Equity & Diversity

How to Make AP Classes Accessible and Equitable: District Leaders Share Strategies

By Ileana Najarro — July 27, 2023 5 min read
Educators at the College Board's AP annual conference learn about various AP program offerings intended to address access and equity to advanced coursework for underrepresented students in Seattle, Wash. on July 20, 2023.
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Whether it’s fostering collaboration across grade levels, or using College Board tools such as AP Classroom and Pre-AP guidelines, district leaders can implement a number of strategies to improve students’ access to Advanced Placement courses and create equitable learning environments for all.

Educators got a chance to learn from each other about these strategies at the College Board’s AP annual conference this month in Seattle, the first such conference since 2019.

As part of sessions, leaders from Lincoln Parish schools in Louisiana and Memphis-Shelby County schools in Tennessee presented their insights on what’s paid off in their communities.

Here’s some of their advice for district leaders seeking to address equity and access in their AP programs.

Identify students’ potential early on and invest in Pre-AP

At Memphis Shelby County schools, counselors rely on Preliminary SAT scores, or PSAT standardized test scores from 8th grade, in conjunction with other measures of student performance, for identifying students early who may have the potential to succeed in AP classes in high school, said James Smith, the AP manager for the district.

There’s also a lot of advertising of Pre-AP courses and AP courses for students and parents so they are fully informed about the various options available for them, along with the possibility of earning college credit through AP courses.

Properly informing students and families is crucial, said Ashlee Bell, an AP English literature and composition teacher at Ruston High School in the Lincoln Parish schools in Louisiana.

She also teaches dual-enrollment courses and makes sure students understand what each program can offer them, and what each program will expect of them so they can make informed decisions.

In the Tennessee district, Pre-AP courses are a strategic means of informing students about AP in particular, Smith said.

Typically offered in 9th and 10th grade, though also available in middle schools, these are College Board grade-level courses with frameworks and instructional support geared toward equipping students with the skills they’ll need to succeed in AP courses, according to the nonprofit. They’re not meant to be honors courses and don’t offer college credit.

The College Board has found that Black/African American students who take Pre-AP courses have a greater likelihood to take two or more AP exams during high school, compared to their peers who did not take Pre-AP courses.

“When it comes time to take that AP course, [students are] looking at something that’s unfamiliar to them, but if they’ve taken a Pre-AP course, it acclimates them to that idea and that rigor,” Smith said.

Offer AP courses in a variety of formats

The Memphis-Shelby County school district, which serves more than 106,000 students—a majority of whom are African American and Hispanic, and about 60 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged—offers three ways for students to take AP courses.

There’s the traditional in-person approach, which is how most AP courses are offered within the district. There’s also a program called AP Access for All, which served 134 students from 10 high schools last year covering 21 AP courses. These classes, intended for smaller high schools that might not have the resources to offer the class, are taught in an asynchronous format and are funded by the state department of education, administered by the education-focused nonprofit Niswonger Foundation, Smith said.

The district also offers the AP Virtual Academy which, in its first run last year, served 125 students from 11 different schools covering 3 AP courses in synchronous instruction.

“That allows the high schools that can’t offer that class in person to offer it through the virtual option,” Smith said. “If we just have one student that wants to attend, they can jump online and attend that course.”

Smith also set up a hybrid bell schedule for this virtual option. Classes are available in the morning and afternoon to accommodate various school schedules.

This year, the new virtual option will reach 12 high schools offering 6 AP courses.

Offering a variety of AP courses also helps students have more entryways into AP, Smith said, adding the district has participated in the AP African American Studies pilot this past year and will offer it again this fall, and will offer the new AP Precalculus course this year.

Vertically align curriculum to prepare students

At Lincoln Parish schools, a rural district in Louisiana serving about 6,000 students, 52 percent of whom are students of color, and 56 percent of all students are economically disadvantaged, the go-to strategy across disciplines has been vertically aligning curriculum.

The goal is to ensure students are ready to take on AP and honors courses well before they reach high school.

For example, the district assigns summer reading from grades 7 through 11. Multicultural books are purchased for students. In 7th grade, for instance, students must look at character and theme, breaking down different parts of the text to better understand the character’s motivations and values to get to that deeper level. In 8th grade they practice the same skills with grade-level texts for that year, and with passing years continue to add on skillsets.

“They build upon the skills and they’re able to do that because we work together to communicate, and our assignments are familiar to our students, that expectation of rigor is there,” said Stephanie Treadway, Pre-AP English teacher at Ruston High School within the district.

The skills students develop across the summer help them to meet both state standards and College Board standards for AP classes. Educators can use the AP Classroom online tool to see how they can best align state standards to what is expected for AP, Treadway said.

“The summer assignment really exists so that when the fall comes, these classes can accelerate into the curriculum,” said Emily Howell, English/language arts facilitator for the district.

She added that some mindsets had to shift when the district implemented such assignments.

“Junior high teachers would say things like: ‘We’re gonna use this to weed the kids out.’ No, that’s not what this is. We’re not weeding anybody out. We’re trying to cast the net as widely as possible,” Howell said.

Set a culture of high expectations and collaboration

Both districts prioritize building a culture where educators, school administrators, and district staff all hold high expectations of students and are willing to work together to ensure students can succeed in their work around AP.

In Louisiana, that takes the form of ensuring teachers have access to a variety of instructional resources and peer support, especially as multiple disciplines are vertically aligned across grades, educators said.

In Tennessee, experienced AP teachers serve as mentors offering teacher-to-teacher professional support to enhance instruction, providing feedback and strategies for success, and supporting two to three mentees at a time weekly or biweekly, said Jeanie Walford, AP advisor at Memphis-Shelby County schools.

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