Op-Ed: Advanced Placement Isn't For Every Student

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High school students take advanced placement classes to prepare for the rigors of college coursework. Yet, retired teacher Junia Yearwood says, in some schools, students who are unprepared are being placed in A.P. to improve minority enrollment figures.

NEAL CONAN, host:

And now the Opinion Page. In high schools across the country, students are taking advanced placement or A.P. tests in order to get college credit. It's also the time when students sign up for next year's courses. The College Board allocates funds to encourage schools to enroll more students in A.P. classes. But an op-ed published in The Boston Globe denounced what retired high school English teacher Junia Yearwood described as A.P. mania. And she also talked about the injustice to minority students forced into A.P. classes they're not ready for.

Teachers, do we go overboard with A.P.? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. The email address is talk@npr.org. You could also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Junia Yearwood joins us from her home in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

And it's nice to have you with us today.

Ms. JUNIA YEARWOOD (Former High School English Teacher): Thank you.

CONAN: So if a kid takes an A.P. English class and passes into the - and passes the advanced placement test, he or she then gets an English credit when they go to college. What's wrong with that?

Ms. YEARWOOD: Nothing. That's perfectly fine. That's not the issue I'm addressing in my - in the op-ed page. I'm addressing - I taught AP for four years, and I retired last June. And many of my students in - placed in my AP class were assigned those A.P. classes. And in my estimation, and in theirs, they weren't ready, prepared to take an A.P. class.

CONAN: What were the criteria to be placed in an A.P. class, then?

Ms. YEARWOOD: They - at one point, it was teacher recommendations, student's interest in the course and grades. They looked at the report card, and assumably, that's the criteria that was used. Many of my students, however, who were assigned to the AP - my A.P. class, English and composition, language, they weren't - they didn't want to be there. And they weren't ready, as you could see - as you see in - from Veronica's comment in my A.P. And furthermore, they were forced to take the A.P. test.

They weren't given the option of just taking the course, which I thought would have been fine because exposure to A.P. courses, I think, is beneficial, is that all English - all high school classes should be A.P.-like in structure and content. But students should want to be in A.P. and should be committed to the rigor, to the hard work and the effort, time it takes to get prepared for the A.P test. And most of my students were not. They were not committed. They were not willing to work hard. And they did not want to be there.

CONAN: You mentioned a student named Veronica. Tell us a little bit more about her and about her question.

Ms. YEARWOOD: Her - Veronica was struggling. She is bilingual. She told us she had gotten a D in her last English course in 11th grade, and she was assigned an A.P. class, my A.P. class. She tried to transfer several times and was not allowed to transfer and had - was forced to take the test. All of my students were forced to take the test.

They were told that since they had signed a contract to be in A.P., that the test went along with it, and therefore they had to. None of my students got beyond a two in my A.P. class. Five is the passing grade. It's the highest you can get. And a two is really failing. And they worked very hard. Many of my kids worked very hard, but they were - the deficit was too large for them to overcome in a matter of months.

CONAN: There are a lot of reasons why people push kids to be in advanced placement classes. Parents, of course, want their kids' college transcripts to look a little bit better, and they want their kids to get ahead. But there's an incentive for the school to have a lot of different kids in AP classes.

Ms. YEARWOOD: Yes, there is. I would say four, five years ago, there was a national push to include as many kids, minority kids in A.P. as possible because before that, there were very few of our kids represented in A.P. classes.

So - but from my perspective, and I can only speak for myself as an English teacher, my experience is that the students - the push motivated administrators in public school systems to get as many kids in A.P. as possible without the prior preparation necessary and the commitment from our kids. Even though kids may have a deficit in skills, if they are really committed to being in a A.P. class, research has shown that - and to put in the work, the extra work, the time, the summer reading, after school and weekends, then they can do it. But many of my - most of my kids were not committed to an A.P. class.

