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An influential education columnist is applauding the DC Public School system’s decision to expand Advanced Placement offerings, arguing that any motivated student should be allowed to take the college-level courses. But many high-poverty schools in DC simply assign students to AP classes even if they’re not willing to do the work.

In September I wrote a post questioning DCPS’s decision to require all high schools to offer at least six AP courses this year and eight next year, an increase over the previous minimum of four.

I pointed out that at DC’s high-poverty neighborhood high schools—the ones that must take all comers rather than selecting students who apply—70% of the AP tests received the lowest possible score, 1. (The maximum score is 5, and 3 is considered passing.) Did the bottom-level scores mean that many students weren’t even trying?

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, a longtime proponent of AP expansion, has now responded to my post by arguing, as he has in the past, that students benefit from AP classes regardless of whether they pass the test.

Mathews’ views are important. He publishes an annual ranking of high schools across the country, based on the number of AP tests given at a school, that has largely fueled the recent rapid expansion of AP courses across the country.

Mathews and I agree that any student willing to work hard should be able to take an AP course or something like it. But Mathews believes the problem is that schools are keeping motivated students out of AP classes because they don’t have top grades or haven’t met certain prerequisites. That was the case when Mathews first started writing about AP classes 30 years ago, and he says it’s still true in many schools today.

But that’s not the problem in DC. Instead, most high-poverty high schools here appear to be putting students into AP classes who haven’t chosen to be there. Those students aren’t getting anything out of the courses because they’re unwilling to do the necessary work. And the motivated students often don’t get the support they need because the size of the class is too large to allow that to happen.

Most AP teachers don’t have the leverage to exclude unmotivated students

After Mathews expressed interest in writing something about my post, I put him in touch with David Tansey, who teaches AP Statistics at Dunbar High School, a high-poverty DCPS school. In 2013, 94% of the AP exams given at Dunbar received a score of 1.

In his column, Mathews focused on Tansey’s ability to limit his class to motivated students, using that example to bolster his arguments for AP expansion. When Tansey decided last year that he would teach an AP class for the first time, he recruited selected students, told them this year’s course would require hard work, and gave them a letter their parents needed to sign before they could enroll.

But Mathews overlooked the fact that what Tansey did was highly unusual. Tansey is in his seventh year at Dunbar, which makes him one of the most senior teachers there, and he consistently gets high ratings under DCPS’s teacher evaluation system. The vast majority of AP teachers in schools like Dunbar don’t have the leverage to convince school administrators to limit their classes to motivated students, he told me.

Instead, Tansey said, administrators simply tell some students, “You’re taking AP,” whether the students want to or not. Perhaps it’s the only class that fits with a student’s schedule, or the other possible options are too crowded. And administrators may assume students who make As or Bs at their schools can handle AP-level work.

But that’s not the case. An AP course is supposed to cover a year of college-level work. But even high-achieving students at a school like Dunbar may be behind grade level, so they might have to first cover a year’s worth of high-school-level material before tackling AP material—all in the course of one year. That’s a huge lift.

Even motivated students at high-poverty schools often need intensive support to do AP-level work, ideally in small classes. But at the same time that DCPS has told high-poverty schools to expand AP offerings, it hasn’t given them money to hire more teachers. So schools are under more pressure than ever to increase the size of AP classes, to prevent other classes from getting too big.

Teachers can and do “dumb down” AP classes

The crux of Mathews’ pro-AP argument is that teachers can’t dumb down AP classes because “outside experts,” not the teachers themselves, grade the final exams. Although he acknowledges in his column that “a few AP teachers” commit “malpractice” by going easy on kids, he assumes the vast majority grade quizzes and essays on the same tough scale the outside experts will apply on the final AP exam.

But Tansey says that what Mathews assumes is a rare occurrence is actually common practice in high-poverty schools. Kids at schools like Dunbar, he says, have been “battered by failure.” If you apply AP-level standards to quizzes and give students Fs, they may just stop trying. And even students’ grades on the final AP exam, he says, aren’t that important to them because they arrive after the course is over.

Still, Tansey says that with a couple of exceptions, the 21 students in his AP class this year are working hard and getting more out of the experience than they would in a regular math class. So, even though he’s just now beginning to introduce AP-level material, Tansey’s experience seems to support at least part of Mathews’ hypothesis: motivated students will benefit from a more rigorous class.

But that doesn’t mean it has to be an AP class. As Tansey said in an email to Mathews that I was copied on, “‘Offer more APs!’ is the wrong call. ‘Offer challenging courses, like AP courses, that students have to choose to accept the rigor of’ is a better call.”

That’s a comment Mathews chose to ignore—as he chose to ignore the general thrust of Tansey’s critique. Perhaps that’s understandable: since writing a book in 1987 about Jaime Escalante, a Los Angeles teacher who worked wonders with low-income students in AP math, Mathews has built a career on waving the “AP-For-All” banner.

But DCPS officials, at least, should pause and consider whether simply mandating more AP courses in high-poverty schools, without providing funds for additional teachers, will actually benefit students. As Tansey suggests, a more sensible goal would be to match all students with classes they actually want to be in—even if it’s auto repair or carpentry rather than AP Statistics.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

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.