Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Great AP Debate

Jay Mathews over at the Washington Post has created quite a flurry by jumping in on a topic that needs real discussion, whether or not to open the Advanced Placement classes to anyone wanting to apply.  His focus is around two questions on a survey given to over a thousand AP teachers:

“Other than expecting students to fulfill prerequisites, are your high school’s AP classes generally open to any student who wants to take them, or are there limits on access, such as GPA or teacher approval?”

".....which is closer to their (your) own view: “The more students taking AP courses the better--even when they do poorly in the course, they benefit from the challenge and experience” or “Only students who can handle the material should take AP courses--otherwise it’s not fair to them, their classmates, their teachers, and the quality of the program.”

Mathews takes the stance that teachers that limit the entry to students are not taking the kids' needs into account, and are more focused with program performance.  His comment is typical of someone who doesn't seem to accept the enabling nature of our society.

The problem with this attitude is that the screening done is almost always going to overlook two important factors in judging the academic possibilities of teenagers---motivation and maturation. A student who really wants to take AP U.S. history, and signs a contract promising to do the long homework assignments and participate in class, is likely to do much better than his or her sophomore year C-minus in world history would predict. That sophomore, in addition, could be a very different person when his or her junior year begins. Kids grow up, sometimes very quickly.

How about a little background from my school. 

First of all, I've been teaching Advanced Placement for two years.  My department has had AP courses for about six years.  Both European and U.S. History classes test in.  I don't test in.  However, I do look at previous History and English grades, and I do drop students that do not have good grades, or that get bad recommendations from other History and English teachers (I'll explain why in a moment).  I have zero, I repeat ZERO, pressure from the administration to get my kids to pass the Advanced Placement exam.  Nor have I had one ounce of pressure to let more kids enroll in the class (aside from getting more in the classroom because of budget issues).  I look at the AP exam as a measure of how well I'm teaching, and a chance for kids to receive a credit hike when they head off to college.  So most of the pressure is self-imposed, not something made up by the department or my administration. 

Enrollment in my class has increased.  The first year it was offered 17 students took the class, and 8 took the exam.  This year 24 took the class and 19 are taking the exam.  Next year's enrollment (as of last week) is at 81, quite a little jump from this year.  U.S. History (the Junior year AP course) has about 30 kids currently.  That means that some 50 kids are looking to go from a non-AP course right into a Senior year, college level poli-sci course, something that is not to be taken lightly. 

This brings us back to Mathews questions.  I'm all for open Advanced Placement enrollment.  Why not let students take their shot at a level of coursework that might go above-and-beyond the standard fare?  Here's why, because we have a society that enables students to the point of letting them off the hook of just about any "contract".  Notice that Jay Mathews states, " A student who really wants to take AP U.S. history, and signs a contract promising to do the long homework assignments and participate in class", a fairly straight concept until you get the realization from the student and the parent that they are over their heads, or in my case, don't want to work so hard during their Senior year.  To make matters worse, my situation dictates that there are no other options for the students if they are failing, meaning the student can't transfer to another Government class.  There isn't one.  In which case I need to play the gatekeeper because if they end up failing a course that is required for graduation, I'm going to take a serious amount of wasted time fighting with students and parents that have been told that they have been right for years. 

So open up AP tests, I'm all for it.  But then realize that you are going to get in a situation where the administration will have to buckle down and have complete faith in the teacher.  And since I would rather spend more time in the classroom teaching, and less time in a counselor or admin's office squaring off with parents, I'm going to pick and choose.  

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