Guest Blogger: Michael Goldstein On AP

Yikes! High school juniors are being waylaid in hallways across the nation – by eager guidance counselors and principals. Their quest? Get more kids to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses, particularly low-income and minority students.

In the suburbs, “B-average” kids, particularly minorities, are being cajoled to join the academic heavyweights in more rigorous classes; in inner-city schools, like the one I run, AP courses are being offered for the first time, again disproportionately affecting black and Hispanics.

But this harmful trend must be stopped! So argues Patrick Welsh, a suburban AP English teacher in USA Today (he’s also the resident teacher mouthpiece at The Washington Post). This is a disaster, he says, AP is being watered down.

“It’s better for a child to have a great teacher in a regular course than a poor teacher in an AP course,” Welsh writes. C’mon, great rhetoric but that’s not the issue. Most of us would take a great teacher in ANY course over a poor one in our favorite subject. The real question is whether it is better for a kid to have a decent teacher in, say, a regular English 12 course where he can definitely coast, or a more rigorous AP English course where he’ll struggle, complain, get frustrated, perhaps study all weekend and pull a C- on a test, write twice as many essays, and read three times as many books.

Welsh’s answer is: stick with the easy course kid and stay out of the way of the really promising students. Kids coaxed into AP probably don’t have the skills and motivation to succeed. And they’ll fail in higher numbers. This is all bad.

He’s right that they’ll likely fail at a higher level but wrong that this slippage is inevitable. First, teachers will definitely need to work a lot harder to motivate the “marginal” kids – and many don’t want to do that, it’s easier to blame the kids than question anything we’re doing. Second, to combat the low skills too many students currently have, schools must provide – and require – a ton of extra effort among the coaxed-in AP kids, so they can legitimately keep up with the “A” students. Our school, for example, does precisely that. Our seniors do more than 100 hours of required after-school tutoring each year on top of their classes and the homework. And teachers work nights, weekends, and vacations towards the noble goal of getting inner-city kids – who have the talent but start high school with very low skills – to succeed.

Besides, is trying and failing bad as Welsh contends? In fact, the College Board has data showing that even students who score a 1 or 2 on the AP test (too low to earn college credit) are more likely to succeed in college than kids who don’t take AP at all. Welsh argues that the AP courses themselves are becoming watered down, possibly hurting the “A” students in the process. That’s a legitimate point and most teachers teach to the middle. But this problem is not inevitable. Rather than stop trying to do as much as we can for disadvantaged kids, let’s hold schools accountable for their use of the AP label by publishing their AP test scores, and comparing and benchmarking by race and income to national averages. A little transparency can go a long way.

Finally, Welsh contends: “Any reasonably bright kid could get a 3 on the English literature test without taking the course.” Later he adds: “70% of African-American students who took the AP test last May in English literature received scores of 1 or 2.” Does Mr. Welsh think all those kids aren’t reasonably bright? Hopefully not. He’s just rhetorically trapped. He likes to indulge in the College-Board-as-evil-corporate-behemoth attack, feathering the bottom line with $82 AP fees. To undermine the College Board, he must show that their claim that AP equals “college-level mastery” is false. Most Americans could not score a “3” on the AP English exam, and a “3” probably correlates fairly well to the ability to pass a typical university Writing Course – not at Princeton, Yale, Stanford or Duke, perhaps, but at most colleges.

Schools need to get beyond the hype,” Welsh writes, “and their quest for a better public image, especially one that suggests that the needs of minority students are being met when they are not.” Amen to that. Thankfully, the drive for more challenging standards, and – and the AP dust-up is just the latest front in that effort – says to kids, parents, teachers, and administrators: “Stop whining, a lot more kids can succeed at the hard stuff if we all work our asses off on their behalf, so let’s get going.”

Michael Goldstein is founder of the MATCH Public Charter School in Boston, MA.

Want more on this issue? Jenny D weighs-in here along with her readers.

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