February 13, 2010

The message of opening access to AP courses: "Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!"

Someone reminded me that because I was crazy-busy in the fall, I didn't comment on one local controversy a few months ago, so this is a catch-up post of sorts, in part justified by the February 4 story in USA Today and Leslie Postal's story earlier this week in the Orlando Sentinel. The St. Pete Times editorial board published two pieces on December 15 and December 16 criticizing local schools in central Florida for having low and widely varying "passing rates" on Advanced Placement exam subjects. By "passing rate," the Times is using the common threshhold score, 3 out of 5, for earning college credit. Never mind for the moment that the reasons why students take AP courses are not necessarily about college credit, nor do all colleges set 3 as the threshhold. One can assume that the wide variations in proportions earning a 3, 4, or 5 reflect an underlying variation in achievement in the classes. The editorials argue that the achievement in AP courses is too low and that variations are a direct reflection of teacher quality. In the first editorial, the board wrote,

The passing rates on the AP exam are often pathetic. It is a scandalous situation that fails students, misleads parents and wastes public money.

In the second, the board wrote,

District superintendents and school principals should hold teachers accountable for dismal passing rates.

These are conclusions from a superficial analysis. I know of situations where it is obvious that low scores are probably reflections of teacher quality, but I know of several classrooms where either students are scoring well despite low teacher quality or where students are scoring low though they have a fabulous teacher.

For example, I know of one school with two teachers in a particular AP subject taught in 12th grade. Students of both teachers have approximately equal proportions earning a 3, 4, or 5. Yet I know from talking with students that one of the teachers is engaging, providing both materials and an environment more reflective of a college class than the other, where discussion is squelched and theoretical frameworks are presented as narrowly as one could imagine (and this is in a topic where college classes would commonly revolve around discussion). That's right: two teachers, one school, different assignments in the year (how did that happen??), very different reception by students, similar AP scores on the measure the Times published and the editorial board cares about. Most obvious explanation: credit goes to these students' prior teacher(s) in the subject for getting them ready for the AP class they take in 12th grade. Did that possibility appear to the editorial board? Apparently not.

More broadly, members of the editorial board of the Times (and a number of people around the country) have the exactly wrong approach to challenging classes in high school, as evidenced by another point in the December 15 editorial: "There is some merit to the argument that passing rates are low because too many unprepared students are being steered into AP classes." This statement, which I've generally heard from middle-class or wealthy parents, assumes either a zero-sum game for schools (for some parents, that their children aren't getting enough exclusivity in AP credentials for college admissions offices) or that students in AP classes are worse off being in the AP classes than not. The latter is speculation by the editorial board without a clear research consensus (see below for a longer discussion). The former is not acceptable to me as a basis for making policy decisions.

On a philosophical basis, I am disturbed by the assumption that we always need to withhold content based on prior achievement. Why does the fictional Ms. Frizzle tell students to "take chances, make mistakes, get messy!" in elementary school, but we have to shake in our boots at the possibility that we might be challenging older students? There are plenty of classes (e.g., U.S. history) where keeping students out makes little sense, and the Times is dead wrong in their approach on this issue.

The alternative to opening up opportunity: a situation such as at Berkeley High School, where the breakup of the school into mini-schools several years ago has segregated students, left a disproportionate number of white students in AP science classes, and led to a real zero-sum game of reduced science instruction as some parents and educators propose redirecting effort away from science labs to smaller class sizes elsewhere in the school. That becomes the dynamic when science labs for advanced courses are the arena for a privileged few instead of a more common expectation that teenagers should be encouraged to take challenging classes.

Addendum: Paul Cottle wrote a blog entry this morning on the same subject, and he refers to Kristin Klopfenstein's research, including an article she published last year with Kathleen Thomas (earlier version PDF). The research is mixed; for a different view with recent research, see a 2008 Northeastern Educational Research Association paper by Xinhui Xiong, K. D. Matterny, and E. J. Shaw. I don't think that schools should respond to the mixed research either by shutting down access to challenging material or by making the teaching of AP courses a higher-risk assignment for teachers than other assignments.

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Posted in Education policy on February 13, 2010 8:43 AM |