Laura Fuchs has been teaching Advanced Placement U.S. government and politics at H.D. Woodson High School in Washington for six of her 10 years there. She is in her early 30s, wears her hair pulled back in a bun and has a no-nonsense way of dealing with her students. But that apparent sternness belies a genuine love of teaching and a deep well of patience, two qualities that have prepared her for teaching a college-level course at a school like Woodson.
Many students in Washington go to charter schools or to one of seven magnet high schools in the district, which admit students based on specific eligibility criteria. Woodson, serving around 600 students in the second-poorest ward in the city, is one of nine high schools in Washington with open enrollment. In 2016, it had a graduation rate of 76 percent — up from 53 percent in 2012. Last year only 1 percent of its students met math standards on national standardized tests, and 4 percent met reading standards. Woodson is among the lowest-performing schools in the city, and as at many of Washington’s public schools, 100 percent of the students receive free or subsidized lunches. “A lot of students are not at the poverty line; they’re significantly below it,” Fuchs says.
On the day I visited last fall, Fuchs’s class was learning about Social Security. Most of Fuchs’s students were already familiar with the program, but only its disability-insurance component. Many were surprised to learn that it’s also a retirement program. Next, Fuchs brought up the 1950s baby boom and discovered that some of her students didn’t realize that the country’s birthrate is lower today than it was in the past. One student chimed in jokingly: “That’s O.K., these high school students can catch them up!” Fuchs steered them back to the matter at hand. “When it comes to the A.P. exam, you need to know what Social Security is — it’s called an entitlement, which means if you qualify according to the law, you receive it,” she explained.
A.P. U.S. government, like the 38 other A.P. courses developed by the College Board, a nonprofit organization, is a difficult class. Students are expected to read college-level textbooks, grasp complicated vocabulary and concepts and spend 30 minutes to an hour each night on homework. At the end of the year is an arduous final exam designed, distributed and graded by the College Board. If students score a 3 or better on a 5-point scale, they typically receive college credit. (Though the College Board does not consider a 1 or a 2 to be a failing grade, they are commonly understood to be — and students receive no credit for them.) As of last year, D.C. Public Schools required that all its high schools offer at least eight Advanced Placement classes.
Until recently, this fact alone would have been considered remarkable. A.P. classes were, for years, primarily taught in wealthier school districts. But over the last decade, the program has grown rapidly. In 2006, 1.3 million students took at least one A.P. exam; by 2016, the number had increased to 2.6 million. The total number of tests taken grew during the same time period to 4.7 million from 2.3 million. Much of this growth is due to increased federal funding for A.P. tests and concerted efforts by the College Board to reach low-income and minority students. The organization has a program called “All In,” which identifies lower-income students who might succeed in an A.P. class based on their PSAT scores — the Preliminary SAT, which the College Board also administers — and then reaches out to those students (and their teachers and advisers) to persuade them to take the courses.
From one viewpoint, the expansion has been successful. In 2005, only 6.4 percent of the nation’s high school seniors who took A.P.s were black; that figure increased to 9.5 percent in 2015. Hispanics’ participation grew to 20 percent from 13.4 percent. For low-income students, that figure doubled, to about 30 percent from about 15 percent.
But taking an A.P. class and succeeding at it are two different things. After class let out, Fuchs told me, with a note of frustration in her voice, how few of her students passed the A.P. exam at the end of the year. “I’ve got five to six kids reading on grade level, and three of those don’t show up,” she said. “The rest are significantly below grade level.” Fuchs, whose class meets for 85 minutes daily, works with her students through lunch periods and whenever she has a free moment. She took some of them canvassing out of state on weekends during the 2016 campaign to teach them about real-world politics. She buys them breakfast the morning of the A.P. exam. Many of her students are engaged and passionate. Still, she said, “for six years, the passage rate has always been completely flat.” Usually, only one or two students in her class score a 3 or higher.
Fuchs’s students are part of a broader trend. Nationally, over 70 percent of African-Americans and 57 percent of Hispanics who took an A.P. test in 2016 did not pass. (Over all, the failure rate was 42 percent.) And over the past two decades, although the percentage of students scoring between 2 and 5 remained fairly stable, the percentage of students scoring 1 has grown to 19 percent from 12 percent.
In 2016, at the nine open-enrollment neighborhood high schools in Washington, the passage rates were fairly dismal; at three schools, only one student score a 3 or above, and one had no students pass at all. This failure rate, which is rarely highlighted by the College Board — or the policy makers and legislators who also drive the A.P. expansion — raises questions that are as tangled as any about race, class and education in this country. Critics of the program see the A.P.’s expansion as a boondoggle, with scarce resources being thrown at a program that simply wasn’t designed to address the systemic problems facing public education — at a real cost to these students.