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The All-Purpose Educational Miracle Tool

In the latest installment of his Advanced Placement fan club, Jay Mathews tries to make the case that other writers and researchers are finally catching up to his 24 years of pronouncements on the subject.

So after more than two decades of underwhelming scholarly interest in this topic, I am delighted to report a surge of serious AP research, with four new studies in the past year and a fine piece by Andrew Mollison in the latest issue of the quarterly Education Next summing them up.

As he consistently does, Mathews puts gives far too much credit to the AP program (and International Baccalaureate, another advanced study program that is not the same – despite Mathews insistence that it is) as an educational miracle worker.

Almost all the new studies show that students who get a good score on an AP test in high school do better in college than those who get a bad score or don’t take AP.

Which only makes sense since AP classes were designed to give students the opportunity to do college-level work while still in high school. But Mathews wants to go beyond that and claim that students who take AP courses and do poorly still go on to do well in college.

While he would like the research to back him up on his hypothesis, Mathews only proof comes from anecdotes about some students from a few AP teachers. Still he persists in the claim despite this finding from one study that he notes in his own article.

But his results indicate, in most cases, that students who take and fail an AP test are not much more likely to graduate from college than similar students who do not take an AP test.

Certainly every student should be given the opportunity to take AP classes. I’ve both taken and taught them and if taught well, they can be a valuable experience for both teacher and student.

What bothers me, however, is that Mathews’ belief that almost every high school student should be taking them, even if they do poorly and don’t pass the end of course exam, is not realistic. Not every high school student is capable of doing college-level work in every subject.

In the overly large school district I work for (and which Mathews lavishes with praise for our support of AP and IB programs) far too many students are pressured into taking AP classes they are not prepared for or interested in. And with the increasing numbers in AP classes has also come the pressure from administrators and parents to make sure everyone passes. After all, we live in Lake Wobegon, where all the students are above average. Unfortunately, this is leading to a watering down of the curriculums and a big jump in business for AP tutors.

The bottom line in all this is that AP classes are not designed for everyone. And, at the risk of being politically incorrect, neither is a college education. Instead of trying to force every student into the same AP mold – college prep is the only way – we need to open high school students to more post-graduation options while offering them a solid educational foundation for whatever they choose to do.


  1. Dan

    I have felt the push from administrators to make sure as many people who can take my AP World History class. Some national rankings are based entirely on AP scores and they are a factor in school ranking in the state. However, of my 115 students (down from 140 at the beginning of the year), probably half should be in an honors or even college prep version of the class. Yet, because there is no honors (because we have an AP version of the course) and the academic pressures, students who should be at a different level aren’t.

    Certainly this a topic that needs more focus.

  2. Tim

    The “national ranking” you’re faced with is probably the Challenge Index, developed and promoted by Jay Mathews. His listing is based entirely on how many students take AP tests, regardless of how they actually score on those tests.

    Unfortunately, many schools and districts buy into the Index and it certainly makes headlines around here every year.

  3. Dan

    It certainly isn’t driving force, but we used to be in the top 1000. Now that we are not, there is a subtle push to get back on it. My class is considered one of the keys – it is the first AP class any student can take. Sophomore take it.

  4. Ms. Cornelius

    No, US News and World Report ranks high schools first and foremost on the number of students/ number of AP classes taken ratio.

    I have been taken to task for expecting my AP students to do too much homework to the exclusion of three hours a day of sports practice. And yet, the scores have gone up. Ooooh, a conundrum for the administration!

  5. Jay Mathews

    I would love to hear from the teacher posting this very
    thoughtful comment. I am at mathewsj@washpost.com. My short
    answer is that I have yet to
    see any harm in taking an AP course. If there is some, I
    would like interview the students who have been harmed and
    to report on it in the paper. The research DOES
    indicate in all studies so far that getting a 3 or higher on
    an AP test does correlate with improved college graduation
    chances, and there
    is no way to get a 3 on an AP test unless you take the course
    and the test. We have had a generation of well-meaning
    teachers who steered marginal kids away from AP, but I have
    inalterably affected by teachers who explained to me why they
    did the opposite, and how much it helped those kids.

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