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Why CMS, And All Schools, Should Open Up Advanced Classes To Every Student

Education writer Jay Mathews argues that school districts should make advanced classes available to everyone.
Education writer Jay Mathews argues that school districts should make advanced classes available to everyone.


Although the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have one of the highest rates of college-level test participation in the country, they have not quite opened their Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge courses to all students. The evidence suggests they should. Let me explain.

Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews

All three of those programs were originally designed to engage only the most academically talented students. Nobody dreamed that districts such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg would be adding students who did not have top grades but showed some ability and motivation that, with good teaching, could bring success in handling college material.

When a movement began about 20 years ago to open those courses to everybody, regardless of grade-point average or teacher recommendation, many critics thought the educators pushing the change were not thinking it through. They said the self-appointed AP students would flunk and ruin their self-esteem, or would slow down the class, or would be shoved into AP by their parents and have no real interest.

The best evidence that the naysayers were wrong comes from Northern Virginia. Several school districts full of both rich and poor students — particularly Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties — have had AP, IB and Cambridge courses open to all since the late 1990s with no such problems. Other districts around the country, such as Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C., have adopted the same policy with similarly good results.

Here is what I learned from interviewing teachers and students in those districts: Many of the students though not ready for college-level work did better than expected. Their potential had been hidden by typical adolescent reluctance to work hard unless inspired. Some flunked the AP, IB or Cambridge exams, but realized that they learned more, and were more prepared for college than if they had taken a regular course. They felt proud to have lasted the whole year in AP.

The underperforming students didn’t slow down the AP, IB or Cambridge classes. In many ways, those students improved the discussions. The fast kids realized that the slower kids often asked good questions. There were some students pushed into AP by their parents, but most of those realized that the classes were more interesting than the regular courses. They told me they liked the fact that they weren’t bored.

In 2003, 94,539 U.S. students from low-income families took an AP exam, according to the College Board, which administers the test. By 2016, that number was 554,584, a 487 percent increase. The quality of instruction and level of student effort held up, evidenced by the fact that the average score on all AP exams remained steady from 2003 to 2016 despite the portion of low-income test-takers increasing from 9.5 to 21.8 percent. Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who runs the AP program, said the average score was actually higher in 2016 than in some years when fewer students took those exams.

Some teachers have told me this is because the College Board AP graders dumbed down their definition of what was a good score. They have never been able to cite evidence of this because there is none. Teachers who have seen the actual AP, IB and Cambridge tests and results realize that nothing has been made easier.

The people running the AP, IB and Cambridge programs in Charlotte-Mecklenburg know this. That is why their test participation rate is so high compared to other districts and why so many of their low-income students thrive in those courses. They say they are moving toward opening the courses to everyone.

It would help if CMS corrected two policies. First, any student new to IB wanting to take an IB course in middle or high school must first enter through a lottery and qualify for one of district’s IB magnet programs. Those students must be reading at grade level and pass at least three IB courses every year to stay enrolled in the program. That ignores the key lesson learned in Northern Virginia: if you let everyone into IB, some will struggle but they will learn more there than they would in a regular course and be better prepared for college. I wrote a book in 2005, “Supertest,” that described in detail how this worked at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County. The IB courses forced average students to read and write more, and discuss more of what they read and wrote, than they would have had to do in a regular course. They also had to take a three- to five-hour IB final exam, whereas their regular course final would have been only an hour. Many students who did not pass the IB exam have told me they were glad they took it because the longer exams they got in college were not a shock.

Second, CMS should drop its requirement, recommended by the College Board, that students take the regular courses in biology and chemistry before they take the AP courses in those subjects. The College Board has no such recommendation for AP Physics. Having prerequisite courses for AP Calculus and AP courses in foreign languages makes sense, but not in the sciences. There are some students — my son Joe was one — who do fine taking the AP versions of those sciences without taking the regular courses first. Joe was not a science natural, either. He became a journalist, like his parents.

I once asked a student at Scarsdale High School in New York how much of a benefit it was to him to take Biology 1 as a ninth-grader before he took AP Biology in the 12th grade. “None whatsoever,” he said. While there is no research that shows this, over the years I’ve had extensive interviews with other AP science students who first took a regular science course. Their answers have consistently been the same on this issue: The regular course doesn’t help much.

The real problem with opening AP to all is financial, not teaching. Once a district has all of those students taking AP, it should require that all take the AP exam. The data show that those who don’t take the exam do no better in college than students who do not take AP at all. The AP test fees are lower than they used to be when adjusted for inflation, but the cost is still $94. The state of North Carolina covers the cost for students.

In other states, some districts, without generous state backing, have found the money. They realize that $94 is a worthy investment and that enrolling in a challenging college-level course will take a student much further in life.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist for The Washington Post, his employer for nearly 50 years. He is the author of nine books, including five about high schools. His 2009 book "Work Hard. Be Nice." about the birth and growth of the KIPP charter school network was a New York Times best-seller. He created and supervises the annual Challenge Index rankings known as America's Most Challenging High Schools.