As a parent and high-school teacher, and a veteran coach of several sports at public schools, I am sometimes perplexed by the value in personal opportunities that are afforded more easily to some students than others. Is it better for my community if I remove my daughter from the private school and instead encourage her to take honors classes at the public school? Does that actually make a difference, and, if so, how? As a teacher, should I be excited for a student who dedicates hundreds of extra hours to private tutoring and club sports? Or should I be advocating instead for the underserved students who cannot afford the help and therefore find themselves at inherent disadvantage?
Participation in AP classes—which includes a third of Class of 2013 graduates—is one example. I taught AP English at a public school for eight years, and it was an entirely different world than the mainstream English classes I teach now in the same district. Similar to Goldstein, bloggers and parents who criticize the nature of private schooling often argue that it takes the best students away from the public-school system, at the expense of overall achievement at the latter. But within a public school, AP classes can do something similar, taking the more-advanced students out of the mainstream classes. The difference in the overall GPA between students in the 11th-grade AP class (taught by another teacher) and those in the 11th-grade “college prep” class (which I now teach) is significant: 3.68 and 2.90, respectively.
A 2004 National Center for Education Statistics report, which found that students who took AP science and math had an overall GPA of 3.61, compared to 2.85 among students who hadn’t taken either course—even though AP courses are much more demanding. Likewise, graduates who completed an AP or International Baccalaureate class score significantly higher on the federal government’s standardized test. Plus, students who take an AP course are more likely to be surrounded by academically engaged peers, have the chance to earn college credit, and are often eligible for an extra point on the grade they received for the class (a 5.0 for an A, for example).
National statistics reveal that the student makeup of AP classes is not reflective of the school community at large, a reality that I’ve certainly witnessed in my time as a teacher. In 2013, students in the country who qualified for free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty, represented nearly half of all high-schoolers but only 27 percent of AP test-takers. The College Board, which oversees the AP program, collected $350 million last year from the nearly 4 million tests that were taken. These exams cost students $91 apiece, though schools sometimes subsidize the fee.
Then there’s concurrent enrollment, when high-school students participate in postsecondary coursework on the side, often leaving campus to do so and getting a head start over their less-advanced peers. The merit of this extra learning is undeniable, but many students are barred from it because they lack the money or didn’t get the support they needed to get ahead. More than 1 million students took a course for college credit in the 2010-11 school year, and about half of them paid for their own tuition, fees, and books. Studies show that the individuals who participate in dual enrollment are more likely to both graduate from high school and earn a college degree.