In the 1970s, Mike Riley was a young Chicago teacher trying to save failing inner-city students. He found they blossomed if he simply sat them down each day after class and made sure they did their homework. "They went from F's to honor roll, and I realized that... they weren't dumb kids, just kids we hadn't connected to," he says. Riley learned that even the most apathetic students responded to a challenge--as long as they had the right support.
Today he is the superintendent of schools in Bellevue, Wash., a hilly and ethnically diverse Seattle suburb on the leading edge of a movement to take this lesson to the next level. Riley wants to make the hardest classes in U.S. high schools today--the college-level Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses--mandatory for nearly all graduates. If he succeeds, he will help accelerate a transformation of American secondary education that has sparked intense debate among educators.
This month more than a million students in 14,000 high schools took 1,750,000 AP exams, a 10 percent increase over last year and twice the number of these college-level tests taken in 1996. That means that 245 more schools are eligible for the 2003 Challenge Index, which ranks 739 public schools according to the ratio of AP or IB tests taken by all students divided by the number of graduating seniors. Schools that select more than half their students by exams or other academic criteria are not eligible, because they have few, if any, of the average students who need a boost from AP or IB. Some of these magnet schools achieve extraordinary results, partly because they get the best students. In the last index, in 2000, only 494 schools were included. (AP's younger, European-based counterpart, IB, is also on the rise, with 77,285 tests given in American schools this month.) The index uses AP and IB as a measure because schools that push these tests are most likely to stretch young minds--which should be the fundamental purpose of education.
Some experts think AP is growing so fast and spreading so far it could eventually supplant the SAT and the ACT as America's most influential test. At Harvard--the dream school for many high-performing seniors--the dean of admissions says AP is already a better predictor of college grades than the SAT. One reason could be that students get only one shot at the AP, unlike the SATs, which many retake several times in order to boost their scores. More important, AP tests a whole year of learning, while the SAT assesses a specific set of skills that many educators think have little relation to academic potential in college. College-admissions officers at many schools say that AP and IB have acquired the status of backstage passes at a rock concert. Selective universities begin to ask questions if they see that applicants have not taken the tests available at their high schools. Even freshmen and sophomores are crowding into AP courses once open only to juniors and seniors. At Miller Place High School on New York's Long Island, guidance director Joseph W. Connolly says 40 percent of this year's 10th graders took AP European history--an unheard-of proportion a decade ago.
Both AP and IB students answer lengthy free-response questions that are graded by actual human beings (AP also has multiple-choice questions). If their scores are high enough, students can earn college credit. They also get a taste of the higher-level exams they'll face on campus. Jordan Wish, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., took two AP and four IB tests this month--25 hours of tests with not much time for sleep each night. "Right now I am not feeling so good," Wish said as he crammed in some last-minute studying for the difficult AP physics test. But he thinks the extra effort will be good preparation for Princeton, where he'll be a freshman this fall.
Proponents say AP and IB have exposed many average suburban teenagers to a level of instruction once reserved only for honor students and, even more significantly, have energized inner-city schools. From 1998 to 2002, AP participation by underrepresented minority students increased 77 percent and participation by low-income students increased 101 percent, while overall participation rose only 48 percent. But some administrators and university educators warn that pushing the programs too far and too quickly could dilute their benefits. A recent report by the National Research Council says AP and IB courses should delve more deeply into fewer topics. A few colleges have become more demanding as well. Last year Harvard announced that it would give advanced standing only to students who had the top AP grade, a 5, the equivalent of a college A, on four required AP tests. There are complaints that many of the new AP--students are failing the tests. And some high-school principals say that it is better for their more-ambitious students to take courses at local colleges rather than enroll in AP or IB. "There are many of us who would celebrate the exit of AP from high-school life," says Marilyn Colyar, assistant principal at San Marino High School in California. "I certainly believe in a rigorous curriculum for all students," she says, "but "a class can be challenging and relevant, AP or not."
The controversy over AP has become particularly intense in the private schools and affluent public schools that were the first to adopt the program in 1956, when it was little more than a way to keep high-performing seniors from getting bored. Andrew Meyers, head of the history department at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, says he was not sympathetic three years ago when a student complained about being forced to stay on the AP superhighway without stopping to explore some intriguing side roads. But then, Meyers says, he realized that when-ever a student in his AP American-history course asked a thoughtful question not quite on the topic, he often heard himself saying, "That's interesting... but we have to move on to the next era." Fieldston, Dalton, Exeter and a few other private schools have declared themselves AP-free zones. Instead of the AP history course he used to teach each spring, Meyers is offering one of his favorite electives, "Inventing Gotham," during which each student devises a historical tour of New York City. Similar electives are being offered at other schools shedding the AP label, although many of their students still take AP tests in order to impress colleges.
