Education: Cure for loss of SAT/ACT tests: Stop banning high school kids from college courses

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Santa Fe High School is seen, in Santa Fe, Texas, U.S., May 19, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

The rapid decline in the use of the SAT and ACT college entrance exams has brought cries of anguish from parents and educators who say this will reduce student readiness for college.

Melissa Korn, higher education reporter for the Wall Street Journal, identified three possible changes that might make up for the loss of those tests – more emphasis on report card grades and course difficulty, new and better college entrance exams, or randomizing college admissions so qualified minority and low-income applicants get a better shot.

Such suggestions are interesting, but don’t address a key problem in our high schools. Their courses usually don’t do enough to prepare students for college.

I have an idea that would both give college admission officers a better measure of preparedness and raise the level of high school instruction. Why not open college-level programs like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate to all high school students? That would give them a chance to prepare for college by doing actual college work.

AP and IB have been around a long time. The programs began in the middle of the last century with upper-class motives. AP was designed to give the best high school students a chance to earn college credit and accelerate their studies when they got to the ivy halls of higher education. IB was created to give children of diplomats and international business executives a high standard of instruction in the hodgepodge of private schools that catered to such people.

AP and IB were long considered too tough for most students. But in the 1980s some AP and IB teachers, even in low-income neighborhoods, began to show that college-level instruction could significantly raise the college readiness of their students, even if they didn’t pass the three- to five-hour AP and IB exams. AP and IB test results don’t arrive until summer so they don’t affect report card grades.

Very gradually the number of public schools embracing these programs for everybody has grown. AP and IB data I have been collecting show that in 1998 only one percent of U.S. schools had the equivalent of at least half of their 11th and 12th-graders taking at least one AP or IB course and final exam. By 2019 that percentage had grown to 12 percent. About two thirds of high school graduates go immediately to college.

Some school systems have shown that AP and IB programs work even for economically disadvantaged students, as long as they are given strong encouragement and extra time for learning. Some large charter school systems like IDEA, whose students are mostly from low-income families in Texas, have proved that requiring all students take some AP and IB classes has improved learning.

They can also get college credit. Trevor Packer, a senior vice president at the College Board and head of the AP program, told me 99 percent of U.S. colleges and universities award course credit to students who do well on the AP or IB final exams.

Some very large school districts, such as Fairfax County and Houston, open AP and IB classes to all students who want to enroll. Many districts, however, appear to have maintained the traditional barriers. They only let in students who have high grades or recommendations from teachers and counselors. College Board data suggest more than half of schools are in that stingy category.

You may be an average or below average student who would benefit from college level work, but you will not be allowed into AP or IB at many schools. In some places you will be admitted only if your mother or father signs a form saying they know they have disregarded professional advice in demanding your inclusion.

I have been watching closely several districts who opened AP and IB to all two decades ago. They are doing well. It has been a long time since I heard a parent complain that the courses were too difficult or that the low-income students who enroll in them were slowing down instruction. Those districts have AP and IB teachers who love surprising students with how much they can learn from courses that demand critical thinking and from exams that are written and graded by independent experts and thus can’t be dumbed down.

The SAT and the ACT did little to improve high school instruction. Bob Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, told me “there is no question that AP and IB exams – at least the portions that are not multiple choice – are closer to the types of assessments students face in college than the ACT/SAT bubble-filling experience is.”

Only about half the time on AP tests, and usually no time on IB tests, is spent on multiple-choice questions.

Schaeffer’s organization leads the effort to end reliance on the SAT and the ACT in college admissions. He said people have been asking him if AP and IB might play a more significant role in the admissions process of selective schools. He said that seems likely, but cautioned that “it would be important for higher education officials to evaluate applicants’ coursework in the context of what was offered at the high schools they attended.”

AP, IB and a much smaller program called Cambridge International provide the most challenging courses and tests in American high schools. Several studies show they have increased college-readiness even in students from lower-income families. Getting rid of the barriers to enrollment in such courses would improve those high schools and make the transition to college easier.

Educators at schools that have opened AP and IB to all warn that policy will only work if students are given additional time and support to learn. That’s true. But if we want our children prepared for college and other demands of adult life, what’s wrong with doing what is necessary to make that happen?

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