Photo by DC Central Kitchen on Flickr.

Although the number of students taking AP classes in the District has gone up dramatically, many fail the AP exam. But there’s a way to ensure that kids get a rigorous education without putting them into classes they’re not prepared for.

Partly due to a push to increase minority and low-income participation, the number of students taking AP classes has nearly doubled across the country in the last 10 years. In DC, the number of students has grown 45% since 2010, according to DCPS.

As access to AP classes has broadened, more students are failing the AP exams. While some say that students who fail the exam nevertheless benefit from taking a rigorous class, others argue that students who are unprepared and don’t get enough support can’t get anything meaningful out of the experience.

But there’s a way to give students a rigorous education without forcing them into water that’s over their heads. Instead of teaching them how to fill in bubbles on multiple-choice tests, we need to make sure they truly understand the material that’s put in front of them, in every subject and at every grade level. And the best way to do that is to get them to write about it, in a meaningful and structured way.

DCPS policies

In the District, the explosion in AP participation has a lot to do with DCPS policies. For the past 4 years, all DCPS high schools have been required to offer at least one AP class in each of 4 core subjects: Math, Science, English, and Social Studies. Those courses are open to any student who has taken the prerequisites, and the District covers all fees associated with taking the exams.

In addition, DCPS requires that in order to graduate each student must earn at least 2 credits (out of a required 24) in either an AP or International Baccalaureate class, or else in a Career and Technical Education (CTE) class (what used to be referred to as vocational education).

Different high schools offer different CTE classes, and the choices at a particular school may not fit a student’s interests. In those cases, students are basically required to take an AP or IB course in order to graduate.

And here, as across the nation, one incentive for high schools to expand their AP offerings has been Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews’ High School Challenge Index, which ranks schools by the number of AP exams taken divided by the number of students graduating in a given year.

The ranking doesn’t take account of how many students fail the exam. And generally, the AP failure rate is striking. In DC, only 14% of graduating DC seniors got a passing score on an AP exam. That’s a 50% increase since 2010, but it’s still below the national average of 20%—and even that figure is really low.

Does it matter if you fail?

If, as Mathews believes, it’s beneficial for students to take an AP class whether or not they pass the exam, it doesn’t matter how many students fail. The point is to include as many students as possible in the classes, not to select only the higher-achieving students who are likely to do well.

Some studies have shown that taking an AP class and the exam that goes with it leads to greater persistence or higher achievement in college, even for those students who fail the exam. But there’s some research on the other side, too.

One expert on the AP, Kristin Klopfenstein, doesn’t dispute the results of those studies, but she says it’s not clear that enrollment in AP classes is actually causing the positive effects. Klopfenstein has said that taking an AP class probably helps only those failing students who come close to passing the exam. If students are far behind, as many low-income students are, they’ll need “wrap-around support” in order to have true “access” to AP-level material.

Another AP expert, Philip Sadler, told the Post that for some unprepared students, taking an AP class is like taking an advanced French class without ever having studied French.

School demographics

Whether or not lower-achieving students benefit from taking an AP class may have something to do with the demographics of the school they attend. One AP physics teacher at Wilson High School told the Post she’s sure the students in her class benefit no matter what their score on the exam is.

That may be true at a school like Wilson, where 37% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals (FRM). At the other 8 neighborhood (i.e., non-selective DCPS) DC high schools the FRM figure is 99%.

No doubt there are some low-income students who are fully equipped to do AP work, but generally speaking there’s a huge and increasing gap in DC between the achievement levels of low- and high-income students. While the proficiency rate on standardized tests is about 60% at Wilson, at the other high schools it’s more like 20 or 25%.

So an AP teacher at Wilson who has only a few struggling students in the class may have the time to give them the support they need to get something out of it. At a high-poverty school the majority of students in the class are likely to be struggling, and for most teachers giving them the necessary support will be impossible.

Small AP classes, and writing for everyone

That doesn’t mean that DCPS should eliminate AP classes at high-poverty schools, because there are bound to be students there who could benefit, especially if they get some help. But instead of focusing on bringing as many students as possible into those classes, it would make sense for DCPS to drastically decrease their size so that teachers have a chance to give students the attention they need.

And what about the rest of the students at high-poverty schools? They need to be in courses they can understand, but that doesn’t mean their education has to be dumbed down.

If teachers use a structured program to get students writing about what they’re learning in a meaningful way, as is currently being done at 4 schools under a DCPS pilot program, they’ll stand a much better chance of absorbing the material and developing the analytical skills that AP classes are designed to foster. (Disclosure: I have contributed to funding this pilot program.)

Obviously, all this will cost money. But putting kids into classes they’re not prepared for and then not giving them the support they need to understand the material may well be a waste of time for many students, and their teachers.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.