Thursday, July 06, 2006

Q: Is there any student who is harmed by being in an AP class?

A: That's a rather leading question. For one, I said nothing about there being a problem with encouraging students participate in AP classes. In my mind, there are two sides to the argument to having more kids participate in AP classes for their enrichment value. On one hand, there is an established, high level and standardized curriculum which can benefit a large number of students, not just the most talented. I can certainly see the argument that all students benefit from high expectations. On the other hand, is participation without performance really meaningful. Here we had one "AP" class whose students' AP scores were so low that we took away its AP designation. Is a course where almost all the students receive 1's or 2's really an AP course?

The other side of this question is not whether individual students are hurt by being in an AP course but whether other students are hurt by students who may be unprepared for the course being in the course. This is a tough question. On some level, it is like having students audit a course. Even if they are not at the level of other students, they probably gain from being in the course without affecting the other students. But there probably is a tipping point where too many unprepared students bring down the whole level of the course. At what point does the course have the AP disignation without being a true AP course? I don't really have an answer for this, but it is obviously a question the College Board is trying to answer by its AP auditing.

But this is all beside the point. My argument with the Newsweek list is its manipulative quality. If Jay Mathews has an agenda he want to promote, let him do what Lloyd Thacker has done: be straightforward and passionate about it and convince others of the merit of your position by the facts as you and others present them. I see the use of this spurious "Best High Schools" to be using the pulpit Jay's been given in an inappropriate manner. Whether it is good for individual students, schools, the validity of the AP program, or the society as a whole for more sutdents, particularly those who would not traditionally be taking them, to be in AP courses is an open question. To pretend that there is some value or merit to a list of school's with a high AP participation rate is another issue altogether.

So to Bob Turpa's question, I would say he is asking the wrong question. The question he should be asking is there harm creating and publicizing a list such as the one that appeared in Newsweek. I think there is. Lists masquerading as meaningful information are harmful. Promoting an agenda by creating a well-read list in a national publication is harmful. It uses the public's thirst for simplicity to promote a viewpoint.

Some have asked why I am so focused on this list and not all the others that are out there. For one, I have no inherent problem with lists. I produce my "list of lists" which I think is quite useful in context. I use list of majors quite often. The list most often villified is the US News and World report list. How is this different from the Newsweek list? For one, there has been plenty of outcry about it from groups like the Education Conservancy who are much more articulate then I have ever been. Both lists certainly use pseudo-science masquesaring as science. I am bothered that the US News list is so heavily weighted by peer's measurement of "quality". How many among us are truly versed in the strengths and weaknesses of the thousands of colleges out there. It is an absurd notion. I am troubled that is is a rating of input statistics without, like the NSSE, measuring value added. I am bothered by the fact that the highest correlation to the standing on the list is the founding year of the institution.

Maybe I am naive here, but I see the agenda of the US News list as selling newspapers. And maybe I am splitting hairs here, for both lists are clearly cases of the tail wagging the dog. And one might argue that there is an advantage to the Newsweek list because the desired outcome (having students who might not otherwise take AP course take them) is preferable to the outcome of the U. S. News list (have more colleges put emphasis on incoming statistics than improving the student experience). But I am troubled by the use of the media to create a list to promote an agenda, no matter how worthy.

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