It’s a bad idea to use a lottery system for varsity football…and for varsity courses

Lottery systems are too common in education. And while it’s the fairest way to allocate a limited number of seats at, say, an oversubscribed, high-performing charter school, it’s not the way forward when it comes to Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

Unfortunately, that’s the direction some California school districts may be heading.

Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times reported last week that as some schools move to open access for AP courses, it allows students unprepared for the college-level rigor to sign up. And by enrolling students via lottery—because there aren’t enough AP seats to go around—schools may be shutting out high-achieving students entirely.

"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 in the story.

Mike reiterated that sentiment yesterday when he spoke to Larry Mantle of KPCC’s AirTalk, noting the unintended consequences of expanding AP courses.

Everyone agrees that more access to advanced-level work is a good thing for our students, but the evidence is mixed on whether students who don’t (or can’t) pass the AP exam actually benefit from taking these courses.

There’s also a question of peers. Will teachers spend too much class time working with students who are struggling? It seems likely. AP courses should have standards of entry so that our gifted students continue to be challenged, rather than twiddling their thumbs, waiting to get to do advanced-level work in advanced-level classes.

Schools must be smart in identifying which students could be successful (something that Long Beach has done well.) We can’t just use a lottery to choose who may enroll in these courses. We wouldn’t want our varsity football team to be chosen that way; we’d want the most talented athletes and those most apt to succeed to make the team. The same should be done in advanced-level courses.

There is a strong and, indeed, noble impulse to let more kids take AP courses. But we must not let the luck of the lottery be the deciding factor. That shows disrespect to our academic achievers.

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