APs for all?

“Who am I to tell a student you can’t be in honors or AP?” said a guidance counselor at New Mission High School (a charter school in Boston) in a fascinating WGBH report. The gist of the report, titled “The Best Boston High School You’ve Probably Never Heard Of,” was that some public high schools are successful because they push kids to take Honors and AP courses and never say no to students who want to do so.

There’s certainly something appealing about that point of view. We know that there is a large achievement gap in this area, and in part it’s due to students who feel that they are “not good enough” for an honors or AP course.

Yes, we should encourage more students to reach for the stars. Yes, as I was taught in my very first year of teaching, we should be creating pumps, not filters. But there’s more to the story than that.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Consider three schools that are socioeconomically similar (more on that issue below) and roughly equal in size:

  • In school #1 there are strict gates blocking many students from honors and AP courses: a placement test, a teacher recommendation, parental signatures, and no weighted GPA to provide an incentive (more of that below as well). Students who are on the fence are discouraged from over-reaching. Those who take the AP exams tend to do very well on them: 50 seniors take a calculus AP, and 42 of those earn a 4 or a 5. Those 42 are primarily white.
  • In school #2 the floodgates have opened. Anyone who wants to can take an honors or AP course. A weighted GPA encourages them to do so. Students who take the AP exams do not do well on them (on average): 120 seniors take a calculus AP, and 48 of them earn a 4 or a 5. Note that this is slightly better than school #1 in absolute numbers, but much lower percentagewise.
  • In school #3 the guidance counselors and math teachers encourage students who are on the fence to stretch themselves by taking an honors or AP course. Teacher recommendations are required, but overriding a recommendation is not too onerous. In this school 60 seniors take a calculus AP, and 45 of them earn a 4 or a 5.

These numbers are totally fabricated, of course, in order to make an abstract point a bit more concrete. The question is, why shouldn’t all high schools be like school #2? Compared with school #1, you get six additional seniors with a high score on the AP Exam, and a whopping 70 additional seniors who have accepted the challenge of a rigorous course in which they probably learned a lot even without doing well on the AP Exam. This sounds great, doesn’t it? To quote the WGBH report:

A national education association last year recognized the school for “tenaciously changing the life trajectories of its students.”

The school wants to do even better. The goal is for every student to take at least one Advanced Placement, or AP, course by the time they graduate.

“The core of the instruction they receive is critical,” Headmaster Naia Wilson said. “They have to get the feel for the rigor before they step into a college campus because if they haven’t experienced that, we’re setting them up for failure.”

Hard to argue with that, isn’t it? For a low-income inner-city school in which a majority of students are black or Latinx, New Mission’s record of 90% going to college is certainly impressive. The report does have a caveat, however: students have to apply to the school, and the admissions process includes writing an essay. Does this requirement result in an artificial sample? Who knows?

So how does New Mission fit in among my three fictional schools? Here’s what the WGBH report says:

Students don’t need teacher recommendations or approval to take an AP or honors class. They just have to sit through a sample class so they and their parents know what the course requires.

That seems reasonable. So New Mission is mostly like school #2, but with a proviso that makes it halfway to school #3.

There are a few loose ends here. First of all, what is likely to happen in school #2? Well, there are a couple of ways it could go, depending on an important technical issue:

If the school prohibits dropping a course after it has started, you could well end up with a class where a large number of students are disgruntled, failing, and generally unhappy,. This creates an experience that is bad for everyone — the failing students, the students who are successful, and of course the teacher, who is faced with an impossible task of teaching a group in which a critical mass of students don’t want to be there.

If, on the other hand, the school lets students freely drop, you end up with a scheduling nightmare. Will there be enough room in college-prep classes for all students to want to drop down into them? Will those classes be too small or much too large if predictions about number of dropping students turn out to be wrong? Will students have to rearrange their entire schedule in order to fit into a CP class that does have room? There’s no way to win here.

Second, what about GPA? The big issue in many schools is whether to weight it or not (i.e., give a boost to grades in honors and AP courses). But that’s a red herring, as each college recalculates GPAs according to their own formula anyway. Weighted GPA is a bad idea, as it encourages students to take a course that’s too difficult. For instance, consider the student quoted in the WGBH study: “Next year, he’ll be a junior, and plans to take three AP classes because he’s learned those classes could help boost his grade point average.” That’s a terrible reason. If the three AP classes are appropriate, they’re appropriate; if they aren’t, they won’t become so because of a GPA boost.

Finally, I promised to write something about socioeconomic status. This is a big problem, much bigger than I can address in this post. Let’s just say that there is a huge disparity between schools that serve high-SES and low-SES clienteles. The disparity has a complicated set of causes, ranging from parental expectations to student preparation in elementary and middle school. Fixing the disparity will require a similarly complicated set of solutions. Maybe New Mission has a handle on the solution. (Weston, by the way, with an extremely high SES, is primarily like school #3 in my fictional list above.)

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston