The recent release of Newsweek's "Top US High Schools" list, which relies on a rating formula devised by Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews, has sparked some lively dialogue in the TLN daily discussion group. Mathews's rating system is simple: the number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school in 2004 divided by the number of graduating seniors. The AP part of the formula dominates, since many fewer schools offer IB. As his formula implies, Mathews believes that most high school students can and should take one or more AP courses.
Quite a few TLN members teach AP. Some worry that an indiscriminate push to enroll more and more students in AP classes will have a watering-down effect. But many others agree with Mathews that, with quality teaching in place, a majority of students can be successful in these rigorously designed courses.
Here are some comments from our discussion.
Mary S., a high school teacher in North Carolina, wrote:
I have shared the recent discussion on AP classes with some of my colleagues, as well as the Top 1000 ranking in Newsweek. Many of you have mentioned the push in your schools to enroll more students in AP. We are jumping on that same bandwagon in our high school—AP for all. We were told in a meeting, "We don't care what they score on the AP test, we only care that we add as many students as possible to as many AP courses as possible."
One of the teachers in my building asked that I post this question to you:
Could the emphasis on AP be fueled by College Board as a way to increase their profits? More AP courses equals more teachers trained in their workshops, more AP prep books purchased, more AP tests taken, etc. She is not saying that AP is bad, she likes it, but wondered about the amount of profit for College Board that will result from increasing the enrollment in AP courses. I thought this was an interesting way to look at this. What do you folks think?
Erica, a high school English teacher in Virginia, wrote:
I have scored AP tests for ETS and College Board for 19 years and have been a presenter (consultant) for AP and pre-AP workshops. The quality of their materials is incredibly high — and I am a harsh critic of most materials for teachers. (I've never met a Teacher's Edition I didn't hate!) The emphasis in scoring (at least in English) is to reward students for reading closely and writing thoughtfully. The emphasis in the teacher training is to provide engaging, challenging materials that will foster critical thinking.
In all the years I've worked with ETS and College Board, renewing training and flying to various cities for the AP reading, I have never seen a profit motive. My understanding is that they make their money with the SATs (that may change with the people-graded essay) and break even with the AP work.
I am also a champion of "AP" for almost everyone — at least in my large public high school. When I came here 10% of the senior class took AP English; 13 years later it's closer to 66% (more than 325 students.) They don't all pass the test, but that's not the goal. They are engaged in good books and discussions. All the students are capable of that kind of challenge, but many choose not to want to think or read. Those are the ones who won't benefit from AP.
Of course, my definition of "AP" in English is not a course that covers vast quantities of material, but one that encourages reflective reading and writing. In English we have the luxury of teaching process rather than content, which is not true in all AP subjects.
In delivering this kind of instruction to any student who signs up, my high school supports the College Board goals of access and equity. But we do it not because it's backed by College Board, but because that's what's best for our students.
Mary, a high school teacher who lives in the Washington area, wrote:
The high school rankings is based on a formula postulated by Jay Mathews of the Washington Post. He (as were many other lay-educators) was blown away by a single success in education — the Jaime Escalante story (and I agree that the man was an inspirational teacher). Escalante was able to make high achievers of poor, Hispanic kids, completely opposed to all expectations, using the AP system.
I think that Mr. Mathews has been a great voice for the education world because he has been able to capture the attention of the reading public. For that I am thankful. I think his formula is no different than any other formula (state test scores, SAT and ACT scores, etc.) in that they do not give a true picture of what an excellent education is, but give the realtors another statistic to use to sell to homebuyers.
Excellent teaching occurs in the classrooms of excellent teachers. As I have told many of my parenting peers: "Your child will receive an excellent education no matter which school he/she is enrolled in if you care enough to be attentive." Jay Mathews has already had his effect on public high schools. Many — like the one I can see from my back deck — have changed their curriculum to meet Mr. Mathews' ranking criteria. The high school in my town now only offers two levels of English. Honors (read AP) and regular. I have no doubt that the change is due to the high school ranking criteria Mathews has devised.
Does that mean that every kid enrolled in an honors course is receiving AP preparation? My guess is no. I am certain that the teacher will be working with the kids who arrive in that room, no matter what level they are. That is, if the teacher chooses to take them from where they are to where they might be able to go. I don't disagree with the idea that we must have rigor for all. Au contraire. I just am highly suspicious of schools that jump in rankings from one year to the next. I don't think true learning has occurred. I just think statisticians are at work and I am suspicious.
Michelle, a high school teacher in Miami-Dade FL, shared her experience:
I have taught AP classes for 15 years, and am of the mind to let any student in who wants in. The rationale for AP classes is the finite curriculum, focused course of study, and high level of critical analysis required to do well. Some students move to Honors after the first marking period, but not many. Even LEP students enjoy the class, and I find that they work very hard to achieve an acceptable grade. I like teaching to motivated students, and like the chance to rachet up the curriculum to get my students to think like historians. I find that they work hard to stay in the class, and we develop a real comraderie in our work.
The down side is that the curriculum is very demanding. Those who will do well on the test in May must have been taught and have read carefully the history they will be tested on. All students are pushed as if they will achieve a high grade, even though some of them do not write well enough to get a high score on the essays. I work with the AP English teacher, especially with those whose English is not good enough, to give them the tools to do well. (We have 124 nationalities who speak 26 languages in my high school of 2500.) There is simply no room for creative work in the syllabus, and I don't get to do the fun stuff I do with my Honors students. I do some of the subject using gifted strategies to keep them tuned in, but have to keep moving at a rigorous pace.
I love teaching AP and love the students who choose the class. It keeps me on top of my subject, makes me constantly strive to stay current, and challenges me to keep them interested in the story of our country. I think, and most of my students agree, that the hard work is worth the effort. It does require a supportive administrator who understands the demanding curriculum, and is willing to buy the 7 books my students read each year outside of the text. I wouldn't trade for anything else!