Society and Culture, Education

Why we shouldn’t oversell the benefit of having more students in ‘advanced’ classes

Last fall, I wrote about the problems with our decade-long national mania for “closing [race- and income-based] achievement gaps” in K-12 education. Our relentless efforts to boost reading and math proficiency among the most disadvantaged students have caused us to slight the needs of everyone else—especially high-achievers.

Gap-closing enthusiasts respond that theirs is actually a win-win exercise that benefits all students. Education Trust Vice President Amy Wilkins has termed it a “false choice” to suggest “that we have to make a choice as a country between equity and excellence.” She argues, “Our policies need to marry both.” The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews argues that enrolling more students in Advanced Placement classes is good for everyone—that it challenges these students and has no adverse impact on rigor or the success of their peers.

Well, last week the College Board released its 2011 AP results, and the Washington DC results should give pause to those who insist there are no trade-offs. DC has seen a half-decade of aggressive gap-closing reforms led by two talented chancellors (Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson), both of whom have gauged success primarily in terms of reading and math achievement for the worst-served students.

Last week, the College Board reported that DC has indeed managed to more than double the number of students taking at least one AP test in the past decade, from 467 in 2001 to 1,084 in 2011. Yet, despite this huge increase in the number of AP test-takers, the total share of DCPS graduates passing at least one test has actually declined, from 6.8 percent in 2001 to 6.6 percent in 2011. In fact, the rate had peaked at 7.1 percent in 2006, just before the DC reform efforts started.

The point is simple: Let’s not oversell the benefit of merely having more students sit in “advanced” classes, and we shouldn’t be surprised if reforms wholly targeted on reducing mediocrity don’t do much to boost excellence.

5 thoughts on “Why we shouldn’t oversell the benefit of having more students in ‘advanced’ classes

  1. The educrats actually like the idea of holding the children who advance quickly back and using them to instruct other children. I have seen this in practice personally As if the purpose of the more academically adept was to pull the team along, not to learn all they can in school. Couple that attitude with placing more mediocre students in the tougher classes and you can see where a drop in acheivement would occur.

  2. I am by no means saying that 6.6% is good, but the numbers mean that they went from 73 students passing to 164.

    The problems of educational inequity are many. Teacher unions are preventing good teachers from being hired and bad teachers fired. Teacher unions prevent different pay scales applied to different disciplines. Schools have moved away from the three Rs to indoctrination. Schools are still based on an agrarian time scale and physically formed like manufacturing plants. Single parent homes…..leading to no parenting do to work. Two parent homes with both parents working. And there are so many other things to say, but you get the picture.

    I agree that we should be identifying those students who can go further and put them into more difficult or decelerated classes. Finding those students who are mired in cesspool schools is difficult. Yes, the truly motivated, mature child can find their way to the top even in these schools, but the curve is too shifted to the left.

    • Dave,

      The percentage is of total graduates, NOT students taking an AP test, meaning that even though the number of people taking tests more than doubled, the number of students passing at least one test actually declined. If you click on the link you will see that the number of students passing at least one AP test declined from 285 to 276 between 2010 and 2011.

  3. I’m surprised the pass rate didn’t fall more. If 2006, the year before the DC reforms started, the kids in the AP classes were the ones that thought they could manage the test, and only 7.1% were correct, then when you match those kids one-for-one with kids who didn’t self-select for AP (by doubling the number of test-takers), pass rate should drop.

  4. Schools would be better off teaching only the basics, such as algebra/geometry, the big 3 sciences (phys, chem, bio), etc. Smarter students should be allowed to test out of classes at the end of each school year and graduate early.

    For example, a particularly bright student could test out of algebra, geometry, chemistry and english composition, and could graduate a semester early. Let the bright ones excel, don’t force them to stick around school simply because they haven’t done their four years.

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