Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Advanced Placement

By Jay Mathews — August 07, 2002 6 min read
Why college-level high school programs will retain their influence, despite current problems.

This has been a season for bashing Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, the college-level courses and tests that have become increasingly popular in American high schools.

Harvard University said it was no longer going to give credit for anything less than the top score, a 5, on AP examinations for new students seeking sophomore standing. The Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City said it was removing the AP label from its courses in order to let its teachers be more creative. A committee of distinguished scholars assembled by the National Research Council said AP and IB courses had to become deeper and more conceptual, shedding their tendency to teach a lot of facts. (“Scholars Critique Advanced Classes in Math, Science,” Feb. 20, 2002.)

Supporters of the two programs (and there is no bigger cheerleader for AP and IB than I am) wondered what was going on. Was this some errant backwash from the negative reaction to a different issue, the new state achievement tests being given to all students? Were the private schools, desperate for marketing devices, thinking they could lure more students by saying they were better than AP? Was this the outbreak of fear and loathing that hits every educational program that gets bigger than expected?

Perhaps it was a bit of all that. But I think each development is a healthy sign that college-level courses are succeeding in high school to such an extent that more and more educators are accepting that reality and adjusting to it. These are growing pains, good for everybody.

American high schools gave about 1.5 million Advanced Placement tests to about 900,000 students in 35 subjects this past spring, the largest numbers ever. I think AP tests will someday outnumber SAT tests as the great measure of high school learning, and American education will be better for it. Advanced Placement’s younger, European-based counterpart, the International Baccalaureate program, gave only about 70,000 tests to about 27,000 students in 36 subjects this year in the United States, but it is growing fast and has become just as impressive to college-admissions officers as Advanced Placement.

If anyone can think of an academic program in the last decade that has had as positive an impact on American public high schools as AP, I would like to hear what it is. I can’t think of any that come even close. With the complementary growth of IB and the widening view that such courses and tests are vital for low-income students and minorities, the influence of college-level programs in high schools is bound to increase, no matter what bumps they encounter along the way.

Consider the most recent anti-AP moments. Harvard is entitled to measure the worth of AP scores any way it wants. Many students admitted to selective colleges don’t use their AP or IB credits for much anyway. The value of AP and IB is in acclimating high school students to the weight of college-level reading lists and the trauma of college-level examinations. Having taken AP and IB, they are better prepared to succeed in whatever courses they take that first, frightening semester of college. It doesn’t matter to most of them whether they get formal college credit or not.

The value of AP and IB is in acclimating high school students to the weight of college-level reading lists and the trauma of college-level exams.

The Fieldston School’s decision to shed the AP label is both understandable and, for schools blessed with creative teachers, a subtle boost for AP. Like other private schools that have declared themselves no-AP zones, Fieldston will still give many AP exams to its students each May. Teachers just won’t call the courses that prepare students for those exams AP courses. But the change is more than semantics. My daughter attends a high school that is also considering dropping the AP label. In some cases, it has already virtually done so, with absolutely no harm to the school or to the growth of Advanced Placement.

My daughter’s American-history teacher gives a course as far from the typical AP fare as one could imagine. It is a delightful compendium of social movements, literary evolution, ordinary lives, and cross-cultural influences. Toward the end of the year, somewhat worried about this approach, I asked her to tell me the significance of the Civil War battles of Vicksburg, Antietam, and Gettysburg. She had no good answers. This produced some intergenerational tension.

But the teacher, Bryan Garman, knew what he was doing. All the various parts of the subject wrapped themselves together by the end of the year, so that when I was helping her prepare for the big exam, pitting her answers against mine as we did a sample multiple-choice test, I lost by a wide margin. This pleased her, and showed that the AP test is compatible to all kinds of teaching approaches.

Competitive high schools like Fieldston will not be able to rid themselves of AP tests, because college-admissions offices will still demand them, but they won’t have to think of AP as a straitjacket.

The National Research Council report, which got the most publicity, may be critical of AP and IB, but it is trying to make them better, not get rid of them. And it concludes by saying that AP and IB should be given to more students, particularly minority students, the most important point of all.

The AP and IB programs could help many more students than they do now.

Despite the raised standards that Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate have brought to so many schools, the programs still have not helped nearly as many students as they could. Forty percent of American high schools still do not have college-level courses. Most of those that have AP and IB offer them only to a thin upper crust of A students, rather than to the much larger group of students who could benefit from a blast of collegiate learning.

At Garfield High School in low-income East Los Angeles, for instance, students of every kind, including those who might have a C or two on their transcripts, are welcomed into AP classes because two decades of experience has shown the faculty that even students who flunk an AP course are better prepared for college than those kept out of the courses altogether.

Millburn High School in high-income Millburn, N.J., like most American schools, uses the opposite approach. Dozens of students every year are told their grades are not good enough for AP. Consider the idiocy of this. Those same Millburn students, if they crossed the country and enrolled at Garfield, could take all the AP courses they wished and, experience shows, would do very well at them.

Five years ago, bothered by this discrepancy, I invented a simple way of measuring AP and IB participation in every high school. Newsweek magazine uses it every three years or so for its 100 Top High Schools list, although the full list, which can be found on The Washington Post‘s Web site ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp- srv/education/articles/tophighschools0601.htm), has 494 schools on it. It identifies every public school, other than schools that select most of their students based on test scores, that gives at least as many AP or IB tests as it has graduating seniors. That means about a 50 percent participation rate, since the tests taken by juniors, and even some sophomores, are also counted.

Even students who flunk an AP course are better prepared than those kept out of the courses altogether.

I am preparing another Newsweek list to be published in the spring of 2003, using test data from this past year. I urge those teachers and administrators at schools which gave as many AP or IB tests this year as they had graduating seniors to send the number of tests and the number of graduates to me at mathewsj@washpost.com.

The Newsweek piece will, I hope, be about the many problems Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate have encountered. So I am eager to hear all kinds of stories.

Whatever happens, American high schools are going to be giving students in increasing numbers a hard taste of college academic life. How that works out will determine the character of American secondary education for many years to come. Everybody is going to have growing pains, and the more we come to understand them, the better off we will be.

Jay Mathews is an education reporter and columnist for The Washington Post and the author of Class Struggle: What’s Wrong (and Right) About America’s Best Public High Schools. He serves on the board of Editorial Projects in Education, the independent nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2002 edition of Education Week as Advanced Placement

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