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.