Urban Kids Struggle With AP

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CHRIS USHER/APIX FOR TIME

Frazier O'Leary teaches Advanced Placement English at Cardoza High School in Washington D.C.

There was only one Advanced Placement, or AP, class at Washington's Cardozo Senior High School when Reginald Ballard took over as principal in 1995. But Ballard had heard that the program, which offers juniors and seniors the chance to earn college credit for their work if they score high enough on year-end exams, gave kids a leg up on getting into college. So over the past eight years, he has quadrupled the number of Cardozo students taking AP and increased the school's number of AP classes to 8.

His achievement sounds like great news until you hear that only 5 of the 73 Cardozo students who took an AP exam last year scored a passing grade. And that number isn't likely to increase when the students at Cardozo, along with more than 1 million others across the country, get grades for the AP exams they took in May. Nationally about 63% of students who take the tests pass them, but just 42% of Washington public school students do.

That lower pass rate is echoed in other urban school districts across the country. A 2001 study by the Council of the Great City Schools, a group based in Washington that represents 60 of the nation's largest urban districts, found that while the majority of students nationally pass the exams in 7 of 12 AP subjects, those in urban school districts pass only 1 in 12. The problem is that many of these schools are pushing students into AP classes who aren't ready, and some of the schools don't have enough teachers who can teach college level work well.

During the past decade, AP has grown by more than 200%, and about 60% of high schools now have AP classes. Since the same test is given to students across the country, AP has become the closest thing the U.S. has to a national curriculum. Many educators and politicians have assumed that offering it in urban schools means that inner-city students get the same education as their suburban counterparts. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Florida Governor Jeb Bush are among AP's advocates, feeling that it guarantees students will have a rigorous curriculum. But AP can't make up for the stark differences that exist between schools or the students who attend them. While kids in strong suburban schools have usually attained solid foundations before they enroll for advanced-placement work, youngsters in schools like Cardozo have often experienced 10 or 11 years of lackluster education by the time they get to the AP classroom. "The elementary, middle and high school pathways need to be addressed for students to have meaningful success in advanced courses," said Jeannie Oakes, an education professor at UCLA.

Their students' lack of preparation for more sophisticated work forces AP teachers to make a Hobson's choice: teach all the high-level curriculum, which may mean moving too quickly for some students, or slow down the presentation of material so that no child is left behind. The result: AP classes that vary as widely in rigor as low-fat foods do in calories. At the selective Wilson Senior High School in Washington, each AP English class read at least 10 novels this year, but those at Bell Multicultural, in which about 70% of students speak English as a second language, read only four. Agnes Akwarandu, the AP English teacher at Bell, explains that "because of their language skills, it's not easy for them" to read many books quickly. Last year, only 1 out of 14 kids at Bell passed the AP English exam.

Some schools simply don't have as many resources and good teachers as others. Thu-Trang La, who took the AP calculus class at Bell last year, struggled with the questions on the AP exam that required the use of a graphing calculator in part, she says, because she hadn't learned how to use one in class. But last year when she repeated calculus at George Mason University in Virginia, she passed it.

The fact that La did well in her college math course heartens AP advocates, who argue that students who don't pass the AP exams still benefit from taking the classes because they're more likely to be successful in college. Even so, Washington schools are looking at ways to get more students passing the tests. The key, they say, is early exposure to difficult work. Accordingly, Cardozo is using grant money to coordinate its curriculum with that of some local middle schools, so that students can take the kinds of challenging classes that will better prepare them for AP when they get to high school. Similarly, Wilson has started an APĖprep program to ready high school sophomores and juniors for AP by having them take summer courses before they enroll in an AP class. Says Principal Ballard: "It has to start before they reach us."