The Washington Post

Allowing all students to take high-level courses will help raise college readiness

- Jay Mathews jay.mathews@washpost.com

The rapid decline in the use of the SAT and ACT college entrance exams has brought cries of anguish from parents and educators who think this will reduce student readiness for college.

Melissa Korn, higher education reporter for the Wall Street Journal, identified three possible changes that might make up for the loss of those tests — more emphasis on report card grades and course difficulty, new and better college entrance exams, or randomizin­g college admissions so qualified minority and lowincome applicants get a better shot.

Such suggestion­s are interestin­g but don’t address a key problem in our high schools. Their courses usually don’t do enough to prepare students for college.

I have an idea that would both give college admissions officers a better measure of preparedne­ss and raise the level of high school instructio­n. Why not open college-level programs like Advanced Placement and Internatio­nal Baccalaure­ate to all high school students? That would give them a chance to prepare for college by doing actual college work.

AP and IB have been around a long time. The programs began in the middle of the last century with upper-class motives. AP was designed to give the best high school students a chance to earn college credit and accelerate their studies when they got to the ivy halls of higher education. IB was created to give children of diplomats and internatio­nal business executives a high standard of instructio­n in the hodgepodge of private schools that catered to such people.

AP and IB were long considered too tough for most students. But in the 1980s some AP and IB teachers, even in lowincome neighborho­ods, began to show that college-level instructio­n could significan­tly raise the college readiness of their students, even if they didn’t pass the three-to-five-hour AP and IB exams. AP and IB test results don’t arrive until summer so they don’t affect report card grades.

Very gradually the number of public schools embracing these programs for everybody has grown. AP and IB data I have been collecting shows that in 1998 only 1 percent of U.S. schools had the equivalent of at least half of their 11th- and 12th-graders taking at least one AP or IB course and final exam. By 2019 that percentage had grown to 12 percent. About two-thirds of high school graduates go immediatel­y to college.

Some school systems have shown that AP and IB programs work even for economical­ly disadvanta­ged students, as long as they are given strong encouragem­ent and extra time for learning. Some large charter school systems like IDEA, whose students are mostly from lowincome families in Texas, have proved that requiring all students to take some AP and IB classes has improved learning.

They can also get college credit. Trevor Packer, a senior vice president at the College Board and head of the AP program, told me 99 percent of U.S. colleges and universiti­es award course credit to students who do well on the AP or IB final exams.

Some very large school districts, such as Fairfax County and Houston, open AP and IB classes to all students who want to enroll. Many districts, however, appear to have maintained the traditiona­l barriers. They only let in students who have high grades or recommenda­tions from teachers and counselors. College Board data suggests that more than half of schools are in that stingy category.

You may be an average or below-average student who would benefit from college-level work, but you will not be allowed into AP or IB at many schools. In some places you will be admitted only if your mother or father signs a form saying they know they have disregarde­d profession­al advice in demanding your inclusion.

I have been watching closely several districts that opened AP and IB to all two decades ago. They are doing well. It has been a long time since I heard a parent complain that the courses were too difficult or that the lowincome students who enroll in them were slowing down instructio­n. Those districts have AP and IB teachers who love surprising students with how much they can learn from courses that demand critical thinking and from exams that are written and graded by independen­t experts and thus can’t be dumbed down.

The SAT and the ACT did little to improve high school instructio­n. Bob Schaeffer, executive director of Fairtest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, told me that “there is no question that AP and IB exams — at least the portions that are not multiple choice — are closer to the types of assessment­s students face in college than the ACT/SAT bubble-filling experience is.”

Only about half the time on AP tests — and usually no time on IB tests — is spent on multiplech­oice questions.

Schaeffer’s organizati­on leads the effort to end reliance on the SAT and the ACT in college admissions. He said people have been asking him if AP and IB might play a more significan­t role in the admissions process of selective schools. He said that seems likely but cautioned that “it would be important for higher education officials to evaluate applicants’ coursework in the context of what was offered at the high schools they attended.”

AP, IB and a much smaller program called Cambridge Internatio­nal provide the most challengin­g courses and tests in American high schools. Several studies show they have increased college-readiness even in students from lower-income families. Getting rid of the barriers to enrollment in such courses would improve those high schools and make the transition to college easier.

Educators at schools that have opened AP and IB to all warn that that policy will work only if students are given additional time and support to learn. That’s true. But if we want our children prepared for college and other demands of adult life, what’s wrong with doing what is necessary to make that happen?

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