- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

There is a troubling trend in public schools to enroll more students in Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

It is believed having average and below-average students enroll in harder classes will cause them to learn more and become better prepared for college. The College Board (the folks who also control the Scholastic Aptitude Test) push to expand its once exclusive AP programs has succeeded in numbers: they have more than doubled in the past 10 years.

However, there are many problems. AP has always had an aura. Students who get into AP classes are known for hard work and intellect. Being accepted into these classes provides students a sense of accomplishment. If all students take AP classes and no one is denied access, that sense of accomplishment vanishes. The very thing that makes AP so special will no longer be special, and AP itself will stand for Average Placement.

Some view this as elitism. That’s why tracking, in which students are placed in classes with others of similar abilities, is no longer popular. Supposedly, tracking makes children with less ability feel inferior and higher ability children feel superior.

Well, doesn’t that provide children not in advanced and honor classes a major incentive to work harder to get into them?

Besides, what is wrong with students feeling special? “The Incredibles” touched upon this theme when Dash, the boy who runs faster than everybody, is asked by his parents to stifle his speed so other children won’t feel so bad. AP teachers will have to make compromises and dumb down their lessons to not lose those students unable to keep with the others.

Imagine how coaches would react if told to accept all students on a team with no tryouts. Or, to start a player who lacked the requisite skills, just to boost a kid’s self-confidence.

Smart kids already get the short end of the stick on privileges. Gifted education is the worst-funded part of the education budget, good students rarely are recognized at school and are often ridiculed by peers. Now, their one haven, AP classes, where they have felt safe among other similar kids is becoming homogenized.

Another rationale for putting more students in AP is to provide them with more rigorous courses. But it isn’t the material that makes AP challenging. It is the teacher’s demands. And AP teachers tend to be the hardest-working at a high school. Why? Because the workload is such an average instructor would shy from it. There are plenty of teachers who don’t want to take home loads of papers to grade, hold study sessions after school and sacrifice Saturdays and summer vacations to attend AP workshops.

By saying students need more rigor, administrators inadvertently criticize non-AP teachers. Instead of watering down AP classes with unqualified students, why don’t principals call to task teachers of regular classes who don’t create rigorous lessons?

Finally, there is a false assumption among educators all students want to go to college. This is not true. Over the years options for students have been eliminated due to the undue focus on standards and testing. The now nearly defunct vocational education programs and the practically depleted arts programs used to provide a valid alternative for those with limited success on the straight academic route.

It was once the charge of American public schools to provide a free education to all. Now schools push for all students to attend four-year universities.

L.A. Unified School District is considering a proposal to require that all students take rigorous courses, ultimately transforming LAUSD into a college preparatory school district, according to Superintendent Roy Romer. Is that the mission now of LAUSD?

There is a difference between providing students options and forcing them to take classes in which they are disinterested. If students struggle in regular English classes, you don’t put them in advanced versions of the same classes.

I teach journalism and I have seen amazing dedication from non-AP students. I have come to know some terrific young people who only look forward every day to journalism class. Working on the newspaper versus reading a textbook hooks them into the school. Forcing students to take more academic courses, will not only make them miserable sitting in classes that are not relevant to them, but they will be denied any elective course that might otherwise ignite their minds, a course that would get them out of bed for school and provide them some success.

Even if by some miracle all high school graduates could gain acceptance at four-year universities, there aren’t enough spaces for everyone to attend. Just last year, the University of California (UC) had to turn away many qualified students (the top 12 percent of the high-school graduating seniors) because of overcrowding. These students were asked to attend two-year colleges until slots opened. How will students deal with knowing all their hard work won’t pay off?

Already the AP program has begun losing luster. With so many students taking AP classes and receiving passing scores of 3 or more, some colleges such as Harvard no longer accept AP scores less than a 5 for students to receive university credit.

Also, elite schools increasingly (most recently, Santa Monica’s Crossroads) are eliminating the whole AP program as too restrictive and for not allowing more reflective projects.

Of course, students should be given the opportunity to succeed, yes, provided tutoring and intervention programs. But don’t force students who hate school into AP classes.

A college degree does provide more financial security, but shouldn’t a secondary school’s main mission be to stimulate student curiosity? If the College Board wants a long-term future, it needs to figure out what its mission is all about.


The writer is a 16-year veteran high school English teacher, and part-time instructor at California State University, Northridge, and author of “The $100,000 Teacher: A Teacher’s Solution to America’s Declining Public School System” (Capital Books).

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