or, god forbid, 9th grade (drop two score categories).

City after city, state by state, schools took away the “easy” math options: business math, consumer math, general math. At the same time math credits required for graduation became more difficult.

In English, history and science, high school students with elementary reading skills are in the same classes as those reading at the college level, writes ER.

Since I work in a Title I school, the high-ability students I see losing out on more rigor and challenges are also poor students, often Hispanic or black. Teachers can’t adequately challenge strong students while also encouraging weaker students.

. . . To avoid blame, schools and teachers run roughshod over rigor by lowering standards. (Feel free to blame me on this count; I refuse to hold my students to standards they didn’t choose when it’s a choice between failing or graduating.)

Students shouldn’t have to go to college to be taught arithmetic,  basic math literacy, pre-algebra and general-purpose reading and composition, ER writes.

Do poor kids need less learning, more play?

Direct instruction denies low-income children a carefree childhood and harms their emotional development, argues Steve Nelson, headmaster of an elite private school in Manhattan, in the Huffington Post.

Low-income children in “direct instruction” pre-schools do less well in life than those in traditional nursery schools, according to The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40, he writes. (The study followed 68 children, only one third of whom were in a direct-instruction preschool.)

Early childhood education must be “play-based and focused on social development,” writes Calhoun. “Children should explore at their own pace, negotiate relationships with other children and with adults, daydream, be silly, try things out, and try things on.”

Education reformers have created no-excuses schools that turn children into little adults forced to meet ever-higher expectations, Calhoun writes.

Are there “no-excuses” preschools, joyless academic factories that parents nonetheless choose for their children?

Nelson, the half-million-dollar mouthpiece of a $45,000-per-year private school, has descended “from Olympus to admonish teachers of impoverished students against actually trying to teach them anything,” writes Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio.

“Play-based,” content-free learning might be fine for the children of hedge fund managers, who will have lots of opportunities to screw up before easing into careers as progressive school principals. But it’s not cutting it for kids from low-income families, who often arrive at school with huge skills deficits and consequently have to, you know, learn something.

Calhoun should “stick to finger painting in the Imagination Station, and quit lecturing those who are actually trying to help the poor,” concludes Pondiscio.

A few months ago, I visited pre-k and elementary classes at a local public school that’s focused on helping children from immigrant families catch up academically by third grade. Classes were loaded with academic content. Teachers mixed directed instruction, discussion, writing, singing, dance, exploration, etc.

I was amazed at how much science these kids were learning as they developed English proficiency. They seemed to be having a lot of fun. And they were learning the normal set of social skills.

AP for all

Advanced Placement classes used to be reserved for top students. Now, schools are opening AP to nearly everyone, reports Marketplace. That’s challenged students to work harder and aim higher. It’s also challenged teachers to reach less-prepared, less-motivated students without watering down their classes.

More than two million high school students across the country are are expected to take AP exams this month.

Five years ago, only 10 percent of students took an AP course at North County High in a working-class suburb of Baltimore. Less than one-fourth of seniors planned to attend a four-year college.

Expectations were low, says Julie Cares, the principal. “A lot of kids not only didn’t believe it was possible, but it didn’t even occur to them that was something they might do.”

To build a college-going culture, the school added more AP courses, eliminated all of the requirements to get in and pushed every student to take at least one. In five years, the number of AP students has tripled, from about 200 to 600.

There are more students in classes like AP English Language and Composition, where a class of juniors recently wrestled with concepts like “polysyndeton” and “metonomy.” In an assignment designed to help prepare them for the upcoming exam, students are asked to identify the rhetorical strategy in a passage from literature or popular music.

At first, teachers were eager to “help more kids,”  says Jennifer Mermod, who teaches AP English. But some students aren’t ready. She breaks her class into small groups, sometimes asking better-prepared students to serve as leaders. “Other times you cohort them together so they can have their, ‘higher-level, you came prepared, you deserve to be rewarded with a better discussion,'” Mermod says.

She urges some students to take an honors class, a step below AP, to earn a higher grade. “I want them to get into college — that’s the point of the program, so I really don’t want a kid that’s going to come into the class and not at least get a C,” says Mermod.

uis Romero gets support for college applications and AP classes from teacher Brian Whitley, through a program called AVID. (Mary Wiltenburg/Marketplace)

Luis Romero gets support for college applications and AP classes from AVID teacher Brian Whitley. (Photo: Mary Wiltenburg/Marketplace)

The high school has added tutoring, and expanded a college-prep program called AVID. Luis Romero, who will be the first in his family to attend college, learned note-taking and study skills in his AVID class.

