WASHINGTON – Rigorous, college-level classes in high school aren’t just for honors students anymore.
Public schools across Maryland are aggressively boosting the number of high school students enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, as administrators look for ways to target pupils other than honors students who may perform well in AP classes.
“It’s not rocket science, and it’s not just for the elite,” said Steven Johnson, director of curriculum for Carroll County schools. “It’s for anyone who is planning on going to college.”
But not everyone likes the idea of opening Advanced Placement classes to students who may not be so advanced.
“I think AP programs are being dumbed down to accommodate primarily the careers of administrators, so they are able to point and say they have all these kids enrolled,” said Tom Shaffer, a former teacher in Charles County.
Shaffer said opening the program slows the pace and curbs the difficulty of AP classes. He said the large classes can also burden teachers: He admits assigning less writing over the years, as his AP European history class grew from about 13 to almost 40 students.
Besides large class sizes, critics said opening the classes to more students will also lead to a drop in AP test scores.
Yet scores have stayed about the same or not dropped significantly in the state, said Ayeola Boothe Kinlaw, an associate director with the College Board, which oversees the AP program.
“There shouldn’t be criteria,” for admission to the classes, Kinlaw said. “But we’re not going to dumb down the course. We’re never going to dilute it.”
Traditionally, most high schools only let honors students enroll in the challenging courses, which are usually capped by a standardized exam related to the specific subject. Not all students have to take the exam, but those who do can earn college credit if they score a 5, 4 or 3 — the equivalent of an A, B or C — on the test.
Administrators, including Johnson, said allowing non-honors students into AP boosts the confidence and achievement of those teens — students who may think they cannot succeed in such a class.
Maryland has become a leader in that push to add students to AP classes, according to College Board data. The number of students taking AP tests in Maryland climbed by 44 percent from the 2000-2001 school year to the 2002-2003 school year.
Calvert County saw the number of AP test-takers jump from just two students in 1997 to 783 students in 2003, said Blaine Adams, the county’s assistant director of accountability and testing.
Julie Dixon, who teaches AP biology at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick, said her AP biology enrollment has jumped from 25 to 60 students in the past four years. She now teaches two classes of 30 students, and said more non-honors students enroll.
“It’s not that they can’t do it, but they never had to do it before,” Dixon said. “Out of the 60 kids I have right now in AP, maybe some of them shouldn’t be there, based not on their ability, but their work ethic. But you just keep pushing them and hopefully they get the work ethic.”
But Shaffer said that is not fair to the best and brightest students.
“Kids are finding it easier,” he said.
Shaffer also said he “dislikes this business of cramming three, four or five (AP) classes onto these kids. It’s more work than they do in college.”
Others argue the benefits reaped by hundreds of students attempting their first advanced class outweigh the negatives.
“Anytime you broaden the tested base your average percent score and performance is going to drop,” said Arthur Chenoweth, director for interventions for guidance in Baltimore City public schools.
“But what we know about the research, especially for African-American students, is that a student who successfully completes an AP course, whether or not they pass the exam, they’re more likely to finish college,” Chenoweth said.
“Simply that exposure and maintaining that rigor increases the retention and completion of college,” he said.