Alex Wong, a junior at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, is working hard for admission to an elite college. His resume boasts nearly straight A’s in rigorous classes, a summer program experience at Stanford University, an Eagle Scout project, club soccer, school choir.
But his steady progress hit an unexpected roadblock this year. Aiming to open access to college-level Advanced Placement courses, the school switched to a computer-based lottery to distribute spaces. Alex initially got shut out of all three courses he requested.
The new system caused an uproar among families whose children failed to get into AP courses, which many consider critical to develop advanced skills, boost grade-point averages and allow students to earn college credit, saving tuition dollars. They plied administrators with complaints, circulated a petition and launched a Facebook group to swap classes.
Long considered an elite track for the most talented and ambitious students, AP classes are now seen as beneficial for any students willing to push themselves—and schools are increasingly viewing access to them as a basic educational right. But that has come with challenges and controversy.
Miracle Vitangcol, a Downtown Magnets junior with average grades and test scores, is failing her AP U.S. history class; she said she is overwhelmed by the rapid pace and volume of material she needs to memorize. But she said she intends to stick it out because the class is teaching her to manage her time, take good notes and develop perseverance.
“I’m struggling to adjust,” she said. “But I keep telling myself, ‘It’s OK. You can do it. Just push yourself.’ ”
Some critics worry that the open-access movement is pushing too many unprepared students into AP classes, as indicated by higher exam failure rates over the last decade and a persistent achievement gap among races. They also fear that open enrollment policies are prompting teachers to weaken courses and inflate grades.
“While expanding access is generally a good thing, we need to make sure we’re not watering down the experience for the high achievers,” said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based educational policy organization.
But the College Board, which runs the AP program and is encouraging open access, said the effort has generally been successful. Even though national participation has doubled in the last decade to 2.1 million students last year, exam failure rates have increased only slightly, officials said. Passing scores have outpaced failing results by nearly 20% over the last decade.
At the same time, access to AP courses remains uneven. Low-income students are twice as likely as others to attend schools without a full array of AP courses, according to a June study by the Education Trust and Equal Opportunity Schools. Such disparities prompted a 2011 California law that encourages schools to offer AP courses in at least five subjects.
Overall, L.A. Unified has increased AP participation to 17.7% of high school students this year from 12.5% in 2009, when it adopted a districtwide open-enrollment policy. The exam pass rate has stayed about the same, at 40%, although it varies from 62.4% for whites to 25.7% for African Americans.