High school Advanced Placement (AP) classes have traditionally been the domain of academically strong students who want an extra challenge. Now Washington state lawmakers are considering legislation based on a policy in the Federal Way school district that puts all kids who meet basic standards into AP and other advanced classes. The goal is to make more low-income kids of color ready for college.
AP classes are designed to expose kids to the fast pace and rigor of college classes, and at the end of the semester, students can take the official AP test that can qualify them for college credit for the class. As in many school districts, the kids in Federal Way’s AP classes had long tended to be the wealthier white and Asian students — students already headed to college.
Three years ago, the district decided to change that.
"This is about sorting. This about elitism. This is about institutional racism. Whether intended or not, that’s what happens" when schools set a high bar for admission to accelerated classes, says Federal Way Superintendent Rob Neu.
Neu says, under a 2010 district policy, nearly every middle and high school student in Federal Way who meets the state or district standards in a subject now gets automatically enrolled into AP or other accelerated classes. "And by doing so, when they experience that success in the classes that they didn’t think they belonged in, we believe that we’re changing their trajectory. And so now students that were not thinking about going on to college, are not only thinking about it, but they are doing it."
As in the proposed legislation, Federal Way students can opt out of advanced classes with their parents’ permission. But Neu says few do. Now, 70 percent of Federal Way high school students are in advanced classes like AP, and most of them are passing the classes.
Decatur High senior Edwin Roda says he was worried when the first AP class showed up on his schedule. "At first, I remember me and my group of friends, when we were signed up for that AP world history class for the first time, we were all just thinkin’ about switchin’ out," Roda says. "But then we tried it. We stayed in for, like, two weeks, and I think only one of my friends got out of it. So there were, like, five of us that stayed in. We just like the fast pace more."
Roda says he passed AP world history and the AP test. But he wasn’t as lucky on his second AP class. He had to take AP biology twice, and he still failed the AP test.
In fact, most kids in Federal Way schools fail their AP tests. The passing rate last school year was just 36 percent, compared to 56 percent nationwide.
Walter Parker is a professor of education and political science at the University of Washington who studies the effects of boosting enrollment in AP classes. Parker says it’s a laudable goal to get more poor kids and kids of color ready for college, but if kids aren’t getting the support they need to succeed, it can send them the wrong message. "So for every student who concludes ‘yes, I can do this, I can do college level work,’ there’s a student who concludes ‘well, I can’t really do this, I must not be cut out for college.’ So we have to worry about whether that’s the kind of identity development we want in adolescence," Parker says.
Despite Federal Way’s low AP test passing rate, state Sen. Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island) says he thinks every district in the state should follow Federal Way’s lead. As chair of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, Litzow has co-sponsored a bill that would require districts to enroll all high school students who’ve passed state tests or easier classes into accelerated classes like AP.
That could be expensive for districts. For instance, it costs $89 to take each AP test, and Federal Way covers those fees for its students. But Litzow says SB 5243 would provide financial incentives for districts where the most students successfully complete the courses and funding for districts that lack accelerated options.
"I think every kid’s capable of doing this level of work," Litzow says. "It’s gonna take time, it’s gonna take effort, they’re gonna have to work hard, we’re gonna have to have some great teachers in there helpin’ them, but I think every kid’s capable of it." And, Litzow says, the job market these days requires more education than ever.
But Parker says policies like this should be left up to school districts to decide for themselves. "If Federal Way is finding it successful and having this debate about it internally, that’s one thing," Parker says. "But to have the state mandating this across the hundreds of school districts in the state, from Twisp to Bellevue, doesn't strike me as a good idea."
The idea does appears to be popular with many lawmakers. The Senate academic acceleration bill has bipartisan support, and Litzow says it’s been relatively uncontroversial. A companion bill is moving through the state House.