Academic acceleration policy is a mixed blessing for Federal Way schools | Guest column

Since Federal Way last fall began drafting all students with passing scores on the High School Proficiency Exam into college-level courses, accolades have been effusive. Some have even anointed the district an institutional Tiger Mom.

But a policy that seeks to squeeze college performance out of students who may have mastered no better than ninth-grade academic skills is foolhardy.

I do not know how or when widespread participation in accelerated programs has come to denote educational quality. I suspect, however, that at least with regard to AP programs, the driving force behind this thinking is the College Board, which heavily markets its AP program as a stepping stone to college success.

As a result, Federal Way is not alone in seeking to boost enrollment — a phenomenon that is rolling across the nation like a tsunami.

But cheering because a district has doubled its enrollment in accelerated programs, whether it is Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, is a lot like congratulating Nordstrom because more customers showed up for this year’s Half-Yearly Sale without regard to whether anyone bought anything.

In 2010, the national pass rate for final AP exams (which students take for potential college credit) was about 57 percent. Student AP performance has been declining and is expected to descend even further as more students who are academically ill-prepared are drafted into these courses by well-intentioned but misguided school officials. Before Federal Way began drafting, only about one-fourth of the students taking the tests passed. Test results are not yet available for 2011, but the pass rate will likely decline.

The proportion of IB students worldwide who graduated with an IB diploma is about 80 percent. I don’t know what share of the district’s IB students graduated with an IB diploma. It’s not a statistical measure Federal Way makes readily available to parents.

When I asked the district about the wisdom of rapidly expanding programs that may have some serious shortcomings, I was chagrined to find that pass rates are of little concern because the district’s goal is “improving” students’ college performance. I have some problems with this kind of thinking, and if you are a parent in this district, you should, too.

First, a lot of ambitious and motivated students are taking AP courses with the intent of passing the exams and earning college credit. These students would rather skip an AP course than fail an AP exam, and with good reason. A pass on an AP course and a fail on the exam say something important to college admissions officers about the strength of district curriculum. I don’t know how Thomas Jefferson High School students feel about participating in an IB program, but there are foreign schools where all students graduate with an IB diploma or a Cambridge diploma, or they don’t graduate. The goal of an IB program should be an IB diploma. The goal of an AP course should be college credit.

Second, in dismissing AP pass rates and IB diploma rates as invalid measures of program success, the district is left with no reliable measures of how these programs are performing, and if poorly, what should be done about it. The district proudly reports 97 percent of students in accelerated classes are earning at least a C. This, however, demonstrates absolutely nothing about the quality of these programs or these students’ college potential.

And finally, at least with AP coursework, no conclusive evidence shows that participation actually causes students to perform better in college. Former AP students indeed earn somewhat higher grades in college and also graduate at somewhat higher rates than non-participants. AP participation and college performance are correlated. Indeed, many factors correlate with college performance, such as parent education and income, and SAT scores. But correlation is not causation.

Whether AP or IB participation predicts college performance better than any other factor is unclear. The world is full of people who beat terrible odds by sheer motivation. Highly motivated students enroll in accelerated programs. Highly motivated students are also successful in college. The best way to measure the impact of accelerated programs on college performance is to randomly assign some students to accelerated curriculum, others to standard curriculum, and control for other socio-economic factors. For obvious ethical reasons, it hasn’t been done. But even if it had, and participation could be shown to generate better college grades, it would not exempt the district from evaluating its own programs. Just because AP or IB programs might generally produce positive college outcomes does not mean that Federal Way’s programs do.

I believe Federal Way’s intent is noble. This district sends too few economically disadvantaged and minority children on to success in college. The performance gap is wide between these children and the district’s white children. But there is no easy, fast or cheap way to close this gap.

Drafting students who may have had no more than ninth-grade geometry or algebra into an AP calculus course isn’t going to do it. Using scant resources to rapidly expand programs that lack credible performance measures and have yet to demonstrate widespread successful outcomes isn’t going to do it either.

The best way to ensure more kids do well in college and graduate with a degree is to raise expectations and establish challenging standards for all students, beginning in kindergarten.

This will not be easy. It will require lots of resources, and it cannot be accomplished quickly.

But if successful, the district will have monumentally expanded its pool of college capable students. And enrollment in accelerated programs — if ultimately this still matters — will expand on its own, no draft required.


Ginny Vanderlinde is a Federal Way parent of an AP student. She was a former participant in the district’s Equity and Achievement committee. She works as a senior analyst with the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Seattle.

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