'R' is for rigor in US high schools

Spreading college-level classes to low-income high schools can better prepare kids for college.

Parents of high-schoolers may think AP courses are only for driven, well-off, and mostly white students. Same for advanced placement's obscure cousin, the IB, or international baccalaureate. Encouragingly, educators are working to spread the reach of these college-level programs.

That's because the US is not doing so well at high school and higher education. Bite down on these sour facts: Only 18 percent of high school seniors performed at or above proficiency in science in 2005. Forty percent of college students have to take at least one remedial course – and only half of those who set out to earn a bachelor's degree do so.

If the US wants to be globally competitive, high schools have to do a much better job at preparing kids for college.

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Increasingly, educators, policymakers, and even those in the private sector think college-level courses can be used as an education reform tool to boost poor performance in public high schools. An effort is being made to bring AP and IB to more schools with low-income and minority students and to allow general enrollment.

A word about AP and IB: Both are rigorous programs that can earn a student college credit. Both cultivate critical thinking. Tests are written and graded by outsiders.

Both are growing. AP is run by the nonprofit College Board, and is now in about 60 percent of US high schools. The much smaller IB started as a way to provide an internationally recognized diploma for children of expatriates, and is in only about 2 percent of US high schools. It's run by the nonprofit International Baccalaureate Organization in Geneva.

As with AP, students can take individual IB classes, but if they go for the diploma, it's a more strenuous regime requiring foreign language fluency, a 4,000-word research paper, and a lengthy final exam.

Because students who take AP tests have a higher college graduation rate than those who don't, it makes sense to increase the number of high-schoolers taking college-level courses.

Those concerned that low-income students lack the training to perform in such classes should look at Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Va. Just over a decade ago, the school was inundated with low-income, low-performing black and Hispanic students, and middle class families were moving out. It adopted IB and has turned around. About half the juniors and seniors are taking IB classes, a third of them are minorities. IB scores have improved.

"Teachers were convinced that kids at low income can learn at this level if you give them extra time and encouragement," says Jay Mathews, who devised the Newsweek magazine index that rates the top 100 US high schools. Meanwhile, IB at Mount Vernon has energized middle school teachers to better prepare their kids for a more demanding high school curriculum.

The greatest obstacles to spreading AP and IB are probably commitment and cost for teacher training, materials, and testing. (Mount Vernon spends about $55,000 a year on IB). But the US Department of Education, the National Governors Association, and major private players such as Exxon Mobile Corp. are willing to spend for these courses.

They recognize that raising the ceiling of expectation will raise the floor of achievement.

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