AP Programs as Educational Shock Therapy

Why is everyone at Bell Multicultural High School in D.C. taking Advanced Placement English courses and tests? Most of the students are low-performing, with parents who don't speak English at home. In the past, no one even considered requiring such students to tackle the long reading lists and tough vocabulary of college-level AP.

Yet Bell Multicultural is not alone in pushing what seem to be ill-prepared students into the program. In the course of compiling its 2009 Top U.S. High Schools list, NEWSWEEK has discovered schools across the country adopting this form of academic shock treatment. Instead of the traditional approach—remediating low-achieving students, building their skills slowly—some schools with significant numbers of low-income students are giving the full AP dose of frequent writing assignments and three-hour exams to nearly everyone.

Only in that way, administrators and teachers at these schools say, can their students—like football players running up and down stadium steps—build the necessary intellectual muscle for college. "It has provided an academic foundation for the school," says Bruce Hensel, administrator of Hogan Preparatory Academy in Kansas City, Mo., where 80 percent of the students are low-income, 65 percent take AP and only 1 percent last year passed the AP tests.

Those trying the shock treatment agree that it won't work in math or foreign language, where preparatory courses are essential. But nearly every other AP subject essentially requires only an ability to read and a willingness to study hard. Waiting until students are clearly ready won't work, the innovators say, because they are dealing with struggling minority students who many educators, and many of the students themselves, don't think can ever be ready. The only chance for many students to develop the necessary skills is to jump into AP, proponents say.

There is little data yet on whether this works, and there are plenty of skeptics. "Having failing students take AP courses as a solution to their academic struggles is like promoting a poor-hitting minor-league ballplayer to the New York Yankees in the hope that it will jump-start his career if he faces major-league pitching," says J. Martin Rochester, a political-science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who writes often on education. "It is not just a leap of faith but a leap of logic."

Florida Times-Union reporters Topher Sanders and Mary Kelli Palka revealed in May that in the four lowest-performing Duval County (Jacksonville) high schools, only 6 percent of the AP exams resulted in passing scores. "Students whose latest Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores showed they couldn't read at grade level filled 29 percent of the seats last year in Duval's AP classes," they reported. "Some students even attended remedial reading classes at the same time they were in AP classes such as U.S. history and English language."

But many parents, students and teachers in such schools support the embrace of AP, after years of remedial courses that produced poor results. "I really think it is a great opportunity for people like me," said Manuel Ventura during his senior year at Bell Multicultural last year, just before the school gave 393 AP tests, out of which only 8 percent produced passing scores. Carrie Grant, AP coordinator at Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School in Ft. Worth, Texas, said her students will never have a chance to get used to college-level learning unless in high school they "step up to the academic plate and swing."

Schools trying the shock treatment have been inspired by a select group of high schools ranking high on the NEWSWEEK public-school list, such as Preuss Charter in La Jolla, Calif. In those schools, low-income minority students have done well on the college-level tests. Two Dallas magnet schools ranked 1 and 2 by NEWSWEEK this year, the School for the Talented and Gifted and the School of Science and Engineering, have specialized in recruiting minorities and preparing them for the AP exams, attracting a flood of college recruiters as a result.

The rise of high-participation, low-passing-rate AP schools like Bell and Hogan has led NEWSWEEK this year to put them in a separate category, the Catching-Up list, for schools that have met the NEWSWEEK standard for college-level test participation but have AP passing rates below 10 percent. Once such schools pass the 10 percent passing mark, they will have about the same number of passing tests as the average American school, where passing rates are higher but participation is much lower.

A few principals have objected to being placed on a separate list, but most say they like the attention paid to their efforts to improve. David Christiansen, principal of Evans High School in Orlando, watched the portion of his seniors taking AP increase from 5 percent in 2006 to 40 percent last year. Their 5.9 percent passing rate, he says, will also rise with time.

"You have novice AP teachers that will get better with experience and novice AP students who will get better with experience," he says. "In the long term, it is the right thing to do for kids."

Rachael Brown, a former Bell teacher, complained in a blog post that publicity about Bell—the first high school in the Washington area to require all students to take AP—failed to explain the difficulties of getting every student to that higher level. Did she want the AP program canceled? No, she said. She wanted it strengthened. "There have to be supports, lots of them, in place for struggling students, and safeguards to make sure the highest-performing kids aren't being slowed up," she wrote. "Transition takes time; it's messy and makes more work for everyone, but is worth it in the end. As one student told me, 'I never thought I could learn this stuff.' That same student has already been accepted to three colleges."