North Eugene to require AP English for all
Ohanian Comment: I'll admit my prejudice right from the start: I don't think anybody should take Advanced Placement. I think college courses should be left for the college years.
In North Eugene, they're saying that including special education students in Advanced Placement English is "bold"; I call it abusive and obtuse, refusing to consider individual students' individual needs.
And there's that word rigor again, as if anybody who uses it knows what it means.
And note that this is done in the name of democraticizing the curriculum.
By Anne Williams
For North Eugene High School's incoming juniors, Advanced Placement English will no longer be the domain of the academic elite.
In a bold attempt to boost student success by raising expectations for all, the school is requiring all 260 juniors this fall to take a rigorous, yearlong AP language and composition class. No exceptions.
That means the straight-A, honors-track students will share their AP classes with students learning English as their second language, students on special education plans and students who, for a host of reasons, would rather have a tooth extracted than set foot in a college-level class.
The move places North Eugene at the forefront of a national trend toward increasing rigor in high schools by expanding AP. More than 14,000 high schools now offer one or more AP courses, with 477 signing on just within the past year, according to The College Board, which administers the AP program.
More schools are taking an increasingly democratic approach to AP, as well. In Bellevue, Wash., for example, AP is touted as "the common curriculum," and every student is pushed to take at least one AP course before graduation.
However, only a handful of schools have implemented mandates for AP, and it typically has been for math courses, said Diane Downey, head of the North Eugene English department and the leading advocate for mandatory AP.
"We are pretty much kind of blazing new territory," she said.
A uniform high standard
The idea grew out of an English department planning session last year. Some teachers balked, wondering how low-performing students would be able to keep up in a college-level course, and whether they might get discouraged and transfer or drop out altogether.
"There was a lot of worry on the part of our ELL (English language learner) and special education staff," Principal Peter Tromba said. "Some of them were mad."
The debate came on the heels of the school's decision - supported by 72 percent of the staff - to go ahead with controversial, grant-funded plans to break apart into small, autonomous schools during the next two years. At least one new school will open in a year, followed by three more by fall 2007.
Tromba said many of the opponents were the same in both debates.
"Honestly, when you have organizational change, sometimes the people who have issues with one change have issues with lots of kinds of change," he said.
Tromba said he warmed to the AP proposal after initial doubts. In his view, he said, "Having kids be exposed to that curriculum and being challenged and being in a college-level class is a good thing. The data show all kids do better."
Research also has suggested a link between performance on AP exams and later success in college, said David Conley, director of the University of Oregon's Center for Educational Policy Research.
Coincidentally, Conley is working both with North Eugene on ensuring rigor in its small schools and with The College Board's AP division, which hired him to lead research into identifying best teaching practices in college courses.
Conley applauded North Eugene's new AP requirement, noting that it should "pitch the rest of the curriculum accordingly" by setting a uniform high standard.
For Downey, enrolling all students in AP seemed like the right moral choice, one that could help the school narrow the achievement gap separating students by class and race. North Eugene has the highest percentage of poor and minority students of the district's four high schools.
"All the research shows it really is best to get rid of tracking," she said, referring to the tendency for students to follow predictable academic paths based on their socioeconomic status, their race or ethnicity, their parents' educational level and other factors.
"The best education for all"
Once available in only the most elite private schools, the 50-year-old AP program offers courses in a wide range of disciplines. The classes follow standardized curricula and culminate with exams administered by the Educational Testing Service.
The exams are graded on a 5-point scale, with anything above 3 considered passing. Students can earn college credits for passing the tests, which cost $82 per exam, and many colleges and universities value AP courses on student transcripts.
AP does have its critics. Some schools have moved away from it, believing that the curricula lack breadth and depth. And some studies have disputed assertions that taking courses increases the likelihood of college success.
North Eugene students will have a choice whether to take the AP English exam - and no one expects all of them to do so, Tromba said.
But Downey said she hopes students will take it, even if they do so informally. Students are not charged the $82 fee for taking an informal test and the results would not be applied toward college credit.
One way she hopes to gauge the measure's success is to administer the exam once early in the year and again in the spring, to see how many students post gains. Only the test taken in the spring would count toward the student's grade, she said.
Students and parents learned about the AP requirement last spring. Tromba said he heard from fewer than 10 parents, all of them concerned that their high-achieving teens' AP class might be slowed or watered down by the presence of lower-performing students.
Downey also has heard from parents. "I kind of, as nicely as I can, let them know that this is a public school and we are obliged to provide the best education for all students, not the best education for the brightest and the ones with the pushiest parents," she said.
Amy Samson, who teaches remedial reading at North Eugene, agrees with that philosophy.
Nonetheless, she continues to have misgivings about the AP requirement. More than 80 percent of last year's incoming freshmen struggled to read at grade level, and 60 percent read at or below a sixth-grade level, she said.
While she's seen terrific results in her classroom through a newly adopted reading program, there aren't enough trained teachers to serve all the kids who could benefit, Sampson said.
"There are going to be a lot of kids who get to their junior year and still really struggle," she said.
What has reassured her in recent weeks, she said, is the support structure the school has designed.
Instead of being offered daily in a single semester, the class will continue through the year every other day. That will give students twice as many nights to complete reading and writing assignments. In addition, every student getting a C or below will have to sign up for an off-day tutoring session.
Jesse Sherman, who teaches sophomore English, said his concerns - similar to Samson's - diminished after he and other teachers attended a summer training that "demystified" AP English for him.
"It turns out a lot of this curriculum focuses on rhetoric and teaching persuasive writing and critical thinking," he said. "A lot of this material I was already sharing with my sophomores. You can teach somebody to construct a logical argument no matter what their skill is."
Downey said the class will be a hybrid of composition, in line with the AP test, and American literature, a traditional offering in the junior year. Students will read essays and other nonfiction work, along with "The Scarlet Letter," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "My Antonia" and other fiction classics.
Student reaction mixed
Teachers heard mixed reactions from students when they broke the news last spring. Some were intimidated at the thought of enrolling in an AP course, while others were worried the class would be "dumbed down."
"I think it's good that all juniors improve their writing skills," said incoming junior Ryo Moore, who took AP chemistry last year. "Mr. Tromba says we should have academic rigor for everyone."
But Moore recalled the slow pace of his advanced algebra class last year, which had a large mix of students, some of whom fell behind. "I'm kind of afraid that might happen again," he said.
It will be Dan Winterstein's first AP class, but he said he likes to read and - unlike some of the students he knows - is not too concerned.
"My sister took AP and I guess it helped her quite a bit, so I'm looking forward to it, because it's not just the regular high school class - you can take it for college credit," said Winterstein, a star player on the varsity football team. "When you think about it, it's not going to be just the smartest and best people getting it. Now everyone gets a chance to do it."
English teachers at other local high schools are eager to see how the experiment unfolds.
"It's a damn difficult class," said Eileen Babbs, English department head at South Eugene High School.
While she likes the notion of challenging all students, she said her department's philosophy holds that AP courses are designed only for students who are ready for the rigors of college study.
Willamette High School's Mike La Sage, while questioning how some students will fare, called the move admirable, and said it's another indication that North Eugene is ahead of the curve when it comes to providing education in a new way.
He recalled the movie "Stand and Deliver," based on the true story of a Los Angeles high school teacher who inspired poor minority students to succeed. "Jaime Escalante said students will rise to the level of expectations placed on them," he said. "This is a good opportunity to put that challenge to the North Eugene staff."