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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Take the Hard Course

This time of year, 8th grade parents often tell me how hard it is for them to pick courses for their child's first venture into high school (the following year). They want their child to be prepared for college, but also want them to enjoy their high school years. I'm amazed they think the two cannot be done at the same time.

I tell them to take the toughest course they can, and only drop back if a B or high C is difficult to achieve. They are often misled into believing "College Prep" classes are challenging. Maybe they used to be, but in today's climate, that would be the minimum if they are thinking about college.

Kay McSpadden, an English AP teacher from York (and a Rock Hill Parent) usually has a comment in the Saturday Charlotte Observer. Today's column talks about the value of AP (or IB) classes and can be read by clicking here.


Equity and the value of AP

Kay McSpadden
Community Columnist

Sometimes it is true only in the movies that "if you build it, they will come." On the other hand, they can't come if you don't build it.

That summarizes the dilemma that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools faces concerning Advanced Placement classes. The Equity Committee, a citizen advisory panel appointed by the CMS school board, presented a report this month that showed what it called "opportunity gaps" between high-poverty high schools and others in the system.

South Mecklenburg High, for example, offers 25 AP subjects, while Waddell offers just 10. The report recommends offering a set number of courses at each school and recruiting students to take them.

Solution not so simple

While the advisory panel's recommendations seem to offer equity, the solution isn't that simple.

As an Advanced Placement teacher in a high-poverty high school in South Carolina and the mother of sons who took AP courses, I understand both the educators' and the community's points of view. Advanced Placement classes are for most schools the "capstone" curriculum - the most challenging courses offered for students who have mastered foundational material for high school and are willing to take on the work of a college class. That extra work is usually rewarded with a weighted grade point average that can give students an edge in competing for selective colleges.

In the spring, students take AP exams administered by the College Board, and those scoring high enough receive actual college credit that transfers when they graduate from high school. Entering college with credits already on their transcripts means that students can finish earlier - an appealing prospect for parents who are footing a hefty tuition bill. (Though I would argue that students shouldn't rush through college - but that's another discussion.)

Offering AP courses is neither easy nor inexpensive for school districts, however. Each AP teacher must successfully complete coursework at a summer institute sponsored by the College Board. Each AP teacher must create a curriculum that the College Board vets and certifies. If a certified AP teacher transfers to another school, her certification goes with her - as does her curriculum.

AP's domino effect

AP courses are often "singletons" in a school's schedule, and if the AP enrollment is smaller than an average class size, the rest of the classes in that department are crowded with more students.

Since most schools are using block scheduling, the most successful AP courses - according to research by the College Board - are double-blocked so that they can meet all year long instead of in a single semester.

The criticism that American education is a mile wide and an inch deep is a valid one, and one that goes to the heart of the issues raised by the Equity Committee. Even the most ambitious student would be hard-pressed to fit in 10 AP courses in a high school schedule, much less 25. More importantly, offering many content-specific courses may not be as critical as offering students a deep immersion in a few - and trusting that investing the time and care in a deep immersion in a subject will teach them how to think about what they learn now and in the future more effectively than skimming lightly through many.

A recent study by the University of Texas bears this out. Researchers compared similar students who took either AP courses, dual credit classes offered in high schools in conjunction with two-year colleges, or regular college preparatory courses and found that AP students were far more successful in college than the other two groups. That means that students with the same SAT scores, from the same socioeconomic groups, and from the same cultural backgrounds taking even a single AP course versus any other type of courses did better in college - regardless of the score they made on the final College Board exam.

Cachet is valuable tradeoff

The reason isn't hard to figure. AP teachers are trained to teach to college expectations and have the time and resources to require students to learn to organize their time and develop a work ethic; the nationally normed test at the end of the course drives those expectations; and as the capstone of a high school, AP has a cachet that feels like a valuable tradeoff for the extra work load.

Ideally every high school class should push students to their greatest potential - students can and do get well prepared for work and college in classes other than AP classes.

School districts and their stakeholders need to recognize that expanding the number of AP offerings isn't the same thing as helping students succeed - and that students actively recruited into AP classes will need extra support, including double-blocking classes and offering pre-AP courses in middle school and up.

Then when the district has the resources to build more offerings, the students will come - and will do well.

Observer columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of "Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching." Write her

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