‘Should High School Students Take College Courses?’

By R.A.B.

Over at Education Week’s LeaderTalk blog, former school superintendent Dennis Richards asks, “Should high school students take college courses?” Richards revisits a 2008 study by the Community College Research Center, where Karen Hughes and Melinda Karp asked, “Why would we take students who are not necessarily prepared for college, put them in a college class, and hope that that will help to prepare them to make that transition to college?”

The most striking thing we found is that the focus was not all on academic subject matter; the programs had a range of components, including experiential components so students would understand the kinds of social and personal behaviors they need to have to be succesful in college. Also, there would often be a remedial component for students who aren’t prepared, you don’t want to just put them in a college course and risk that they will fail; you want to provide them some kind of academic preparation so that they will be successful in those courses.

A few things: access to AP courses and college prep support otherwise is hardly universal across American high schools, and many observers (and students) have long recognized that AP prep, much like SAT prep, is largely a matter of privilege and affordability. Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County, MD, for instance, offers 28 AP courses — in addition to 17 honors courses — across four grade levels. AP curricula at Walt Whitman HS include economics, psychology, Eastern languages, world history, and comparative politics — already that’s a first-year university liberal arts curriculum in high school.

I think it goes without saying that emulating college coursework likely makes for effective college prep, although the CCRC study clarifies the importance of academic support services (e.g. teaching college study habits) in preparing students for success in post-secondary education:

Site visits revealed that preparing students for college coursework, and college itself, begins long before students enroll in college-credit-bearing classes. …the data indicated that much of the “action” comes prior to capstone college courses. Students have opportunities to gain academic skills, feelings of success and motivation, and learn social and procedural skills at multiple points in their [credit-based transition program] experiences, and this learning may influence their future program experiences and ultimate program outcomes.

That said, what do Hughes and Karp’s findings mean for schools where college prep services, such as Advanced Placement coursework and International Baccalaureate programs, aren’t so available? The College Board charges $86 per AP exam, and its test prep material ain’t cheap either.

A commenter on Richards’ post linked the discussion in an interesting direction: since 2002, the Early College High Schools (ECHS) Initiative has been working to expand college prep courses and support services (pdf) to “those young people who are least likely to attend college and for whom society often has low aspirations for academic achievement.” They’re laboratory schools of sorts — 63% of them are public, 78% are start-ups, 60% are academically theme-based. The Council of State Governments stresses that:

The students accepted into early colleges are not always the most gifted students in the district. In fact, they seldom are. Most early college schools target populations that are underrepresented in higher education — those from low-income families, racial and ethnic minorities, and first-generation college students.

Unlike AP support services and IB programs, early college high schools promise college prep and college credit to students who are in effect pursuing their associate or bachelor’s degrees within a public K-12 framework — cost-effective, and pretty damn impressive. ECHS programs have been expanding over the past few years; by 2005, 71 early college high schools operated nationwide, and ECHS Initiative partners hope to have 89 more schools up and running by 2011.

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  • Tania

    There is nothing wrong with raising the bar for our students. With so much focus and money spent on the children who don’t want to learn, the ones that do often lose out on valuable instruction. College-level work is not impossible and should be introduced to college-bound students as early as possible to reduce fear of failure of the unknown.

    • did you even read the post?

  • R.A.B.

    The 2008 study gets more into the question of who “wants” to learn and who doesn’t; my point is more so that introducing students to challenging curricula effectively is a matter of support structures over time and a lot more resources than just the course offerings themselves.

  • shani-o

    My mother is the counselor at an early college high school located on a CC campus, and I have to say, what they do at her school (as opposed to the AP offerings at my traditional high school) is really, really beneficial to students who wouldn’t normally be tracked into AP courses at a school like the one I went to. And every year, her school graduates a few kids who also have an AB, which is awesome.

    The kids her school takes in are B and C students — which aren’t the same kids who populate the AP and IB classes (and often, nor can they afford $80 an AP test). In high school, I took several AP courses, and started college a few credits ahead, but looking back, I wish I had the option to go to her school — but then again, who wants to go to school where her mom works?

  • I completely agree with this article. I went to schools in Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County MD during my high school years, and went to AP for both. However, the atmosphere in MoCo was way different from PG, and I think it had a major influence on how well students did in the testing environment.

    If I had to summarize it, MoCo’s message to students was “This is easy, nothing different than what you do everyday.” There was a culture around doing well and being successful (even though I was at one of the underperforming schools in the district), and much of the test prep was in the classroom. I got a five (highest score) on my AP Language and Comp exam, but that’s because my teachers were right – since we were doing timed writings every week, it was just like another day in class.

    PG’s message was more like “We know you’ll probably fail, but try anyway.” There wasn’t a culture of learning, the atmosphere was different, and there was less in class time to review. At least at the beginning of the year – by the end of senior year, I skipped so much school, I couldn’t tell you what was going on. There was definitely a gap though – in MoCo, we stepped into class and started test prep as part of the curriculum from day one. (I ended up missing the AP Lit test.)

    Also, I noticed in PG, there was more of a push for kid’s courseload to “match” – if you had advanced in one level, you needed to have everything advanced, where in MoCo, having AP level English could coexist with Honors science and normally tracked math.

    Shani-O also brings up a good point with affordability. Kaplan and other test prep courses were a fantasy for me, but there was some kind of deal where if you were on free lunch, you got to take the test for half-price. But the point remains – all those tests cost both money (which a lot of kids don’t have) and time (which many of the part-time job crew can’t afford.)

  • R.A.B.

    I got fee waivers for the AP exams, but I couldn’t really afford a lot of that AP and SAT test prep materials that they sell in bookstores. I remember camping out in Barnes & Noble a few times in my senior year, taking notes from the books on the shelves so that I wouldn’t have to pay for them.