Saturday, January 17, 2015

Should ninth-graders be taking AP courses?

I’ve been wishing for years that our district would not teach the kids to chase unreflectively after praise rather than think for themselves about right and wrong. Now I’m starting to think that the district itself does the same thing.

It seems like I can’t go to a City High event or open a City High email without being reminded of the many accolades that City High has been awarded. Many of these are in the form of being named “one of America’s top high schools.” Everyone likes to hear nice things about their kids’ school, but I think most people know to take these assertions with a grain of salt. For one thing, test scores usually play a big role in the criteria, and our district’s high test scores are probably largely a function of its demographics, not its school policies. Are the district’s policies making those scores higher or lower than demographics alone would predict? Don’t ask. (And of course not everyone agrees that test scores are the ultimate measure of the quality of a person’s education.)

A little high school boosterism is to be expected. But if the district pursues certain policies just to chase this kind of accolade, then it can actually do some harm. One of the factors that goes into many of these “nation’s best” assertions is the number of students enrolled in AP courses. The number of AP sections has also been an ongoing bone of contention among people who are concerned about equity issues between City High and West High. These forces have created an incentive for the high schools to enroll as many students in AP courses as they can, regardless of whether those courses are in the best interests of the students enrolled.

I know a number of students who were invited to take AP U.S. History in the first semester of their freshman year in high school. I also know kids who accepted that invitation only to discover that the class was too hard and too much work, and who then dropped it. I’m open to the idea that there might be the rare ninth-grader who is genuinely driven to take a college-level U.S. History course, but that’s not what appears to be happening at our high school. I know at least six kids over the past two years who were invited to take the AP course as a freshman, and I don’t know all that many high school kids.

I have a lot of doubts about the value of AP courses. I would much rather the district craft its own honors-style courses than offer courses that are so single-mindedly focused on passing a standardized test created by some outside entity. Moreover, I don’t believe for a minute that an AP course is a substitute for a college course in the same subject matter. I wonder whether students are actually doing themselves a disservice to take an AP course rather than wait and take the college course (which the AP credit enables them to skip). For a couple of critiques of AP courses, see here and here.

But say what you want about high school juniors and seniors taking AP courses. Freshmen? If the course really is college-level, do freshmen belong in it? If the course is suitable for freshmen, is it really a substitute for college course work? My fear is that neither is true: that the courses are inappropriate for freshmen and overvalued, too.

Does the district’s pursuit of AP enrollments reflect thoughtful inquiry into the value and appropriateness of AP courses? Or it is just the result of chasing whatever the conventional wisdom values?


Matt Townsley said...

What are your thoughts on HS students enrolling in AP courses vs. enrolling in dual credit courses at a local university or community college?

Chris said...

Matt— I don’t see why high school students shouldn’t be able to enroll in local college classes, though whether it’s appropriate would depend on the kid and the course. That would have to come closer to simulating a college-level experience than a high school AP course would. I’d have the same concerns, though, if it seemed like the school were encouraging freshmen to enroll just to raise some statistic, or if college classes became the next sought-after résumé item.

Part of me does wonder what the rush is. There’s something to be said, educationally, for the passing of time, and for being a little older when you’re taking college courses. Here in Iowa City, a lot of kids find themselves on an honors math track in junior high and high school. That makes sense to me, but it puts them on pace to take calculus as seniors. I really wonder about the value, even for advanced students, of taking calculus in high school. Most students won’t ever need calculus in their adult lives. The ones who do will have ample opportunity to take it in college, once their career paths become clearer. Why take it as a high school senior?

Karen W said...

Put me in the what's the rush camp. I think high schools ought to offer college prep course work that doesn't involve just dumping kids right into college-level work.

I worry that as schools encourage students to enroll in AP/dual credit courses at the CC/U that they just won't offer an adequate sequence of high school college prep courses. Why should kids have to drive to CC to take senior English? And what of the kids who can't manage the transportation for off campus coursework? Or could manage the course at even a high school honors level, but not the homework load expected at the AP/college level?

And then what, do we get to the point where kids applying for college are expected to have already taken college coursework? You can only get into college after high school graduation if you were ready for college-level work as a senior? Junior? Freshman?

Which I guess means that I think that kids should have the option to take college coursework if there aren't enough interested kids at the high school to offer the class. But if they can fill the class, the high school should offer it on campus. (I'm open to being convinced otherwise).

I do disagree on the calculus thing. Some kids like math and are ready for algebra in 7th or 8th grade. I loved algebra, and I would have hated having to wait a year to take it in high school instead. I don't think there is any harm to taking calculus in high school--although there may be harm in taking a year off from math studies if you intend to pick it up again--and no reason students can't take it again as college freshman if they need it for their chosen majors.

Chris said...

Thanks, Karen. I definitely agree that some kids are ready for Algebra earlier and should have the option to accelerate. I'd even agree that it makes for *some* high school seniors to take calculus. I guess my fear is that calculus will has?) become the default option for any kids who accelerated at the algebra stage, and also that the students who take calculus as seniors will be taking it in place of (not in addition to) college calculus.

local to the core said...

I am pretty sure West High does not allow freshmen to take AP History. According to their course book it just says it is for juniors and seniors. I wonder why the two schools differ? City High also offers a Civil War class, and a few different science classes than West High does. Again, I wonder what the schools have different options?

Chris said...

Local to the core -- Thanks for the comment. There does seem to be a difference between the City and West course catalogs when it comes to AP courses. The City catalog specifically says that ninth-graders can take AP U.S. History if they have a 97th percentile Iowa Assessments composite score and all A's in eighth-grade social studies. (See page 5 here.) The West High catalog says that AP U.S. History is available only to juniors and seniors. (See pages 26-27 here.)

Unlike the City catalog, though, the West catalog says that ninth-graders are eligible to take AP Computer Science, Calculus, Human Geography, German, French, Spanish, Spanish Literature. How often freshmen end up in those classes is impossible to tell from the catalog.

I’m not suggesting that freshmen should be banned altogether from AP courses, regardless of the individual circumstances. I do question whether it’s a good idea to encourage a lot of first-semester freshmen to take an AP course just because they have good general test scores and A’s in junior high.

I’d be interested to know just how many freshmen are enrolled in AP courses at both City and West.

Julie VanDyke said...

I've got a fun one for ya Chris. When I was in junior high in the ICCSD, before 9th grade got moved to the high schools here, we didn't have AP anything there...that I remember anyway. But when I went to West High, because of scores as opposed to my grades I suppose, they PUT me in AP English level classes...though I can't remember if it was all three years 10-12...I think it may have been a special surprise to me in 10th grade though because I remember thinking - WHY AM I IN HERE, I DIDN'T ASK FOR THIS...never-the-less, it did give me one of my favorite teachers who had probably the most influence on anything I've ever written since (though I'm pretty sure she'd be less than pleased at my stream-of-consciousness style...still she's the one responsible for that after making me read James Joyce and introducing the jumping barns).