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County schools set up kids to fail

In her investigative report on the results of Maryland's expansion of student participation in the College Board's Advanced Placement program, Liz Bowie presented a comprehensive picture of the failure of this initiative to fulfill its promise. To the contrary, "it has not delivered vast numbers of students from low-performing high schools to selective colleges with credits in their pockets."

The tragedy, as Ms. Bowie has found, is that a high percentage of students who may have earned an A or B in their high school AP course have suffered the disappointment of failing scores when they received their test results from the College Board. Since retiring as an AP English teacher in 2007, I have noted several developments in the use of the AP program as a dynamic in secondary education, each of which, I believe, has contributed to the relatively dismal performance rate cited by Ms. Bowie.

The first is the introduction of the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, initially piloted in Baltimore County at Woodlawn High School and later expanded to other schools. The program's basic intent is to identify average students who have the potential to take more challenging coursework and, by focusing on organizational thinking and study skills, prepare them to be successful in rigorous academic coursework. An unfortunate spinoff of the program is its avowed expectation that all AVID students will take one or more AP courses before they graduate. The Sun reported on May 17, 2006, that "more than half of Baltimore County's AVID seniors have met that challenge" during the 2005-06 school year. I'm guessing that that number has not significantly decreased in recent years.

Another recent development in public education, especially in Baltimore County, is the process known as "detracking." Not too many years ago, courses were classified by three difficulty levels: Standard, Honors, and Gifted/Talented. However, in the name of "rigor," the registration process that high school students experience sometimes eliminates the Standard track, leaving them to choose between Honors, G/T, and AP. Thus, "Standard students" find themselves in Honors classes while "Honors students" are scheduled into GT/AP courses for which they are not necessarily prepared. The result is that course content has often had to be watered down.

Perhaps the biggest culprit in the entire sorry state of affairs is Newsweek's system of rating what they term "the country's best high schools." This system places a high priority on a school's participation in the AP program. Five percent of a school's score is based on the number of AP courses it offers; 10 percent reflects the school's combined SAT/ACT/AP test scores; another 10 percent for AP/IB/AICE exam scores; and 75 percent is awarded based on graduation rate, college-acceptance rate, and number of AP and other college-level exams given per student. Translation: A school can enhance its Newsweek rating by simply increasing the number of AP test takers, regardless of the scores they may earn. Students may fail the exam, but the school gains in its ranking.

Small wonder that, as Ms. Bowie reported, "many students arrive at college with AP courses on their transcripts, but with skills so low that they must take remedial classes." There is nothing wrong with encouraging students to respond to academic challenges. But it is terribly wrong not to counsel them out of an exam for which they have been candidly set up for failure.

—George W. Nellies

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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