Pushing students into AP classes, no matter their level of preparation, has become a surrogate for excellence in education. The infamous Washington Post Challenge Index has provided an added impetus to this approach by rewarding schools with the highest number of graduating seniors taking AP, with high rankings.
Research supposedly shows that simply taking an AP class somehow inculcates students with a culture of hard work that prepares them for college. In Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, some high schools have been quietly eliminating on-level history courses, leaving students with the option of with the option of taking either U.S. History A Honors, or AP U.S. History A. At another high school, students are given stickers proclaiming they have taken AP courses.
Does the trend to push students into AP classes under the banner of “equity and excellence” accomplish anything more than garner schools a favorable rating on an arguably challenged index?
Take a look at the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) report on 2011 AP performance. According to Table A5, between forty to sixty percent of all students took at least one AP exam. According to Table B1, U.S. Government & Politics was the most popular AP course, followed by English Language & Composition. Psychology and World History also made the top favorites.
However, Table B2 shows that when it comes to performing well on the test, which means scoring three or higher, Asians and whites beat blacks and Hispanics by nearly thirty percentage points. This performance disparity is seen in almost every measure of academic performance. Is the aggressive push for AP then being used to circumvent the hard foundational work students would need to reap a tangible benefit? Another table, B5, it seems, answers this question in the affirmative.
According to Table B5, Richard Montgomery, the home of an International Baccalaureate magnet program, had nearly sixty-seven percent of students scoring a one or a two on the AP Computer Science A. When it came to Calculus AB more than sixty-five percent scored a four or a five on the AP test. Calculus, it seems, received better supporting instruction than Computer Science.
Once can reasonably surmise that AP performance depends on the school’s commitment providing the requisite hard foundational work. That is indeed the lesson math teacher Jaime Escalante taught us with his achievements.
MCPS has partnered with Pearson to produce a new curriculum euphemistically known as Curriculum 2.0 (a new TV show extolling the virtues of Curriculum 2.0 can be found here). In math, second-grade students, for example, will be learning “mathematical proficiency with addition and subtraction of whole numbers, including basic facts (sums to 20), to solve problems.” Most students from the wealthier parts of the county are more than likely to be proficient in this skill before second-grade. Consequently, if a rigorous, quality education is the goal, MCPS doesn’t seem to be starting off on the right foot. The trend of decreasing enrollment of white students, usually from the wealthier parts of the county, is likely to continue.