High schools are lowering the bar for enrollment in advanced courses that give kids a leg up for college, but many students need help boosting their reading skills.

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Many high schools are offering college-level, Advanced Placement classes to all of their students.  Some even require students to enroll in at least one Advanced Placement course.

About 37 percent of the Washington state students who graduated last spring took one or more Advanced Placement exams during high school, compared with nearly 20 percent a decade ago, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Some question whether it’s realistic to open such classes to students who may not be academically prepared, and the increased participation has meant some students enroll without the reading skills they need, according to a new study from the University of Washington.

The researchers don’t take sides on whether expanding access to Advanced Placement courses is a good idea. But their study underscores a big challenge for teachers when some students arrive with below-level reading skills, including some who haven’t made the leap from learning to read in elementary school to reading to learn in the upper grades.

“The expectation is that middle and high school students are actually reading to learn, particularly in advanced courses,” said one of the lead researchers, Walter Parker.

They discovered an astonishing range of reading comprehension skills in three high-poverty high schools using a hands-on Advanced Placement American government class developed by the UW. Some students had scores in the bottom 2 percent on state reading tests and others registered as high as the 98th percentile.

They also found that struggling readers were unlikely to get help because their teachers were generally unaware that the mix in their classrooms was that extreme.

The researchers found that while students could read the words well enough, many lacked the vocabulary and background knowledge to draw inferences, make arguments, or even summarize the main ideas from the textbook.

And 70 percent of the students the researchers interviewed admitted they hadn’t even read the assigned chapters. Teachers suspected as much and tended to cover the same material in their lectures.

“Our initial surprise was to find out how many strategies both teachers and students had to avoid the text book,” Parker said.

The findings are part of a larger research project developed by Parker and his UW colleagues that’s testing a different approach to teaching Advanced Placement classes.

Instead of primarily lecturing students on a wide range of topics covered on the Advanced Placement tests, teachers stage role-playing exercises — like re-enacting famous debates from American history — that encourage deeper thinking about core concepts.

The project, featured in a Seattle Times Education Lab story, started in 2007 in the Bellevue School District.  It has since expanded to Seattle; Oakland, Calif.; Des Moines, Iowa; and most recently, Chicago.

Initial results show that students using the UW approach in high-poverty urban schools are performing about as well or better on the Advanced Placement exams as students in traditional Advanced Placement courses, Parker said.

Parker and UW reading expert Sheila Valencia suspected that the mix of reading abilities would make the classes harder to teach, which prompted the current study, recently published in the journal Citizenship Teaching & Learning.

But simply avoiding the textbook isn’t the answer because the ability to learn from what we read is an important goal of education, Valencia said.

“We don’t recommend throwing the textbook out the window,” Valencia said.

The UW research team already has incorporated some ways for teachers to use the text books more effectively

They’re encouraging teachers to read what they’re assigning first (their study found that many teachers hadn’t read the chapters beforehand) and anticipate where students may trip up on unfamiliar words or need some background information.  

And instead of simply assigning whole chapters, teachers should point to specific passages that students will need to play their part in a simulated debate about, say, the proper balance between state and federal power.

Teachers are welcoming the advice and reporting that it’s making a difference.

“Kids wouldn’t dare not read it because they didn’t want to look silly in front of their peers the next day,” Valencia said.