Romero has passed all but one of the many AP exams he’s taken, including Computer Science, Human Geography, U.S. Government and World History.

That’s not the norm at North County High: More than two-thirds of AP students don’t earn a high enough score to get college credit. However, students develop skills like writing and critical thinking that will serve them in college, says Principal Cares.

Apparently, the “honors” track doesn’t do that. That makes me worry about the school’s ability to maintain the rigor of AP classes. AP for more students makes sense. AP for all?

Charters draw middle-class families

School-choice politics are changing as more middle-class parents choose charter schools, writes Richard Whitmire in Education Next.  Assertive “soccer moms and dads” provide “political heft to the broader charter movement.”

New charters in San Antonio offer more challenging classes than traditional schools, middle-class parents told Whitmire. “In Arizona, parents see charters as akin to high-end grocers Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.”

Californians, especially in rural areas, see charters as “their only options for specialty schools such as Montessori and Waldorf,” he writes.

Most charters are located in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods and urban charters are growing rapidly, writes Whitmire.  But some charter networks, such as New York City’s Success academies, are expanding to mixed neighborhoods.

BASIS students don't wear  uniforms and learn at their own pace.

BASIS students don’t wear uniforms and learn at their own pace.

Charters such as the Denver School of Science and Technology network and E. L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. try to attract a racial, ethnic and socioeconomic mix of families.

In San Antonio, parents seeking academic rigor can choose between Great Hearts, where “students wear uniforms, file quietly through the halls, and study the Great Books,” or two BASIS schools, where self-expression is encouraged.

Great Hearts students study the Great Books.

Character is stressed at Great Hearts.

“At Great Hearts, prospective teachers are first reviewed for their character,” while BASIS focuses on teachers’ content knowledge, writes Whitmire.

At the city’s two BASIS schools, 36 percent of the students are white, 33 percent Hispanic and 24 percent Asian-American, including many South Asian families.

By contrast, few Asians choose Great Hearts. About half the students are white and the “school attracts a great many middle-class Hispanics, including families who want their children to be part of the next-generation San Antonio leadership.”

“Middle-class parents are louder and have better access to decision makers,” said Victoria Rico, who runs a foundation that attracted high-performing charters to the city. “They write op-eds. They visit with their elected representatives. They question the status quo in a way that is great for all kids.”

Easy A’s in teacher prep

Education majors earn high grades, but aren’t prepared for the classroom, concludes Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them, a National Council on Teacher Quality report.

NCTQ looked at more than 500 colleges and universities producing nearly half of the nation’s new teachers: 44 percent of teacher candidates graduate with honors, compared to 30 percent of all undergraduates.

“Teaching is one of the most difficult and demanding jobs there is,” said Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ. “Yet for reasons that are hard to fathom, it appears to be one of the easiest majors both to get into and then to complete.”

NCTQ compared course assignments for 1,161 courses, both education and non-education (including business, psychology, history, nursing, economics and biology) across 33 institutions.

Education students’ grades were based primarily on broad, subjective assignments. Students didn’t need to show mastery of particular knowledge or skills. They only had to express an opinion.

Esther Cepeda, a Washington Post columnist, trained to teach secondary school “with concentrations in special and exceptional education and English-language learners — students requiring specialized knowledge and skills — and a sub-focus in math.” Throughout her 10 graduate courses, there were tedious “mini-lessons” and “group work” that “usually required only talking about our feelings,” she writes.

Instead of endless chapters of required reading, lengthy research papers and nail-biter exams, there was a lot of coloring, cutting and pasting, watching syrupy videos about how to be culturally adept and reflecting about, yes, our feelings.

Trained on fluffy assignments, teachers have brought the feelings-first approach to the classroom, writes Cepeda.

Anyone who has checked out a child’s homework or projects in the past few years has seen a shift from research, content testing and skill acquisition to subjective, opinion or feeling-based interpretive “work.” For instance, if a student in a history class was learning about people who sheltered Jews in their homes during the Holocaust, the student might be asked to write five paragraphs about a time he or she had to keep a secret.

Raise admissions criteria for teacher education and demand more of would-be teachers, writes Cepeda.