First published in the Mercury News, December 27, 2010. Since archived.
In “Waiting for Superman,” the much-discussed documentary on charter schools, Redwood City’s Summit Preparatory Charter School is celebrated for its inclusive curriculum. All Summit students are required to take college prep and Advanced Placement courses, with no separate tracks for high-, middle- or low-achieving students.
However, perhaps some students would be better off on a less aggressive track, since many Summit students graduate unprepared for college.
According to the 2010 Early Assessment Program test, half of Summit’s current senior class is ineligible for California State University college-level math and composition courses. The EAP test, designed by the CSU to warn high school juniors of their likely path to remediation,assesses second-year algebra and third-year English.
As most Summit juniors took precalculus and Advanced Placement English, the much easier EAP test should present little challenge. Such a high failure rate is a troubling sign. Yet Summit placed all seniors into still more Advanced Placement English, history and math courses,in spite of strong indications that some students weren’t capable of the work.
Should high schools require students to take college-level courses when they struggle with K-12 material? Many schools do so with the best intentions, convinced that under-represented students only lack the right courses for success — even those with serious academic deficiencies.
As Stanford professor Michael Kirst observes,”Access, rather than preparation, is … the theme of many of the professionals who mediate between the high schools and the colleges.” Meanwhile, community colleges and state universities everywhere are buckling under the weight of remedial high school graduates whose weak skills put them years—and thousands of tuition dollars—away from college-credit courses.
As a teacher and test prep coach, I have worked with students to help them avoid remediation, but it’s often too late. Sadly,the choice between high school curriculum and “college-level” courses is a zero-sum game. Time spent in AP courses is time lost to catching up.
Those who advocate “AP for all” argue that some students have a chance at passing, and that even a failing score can improve college outcomes. But fewer than half of Summit’s Advanced Placement tests receive a passing score.
An National Center for Education Statistics study shows that remedial math placement halves the likelihood of a four-year degree, and remedial reading levels lower it even further. Is a year wasted in an AP course really going to improve college outcomes more than a year spent escaping remediation?
Schools face few controls for their AP courses, which are weighted with an extra grade point average point. Teachers can and do give As and Bs to students who fail the course’s standardized test.
The College Board should institute mandatory grading policies, linking the weighted course grades directly to test scores. Failure to test or a ‘1’ score should result in a loss of the AP designation; a’2′ score should receive a C. Only a 4 or 5 score should receive an A.
Saul Geiser, an education researcher at UC Berkeley, recommends that bonus points be awarded for AP courses only where students demonstrate actual mastery of the subject by achieving a passing score on the AP exam.
Either approach would end these courses for unprepared students. Schools wouldn’t risk putting their students in courses if it meant dramatically lowering GPAs — and even if they were willing to, the students themselves would refuse.
Attractive transcripts are worthless when facing off against college placement tests, which decide remediation status and are merciless in their allegiance to demonstrated abilities. Besides, students shouldn’t have to wait until college to get a high school education.