Inside the AP Testing Debate

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No high-school program has grown as quickly, or to such massive proportions, as Advanced Placement (AP) in the last two decades. It now sets the academic agenda for almost all of the best high schools and is virtually required for any student who wants to get into a selective college. But it is also becoming very popular with administrators of our worst high schools, who think that even students below grade level can build needed academic muscle by struggling in a college-level AP or International Baccalaureate course (IB). Many of them flunk the AP and IB exams. Is there no better way to help them improve? This has become one of the hottest topics for American educators as we enter what is likely to be considered the AP decade, with its influence growing even stronger.

Has Advanced Placement taken over our high schools? Apparently. And the ripple effect goes all the way down the academic chain. Award-winning school districts are redesigning their kindergarten curricula to ensure 5-year-olds are on the path to AP in high school. The honors track, once a respected institution, is losing ground to the college-level, college-approved AP and IB. In some impoverished high schools, students are enrolled in AP whether they ask for it or not. In our richest neighborhoods, students compete for the most AP courses on their transcripts as if they were collecting trophies at a track meet.

AP, IB, and programs like the Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education or the dual-enrollment courses in community colleges were originally designed to give high-school students a taste of college trauma, and a little college credit. It was to be like camping out in the desert with friends before joining the Marines, a preparatory exercise that program founders did not think would attract many students. In the last two decades, however, the number of participants has grown to at least a third of high-school seniors, most of them in AP.

This AP-ization of America has led some critics to warn of overstressed teens, straitjacketed teachers and one-size-fits-all course offerings. In a new book, AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program, Texas Christian University economist Kristin Klopfenstein writes, "it is unlikely that many of the students who are the target of such an AP expansion will benefit."

Some educators blame NEWSWEEK—which has ranked public high schools by AP, IB, and Cambridge test participation since 1998—and me, the inventor of NEWSWEEK's rating system called the Challenge Index, for fueling AP's meteoric growth. In our defense, the students and their families who choose AP courses tell a different story: they have little interest in list rankings, but crave courses that will prepare them for college and increase their chances of getting into the choosiest universities.

Along with the demands of college-admission offices for challenging high-school work, the greatest influence on the spread of AP, IB, and similar programs has been high-school teachers' frustration with low expectations for their students. More than two decades ago, East Los Angeles calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, who died March 30 and whose story was told in the film Stand and Deliver, shocked the educational establishment by showing that children of Hispanic day laborers and seamstresses could do well in AP if given enough time and encouragement. In 1987, Escalante's school had 26 percent of all the Mexican-Americans who passed an AP calculus test in the country, good for them but an indictment of the academic baby food being fed similar students elsewhere.

Some inner-city principals and teachers were so angry at this they began insisting that students try AP whether they were ready or not. Since 2009, NEWSWEEK has taken such schools—with strong AP participation but AP test-passing rates under 10 percent—off the Best High Schools list and put them on a special Catching Up list. Several schools have since raised their passing rates with improved teaching and moved back to the main list. Despite the criticism, the students and parents I have interviewed at such schools say they are happy with the increased pace and depth, even if they do not pass the independently written and graded AP exams.

In most schools, research shows, AP is providing new dividends. Philip M. Sadler of Harvard, Robert H. Tai of the University of Virginia, and other scholars also writing in AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program conclude AP courses on average have more experienced teachers and better lab work than regular courses. High-school students who take AP science courses are more likely to earn science degrees in college. Educators have applauded AP plans to make the science exams more congenial to exploring some topics in depth, as IB does.

And what about that stereotype of high schools full of weary, AP-laden students gulping caffeine to keep them going past 2 a.m.? Only about 10 percent of American high schools are as demanding as that. They are as typical of AP as Woody Allen movies are of American cinema. The average U.S. high schooler does less than an hour of homework a night and spends twice as much time watching television. And it shows in their academic achievements. There has been no significant increase in average reading or math achievement for American 17-year-olds in the last three decades. If AP, IB, and other college-level classes can get more of this age group off the sofa and back to their books, it would be a step forward for the country and a good measure of which schools are really serious about academics.

Jay Mathews is a NEWSWEEK contributing editor and a Washington Post columnist.