(submitted in response to the August 8, 1999 Plain Dealer editorial on AP programs "When the Going Doesn't Get Tough, Sue")
August 8, 1999
I was pleased to read Chris Sheridan's the August 8 editorial "When the going doesn't get tough, sue" discussing the suit against the state of California denying Inglewood students access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Far from being "15 minutes of nerd-fame," the suit shows that AP courses have benefits that reach far beyond an individual classroom and their availability raises important questions about academic achievement.
The Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews used the availability of AP courses to the entire student body as the main criterion for his ranking of the nation's best public high schools in the March 30, 1998 issue of Newsweek magazine and in his book Class Struggle: What's Wrong (and Right) with America's Best Public Schools. School systems, such as Orange and Solon, which meet nearly all of the state's proficiency standards also have an extremely high percentage of high school Juniors and Seniors enrolled in AP courses (Orange 67%, Solon 41% in 1997) compared to the state average of 7.8%. Not surprisingly, Orange, Shaker Heights (32%), and Solon rank 29th, 58th, and 64th respectively on Mathews' list. Conversely, school systems, such as Cleveland, East Cleveland, and Warrensville Hts., which are meeting few or none of the proficiency standards, have extremely low percentages of students taking AP courses (Cleveland 2.4%, East Cleveland 2.1%, and Warrensville Hts. 0%).
One must ask why is it then that so few students take AP exams in districts struggling to improve academic achievement? I firmly believe that the answer is not that these students have inferior ability. The success of Garfield High School's Jaime Escalante in teaching AP Calculus to students in East Los Angeles (as chronicled in the movie Stand and Deliver) disproves such arrogant notions.
Unfortunately, the answer is much more mundane and cruelly unfair. Money, or more properly the lack of it, is what prevents many students from taking advantage of such a challenging educational opportunity. Setting up AP programs and courses requires investments in new textbooks, teacher training, and possibly hiring additional teachers due to the increased number of course offerings. But most importantly, each AP exam costs the student $75 to take. Even though students with demonstrated acute financial need can qualify for a $29 fee reduction, the remaining $46 per exam can present an insurmountable obstacle to many students.
Since 1992, I have taught AP French Language and, for the last two summers, I have served as a Faculty Consultant at the AP French Reading grading the essay section of this national exam. During this past summer's Reading, I learned of the initiatives several other states have put in place to help students overcome such obstacles and reap the academic benefits of rigorous AP programs. Five states (Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas) subsidize a percentage of cost of AP exams for students. Three states (Colorado, Kentucky, and Maine) reimburse students most or all of the AP exam fee. Eight states (Arizona, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin) pay the full AP exam fee for some or all students. These sixteen states and an additional four (California, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Dakota) provide funding for the materials and teacher training necessary to create AP courses. Many of these programs were made possible by awards under the Advanced Placement Incentive Program of the U. S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.
I would urge the state of Ohio to create a similar program that would defray the costs of implementing and running expanded AP programs in districts such as Cleveland, East Cleveland, and Warrensville Hts. The cost of these courses and exams should no longer be an obstacle to any student willing to excel. However, the state and its school districts should be careful to discourage the practice of "gatekeeping" prevalent in districts with large AP programs. In his book, Mathews reports that in many elite public school districts, "an AP course was like fine China, only to be brought out for the best company... [T]he usual excuse is that too much AP test taking will lower the school's passing rate, or put youthful egos at risk... Such reasons appeal to some people, but not to me. Schools that do not encourage students to stretch themselves are not doing their jobs." Escalante would agree.
The importance of the ACLU's lawsuit in California is that disadvantaged students are being squeezed from both sides- even where these courses are available, students are often barred from enrolling in them by these gatekeeping practices and later penalized on college admissions for not having taken them. Of course, Advanced Placement exams, like all standardized testing, are far from perfect and are not a panacea for education. But properly constructed, supported, and administered, AP programs encourage high academic performance among students and collaboration among teachers. AP is a program, not a single course. In order to prepare students sufficiently for the rigors of the exams, teachers of all levels of a subject must work together as "vertical" teams.
Milton Alan Turner