CONAN: And I know you're familiar with the argument, but let me put it to you anyway. There are those who argue we need to hold poor performing minority students who are capable of better work to higher standards, and if we hold them to higher standards, they will be encouraged by that and perform.

Ms. YEARWOOD: Yes. I agree that holding them to higher standards is what we need to do. And as I've said to you before, A.P.-type classes and content and structure should be the norm in high school in public schools, all high schools. However, my students should not have been forced to be assigned an A.P. class and then forced to take the test. And then the scores from those test held a judgment as to how smart they are, how intelligent they are, and moreover, to the effectiveness of the teacher.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Susan in Davie, Florida. I heard your lead in. This is absolutely true, and I have experienced it with my first and now my second high schooler. They push all kids into A.P. whether they want to be there or belong there. Most of the kids do not pass the tests to get any college credit; usually has to be at least a three to get any credit. The number of A.P. classes has eliminated all opportunity for high achieving kids to take any sort of interesting or fun class that is not A.P.

Ms. YEARWOOD: Yeah.

CONAN: Would you agree?

Ms. YEARWOOD: Yes, I would agree. And many of my kids who completed the A.P. test and then - not the A.P. test, the course, and got accepted into four-year colleges were - then had to take remedial English courses, reading and writing, in college. They were not college-ready even though they had completed an A.P. course.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Our guest is Junia Yearwood, a retired public school teacher in Boston, who wrote an op-ed called "A Lesson in Advanced Misplacement" that was published in The Boston Globe. If you'd like to see that, go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's see if we can go first to Deborah - excuse me, Patrick. And Patrick is on the line from Mexico, New York.

PATRICK (Caller): Yes. Thanks so much.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

PATRICK: Yeah, I'm a school teacher actually at Watertown High School in upstate New York and teach the world history A.P. exam. And I think it's a great conversation to have. And I wonder if your guest would comment on - and I believe it was brought up on the previous email - that we're cheapening things for both those higher achieving students and for the general ed students. One, by pushing for every student to these exams when they may actually be for the top five to 10 percent, and also setting up a lot of kids for failure with this idea that everybody must get a four-year, a five-year or eight-year degree and if that's part of a larger problem of thinking everybody needs to go on a higher ed instead of trades or two-year degrees or other very valuable and worthwhile lifestyles and careers. And I'll take my comment off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Patrick, thank you.

Ms. YEARWOOD: Yeah. Okay. That is a - the - whether kids should go on, should be forced to go to college - instead of being geared to go to a trade school or what, that's a whole separate issue. The kids who are placed in A.P. are who or elect to be A.P should be the kids who, as I said before, have a certain level of reading and writing skills. And they should be for instance, one of my kids - it was discovered last year, sometime in April by our department head, that one of the kids in my A.P. class, who was also enrolled in another A.P. class he was taking two at the same time read at a fifth grade level. She gave him a test independently and she came up with that discovery.

Now, most of my kids, I argued, who are in A.P., were reading were not reading at 12th grade level. They were 12th graders, but they were reading significantly below a fifth grade or below reading level.

CONAN: So then in A.P. class, you're teaching pretty basic English then.

Ms. YEARWOOD: Exactly. As I said in my op-ed piece, I was forced to teach basic - just basic structure of English; parts of speech, sentence structure, paragraph structure, in addition to trying to prepare them for the A.P. test. This is an impossible task.

CONAN: And it's not fair to the students who are true A.P. students.

Ms. YEARWOOD: And, exactly. That the trauma that resulted in my students, that's what prompted me to write this piece. This piece is based on my journal entries. I kept a journal for the last six, seven years of my 26 tenure at this one high school and because of these issues, issues that the general public is not aware of.

CONAN: And...

Ms. YEARWOOD: Because teachers are judged on the basis of test scores. And I'm saying, well, there's another side to the story. The test scores do not reflect the entire story.

