Class Struggle

Article excerpt

In a provocative new look, a veteran education writer rates public schools by their willingness to give as many students as possible the opportunity to do most advanced work. His conclusion: kids will strive for the best if they get the chance.

Brian Levite's first two years at Mamaroneck High School in affluent Westchester County, N.Y., did not show him in the best light. He was more interested in Rollerblading and science fiction than he was in mathematics and science. World history was a bore. But he was determined to make his mark in his junior year by taking Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history, one of a series of rigorous courses that have become the high-water mark of American public education. Levite --a political junkie--anticipated a great academic adventure. But at Mamaroneck, like many other high schools, AP courses are treated like the best family china, brought out only for special guests. Despite Levite's eagerness to learn (a quality most educators consider the key to any academic success), he was forced to take a 90-minute entrance test, and he flunked. He had a 101-degree fever that day and did not feel up to questions on feminism in the French Revolution. Levite was told to take the regular history course, which was so easy he breezed through with a grade of 95 out of 100.

This is gatekeeping--faculty-room jargon for offering hard courses only to the best students and finding something easy for everyone else. It occurs in most American high schools and is usually justified, like bunny slopes for uncertain skiers, as a way to save ill-prepared students from crashing into mountainous reading lists. Yet visits to 75 schools and data from thousands of others suggest that the practice is severely misused and overused, and can be blamed for much of the low motivation and achievement spotlighted in a recently released international survey of high-school math and science skills.

Educators have complained for years about low expectations in American schools, and the new Third International Math and Science Study, which put U.S. 12th graders well below average, seemed to bear out that concern. Usually, much of the attention is focused on the feeble standards of underprivileged schools, where students rarely get a chance to take the most demanding courses. It came as a shock to visit dozens of the nation's best secondary schools, places that hardly ever come under attack because they seem in such fine shape. I found that many of them are just as likely as less privileged schools to steer capable students away from courses that would prepare them to score well in these international comparisons.

My estimate is that at least 25,000 students are told each year that they cannot take the AP courses they want. I also think that at least an additional 75,000 students--and probably far more--have the ability to do well in such courses but do not ask to enroll because no one encourages them.

Advanced Placement tests were designed more than 40 years ago by the College Board for ambitious students who wished to earn college credit in secondary school. They were first given only in private schools and the most competitive public schools, but by 1996 more than half of all U.S. high schools had joined the program, giving 843,423 AP tests in 18 subjects to 537,428 students. To identify those schools that try to expose the most students to the highest levels of learning, I have devised a ratio that measures the concentration of AP tests at each school. The results are the basis of my Challenge Index, which ranks public schools, except for the few elite institutions that select more than half their students through examinations or other academic criteria. This is a perilous exercise. Nearly every professional educator will tell you that rating one school against another is unscientific, dangerous and mean. Every likely criterion you might use in such an evaluation is going to be narrow and distorted. …