Many advocates of college-level courses say the prep schools are guilty of an elitist reaction to programs that are helping more and more average and below-average schools, as if AP and IB were last year's high fashions that had to be thrown out because similar clothes were being sold at Kmart. At the average high school, "the --kids would not get into elite colleges if they did not have AP courses," says Nicholas Lemann, author of "The Big Test," a history of the SAT, "but Fieldston knows that for socioeconomic reasons, their kids do not need AP to persuade those colleges to take them." Lemann and others fear that the rarefied complaints of privileged schools could slow the spread of AP and IB to poor districts where students need the challenge.
Some teachers have accused the College Board, which sponsors the AP, of promoting the program in order to collect the $80 test fees from all those students eager for an advantage in the college-admissions race. (IB is even more expensive, but schools usually pay the test fees.) Educators also bicker over the growing use of AP as a measure of school quality. NEWSWEEK's list of top high schools has been compared to U.S. News & World Report's annual "America's Best Colleges" list by educators who say such rankings distort the strengths of individual schools. The National Research Council report complained that the NEWSWEEK list had "taken on a life of its own," with high schools publishing their ratings and schools not making the list posting "disclaimers on their Web sites indicating why they are not there."
Despite this criticism, the majority of educators say they continue to support the growth of AP and IB. A recent straw-poll survey by the American School Board Journal found that 80 percent of readers wanted more of their students to take the college-level courses. And initial opposition often disappears if schools provide extra help for students who need it. Pat Hyland, principal of Mountain View (Calif.) High School, says she heard many worries when she opened her AP courses to all, but they soon faded away. "We have added tutorial sessions and a variety of other measures to bolster the kids," she says.
Many communities have found that adding AP really turns a school around. Seven years ago, when Tim Berkey became principal of Perry High School in a rural area east of Cleveland, there were no AP or IB classes at all. He told teachers about the marked change in student attitude and achievement he had seen at his previous school, Adlai Stevenson in suburban Chicago, when the AP program was opened to everyone willing to work that hard. Five years ago Perry High started with 87 AP tests; this month it administered 214. "We believed in kids, held high expectations, provided them with the resources, tools and challenging opportunities, and then simply got out of their way," Berkey says.
Lemann, who thinks the SAT hinders educational improvement, says AP and IB have had the opposite effect--much to the surprise of many educators who are generally opposed to the spread of standardized tests. "It has become a wonderful and effective way to produce a massive upgrading of the high- school curriculum," Lemann says. "These were unintended consequences, but good unintended consequences."
The commitment to giving more high schoolers a useful dose of college exam-week trauma has turned an old elementary-school building in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., into an IB hothouse--and the top school on the 2003 NEWSWEEK list. Five hundred teenagers, picked by lottery from 13 local districts, have enrolled in the International Academy, while their neighborhood friends shy away from the workload. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into," says Bhavana Bhaya, a senior who took 30 hours of IB exams this month at the public school near Detroit, "but I am glad I am here." The effort paid off, says senior James Kurecka. He was afraid his 1270 SAT score and 27 ACT score would not have been enough to get into the University of Michigan's prestigious College of Engineering; he believes the IB label did the trick.
Even students whose grades and test scores in high school were mediocre are more likely to graduate from college if they have had some challenging high-school --courses such as AP and IB, according to a 1999 study by U.S. Education Department researcher Clifford Adelman. That finding was particularly true for minorities. The Science Academy of South Texas, a public school that draws students from three rural counties in the Rio Grande Valley, has sent several migrant workers' children to high-tech colleges by exposing them to difficult AP assignments. Norma Flores, a senior, says she often started school late in the fall because her migrant-laborer family needed her in the cornfields. "I had to work twice as hard to catch up," she says. But next fall, fortified by college-level courses, she will study aerospace engineering at the University of Texas-Pan American campus in Edinburg.
Riley, the superintendent in Bellevue, says the criticism of AP and IB demonstrates how ubiquitous these programs have become, and how many previously ignored students are being helped. "Elitists will always try to find higher ground when it becomes apparent that others can scale their hill," he says. "While AP's standards, tests and curriculum have not changed, there are those who once thought the program was the gold standard but now see it as tarnished. What's the only, and I underscore only, thing that has changed? More kids are included." And like his students in Chicago nearly 30 years ago, he's betting that they will all thrive.