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Kids and High School Archives

Kids and High School

School Without Walls’ 1996 valedictorian Wai-Ying Chow graduated summa cum laude from George Washington University, worked at the National Institutes of Health, and is now back in school for her doctorate. It’s a storybook ending, but not a common one for the District’s public-high-school valedictorians.

"Honor Roles," by Huan Hsu, Washington City Paper, Januray 20-26, 2006 (article follows up on 10 DC high school valedictorians from the classes of 1995 and 1996)

WELSH: We both agree that students need to be challenged, Jay, but you seem to think that they have to be in AP courses for that to happen. Your challenge index ignores the basic mission of schools and teachers: to take their students and stretch them as far as possible. The number of kids taking AP tests is but one tiny measure of whether a school fulfills that mission. You've unwittingly created an out-of-control monster, a smoke and mirrors numbers game, the equivalent of ranking the teams in the NCAA basketball tournament on the basis of the number of players who got in the game, instead of the final score. You have image-conscious public school officials so intimidated that they're putting as many kids as possible -- and I am not talking about average kids who are willing to do the work -- into AP courses so that they can get a higher ranking on your index. In fact, I already know the challenge index score you will give T.C. Williams on the basis of the 830 AP exams to be given here next month. Even if every one of those exams got a score of 1 (the lowest possible score on a 5-point scale) you will give us a 1.4 (830 divided by the 588 kids in the senior class) up from .949 last year. Are we a better school this year than last because more kids will take the AP test and we will finally make your Newsweek list? Hardly.

The result of this numbers game is the exact opposite of what you intend: The stronger students aren't getting the challenge they should be getting and the weaker students, instead of learning the basic things they will need for college, are being overwhelmed. Furthermore, at a time when high-paying jobs that demand two years of technical school or community college go begging because of the lack of skilled workers, your index is bolstering the myth that every kid needs to go to a four-year college or university -- a myth that Bill Gates has been busy reinforcing.

"Is AP Good for Everybody? It's Debatable," an debate with Jay Mathews and Patrick Welsh, The Washington Post, April 10, 2005

Who can argue against more kids taking challenging courses? Well, count me as one who can. School officials are deluding themselves that they're raising standards for more students. From what I've seen, this trend is starting to lead to more discouragement and less learning among students who do not have the skills or motivation to do the work in an AP course. It's also watering down the courses.

In the 25 years I have been teaching AP English, I have never seen such growth in the numbers of AP students as during the past three years. Last year, T.C. Williams had eight sections of AP English; this year, there are 11 — defining about half the senior class as “advanced.” Is this year's senior class so superior to last year's that three new sections had to be added? Hardly.

One reason for the increase nationwide is that the College Board has made a big effort to convince school districts and the public that the best way for kids to show “college-level mastery” of a subject — and impress colleges — is to get a score of 3 or above (on a scale of 1 to 5) on an AP test. This is a spurious claim — at least from my experience — given that any reasonably bright kid could get a 3 on the English literature test without taking the course. In fact, some universities, for this reason, are beginning to give college credits only for a score of 4 or 5.

"Watering down ‘advanced' classes: The nation's high schools are being flooded with AP, or Advanced Placement, courses. You'd think that would be a good thing. Think again." by Patrick Welsh, USA Today, March 7, 2005

Just before the school year ended in June, my colleagues in the English department at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and central office administrators discussed which textbook to adopt for the 9th- and 10th-grade World Literature course for next year.

Of the four texts that the state approved, the choices came down to two: the Elements of Literature: World Literature from Holt, Rinehart and Winston and The Language of Literature: World Literature from McDougal Littell.

The problems with these two tomes are similar to the problems with high school textbooks in most subjects.

First, there's the well-documented weight problem. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons has said that an increase in back injuries among children might be attributed to the enormous textbooks they lug around in their backpacks. Injuries aside, what kid is going to sit in a chair and relax with a heavy hardcover, 9-inch-by-11-inch compendium?

Worse is the fact that for all their bulk, the textbooks are feather-weight intellectually.

"How schools are destroying the joy of reading," by Patrick Welsh, USA Today, August 3 2005

Like American society, schools are full of challenges, but I still don't think that my school or the schools nationwide are in as much trouble as many politicians and education experts would have us believe. The myth that American schools are in bad shape has a long history. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, points out that today's complaints about students' poor reading and math skills, ignorance of history, inadequate preparation for the work force, unfocused curriculums, lack of moral education—you name it—have been echoed for more than a century. In 1892, when fewer than 6 percent of high school graduates went to college, the Harvard Board of Overseers issued a report complaining that only 4 percent of the Harvard applicants "could write an essay, spell or properly punctuate a sentence."

"Touching Hearts and Minds," by Patrick Welsh, eJournal USA, July 2005

CRS Reports

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January 24, 2006 04:17 PM    Living in DC

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