Sunday, January 13, 2008

High vs. Unrealistic Expectations

Jay Matthews of the Washington Post has long been a big fan of "open enrollment" policies for Advanced Placement courses. He has written that AP courses are "engaging and exciting academic experiences that can enliven high school for nearly all students." While AP courses are certainly engaging, exciting, and enlivening for those with the ability and proper preparation, they are not appropriate for many students.

Let's use exercise as an analogy. Let's imagine that I am a couch potato who wants to get in shape. Should I immediately throw myself into a hardcore marathon training program despite the very slim odds that I would be able to successfully complete one? Or should I aim for a more realistic goal such as a 10k? While a 10k is a less challenging race than a marathon, being able to complete a 10k would leave me significantly better off than I am now. Plus I'm much less likely to become discouraged by the rigor of the 10k training program than I would by the marathon one. After I can successfully run the 10k, then I'll be in a position to start training for a longer race.

It's the same with academics. Let's get high school students working at grade-level before we worry about getting them to complete a college-level AP course. Here in California, low-income students are twice as likely to be below grade-level in English than wealthier students and three times as likely to be below grade-level in math. By middle school, poor students are an astonishing four years behind in English. Simply getting these students to perform at grade-level would be a significant accomplishment and put them in a much better position to successfully attend college.

Matthews' current column is entitled "High Schools that Break the Mold." He lauds what he terms "Surprise Schools":

"These are public high schools that have very large numbers of low-income students and that are doing as well as many affluent public schools in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test participation, and even more surprisingly, in the scores their students are getting on these college-level tests."

One of these "Surprise Schools" is Bell Multicultural in Washington, D.C. Matthews is impressed by the school's high number of AP tests given, but few of the students passed any of the exams aside from Spanish (the school is 65% Latino). Of the 226 AP English exams, there were zero students scoring 4 or 5 (the scores typically required for credit at top colleges), and three students who scored a 3 (the minimum to pass). That's correct, 98.7% of the students at Bell failed the AP English exam even though they all completed an AP English course. Of those who failed, 86% got the lowest possible score of 1. This is success to Matthews?

Even Matthews admits there is (emphasis added):

"a growing body of evidence that, while mastering the material taught in AP classes and performing well on the AP exams is correlated with later success in college, mere enrollment in AP classes is not."

So there seems little benefit to enrolling kids who are highly unlikely to pass the AP exams in AP courses. Certainly every school ought to offer AP or equivalent courses for its brightest students. But when the overwhelming majority of students who successfully complete an AP course go on to fail the exam, that's a sign that they never ought to be have been in the class to begin with.


Sebastian said...

I think that it also points to the slide in academic rigor in most high school programs. What constitutes an AP class (demanding reading, class discussion and essay and term paper writing) used to be standard fare in high school classes. As recently as my own high school experience in the 1980s there were few AP classes offered. In fact, only two of the four high schools in my district had any (and then only one). On the other hand, my history teacher prided himself on the fact that every year he sent students to take the exam who earned passing scores (having been prepared in his non AP class).

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thank you!

I taught AP Chemistry back when I taught high school science. When I was part of a "cohort" for statewide training in LRE (least restrictive environment--a special ed term) the professor from California insisted that even multiply and severely handicapped children should be allowed into AP. I objected--such children have so many problems that the teacher would have to attend to rather than focusing on the AP training. I was told that any child, regardless of ability or preparation, had a right to AP. Talk about manufactured rights!

It's insane. Allowing a couch potato into Ironman training not only hurts the couch potato, but also slows down the pace of training for those capable of training for the Ironman.

So Thanks!

And thank goodness, I no longer teach in the public schools so I don't have to spend valuable time listening to such nonsense.

Crimson Wife said...

I think there's really something to be said about what used to be regular college prep classes being equivalent to AP nowadays. My high school only offered 1 official AP course at the time I graduated in '95, but I was able to earn three 5's and two 4's on the exams based on what I learned in just the normal honors track.