CONAN: Junia Yearwood retired from Boston Public High School as an English teacher last year. Her op-ed again appeared in The Boston Globe. You can read that at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I just wanted to clarify one point, Junia Yearwood. You say administrators were primarily interested in making forcing, as you say, a lot of these kids to go to A.P., register for A.P. classes, in order to make their numbers look good, in order to say, look, we have lots of minority students in these A.P. classes, not just white kids and Asian kids.

Ms. YEARWOOD: Exactly. The pressure was not just from the school's administration but from the city. They picked up on the campaign for increase in the numbers in A.P., from my perspective. This is my opinion, okay? That's the only reason that so many of my kids were forced to be in A.P. or school at that time and still is; wasn't placed at an underperforming school. But our A.P. classes and numbers tripled, I would say, in two or three year. Now, how could that be?

CONAN: Let's get Robert on the line, Robert with us from Wallingford in Connecticut.

WALLINGFORD (Caller): Yes, I'm calling - well, first of all, I wanted to correct one thing that I've been hearing. There is no failing score on the A.P. test. It's a sliding bell curve from one to five. And I think that's a little misconception, you know. The students are graded not based on how they do on the test, but more importantly on what, you know, how everyone else does and how they do in comparison to other students. But as a high school teacher and as somebody who has also taken A.P. courses when I myself was in high school, you know, one of the things that strikes me is as the major problem here isn't necessarily students being forced to take the classes - which seems ridiculous to me - but more importantly, the teachers who are assigned to teach the courses. Often, that's given based on seniority in schools rather than academic ability.

And if we're going to talk about this being a situation where you're going to get college credit for this, I would think you'd want the most academically qualified teachers rather than, you know, just people who have been there the longest or people who are, you know, the favorites of the department chair, something along those lines.

CONAN: Junia Yearwood, do you agree?

Ms. YEARWOOD: I can only speak for my experience. And when I was asked to teach the A.P. course, there was one other teacher who taught that course before I did for about 10 to 15 years, and I don't know on what basis she was elected. But I was told that - I was asked to teach the course because, not just because of my seniority but because of my experience teaching 12th graders in English, and also because of the reputation of my classes from the students who considered my class very rigorous in comparison to some of the other classes they took.

And that's on the students' recommendations. I did not - I don't think I was given A.P. I did the training. I was asked to do the training, the A.P. training, which I did. And so I can only speak for myself. I do not know how other schools choose the A.P. teachers, but I can only speak for me on the basis of which I was asked to teach the A.P. course.

CONAN: Robert, thanks very much.

ROBERT: Thank you.

CONAN: And here's an email from Thomas: I am teaching A.P. biology for the first time this year. I spent a week over the summer learning the labs as well as to how to prepare the syllabus. I started this year with high hopes. What I've discovered is that parents and students are not really interested in the higher level science. What they want is higher class rank and an A.P. class on their high school transcript nothing more. It should be pointed out that, well, you can get over a 4.0 average in high school. If you take some A.P. classes, you can end up with a 4.25 or a 4.5 even.

Ms. YEARWOOD: True.

CONAN: And would you say parents are part of the problem here too?

Ms. YEARWOOD: And I don't - I wouldn't blame parents because parents are taught - parents are - my parents - most of my parents were just told. And parents feel just A.P. the kids were recruited. The kids were told that if they take A.P., it looks good on their transcript. That was one of hooks to saying yes to be in A.P., and so parents go along with it.

CONAN: Sure.

Ms. YEARWOOD: I know there - I had several parents who also came up to school to ask that they could be transferred out of my A.P. classes because of, again, the kids were upset. They were traumatized and never been exposed to the difficult text that we were reading, and they didn't - they just knew that they felt that they weren't ready for it. And they were denied anyhow. They were told, you know, they were talked into letting their kids stay because of this potential, your kid has the potential to do - to do well. They can handle the A.P. test, just let them try.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Junia Yearwood, thank you very much for your time today. Tomorrow, a look at the cost and benefits of three of our country's main power sources: Coal, petroleum and nuclear. This is NPR News.

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