College & Workforce Readiness

Advanced Placement Courses Cast Wider Net

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 02, 2004 9 min read
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The Advanced Placement program at Sharpstown High School has long been viewed as a haven for top students in the school’s magnet leadership learning community. Most of the Houston school’s other students—a majority of them poor and members of racial or ethnic minorities—did not consider the rigorous, college-level courses an option.

Principal David Kendler and his staff at the 1,700-student school are working to change those perceptions. On the heels of a new plan by the district to expand AP participation, Sharpstown High officials this year are steering more students into such courses and sending out a message to the entire student body: The program “is accessible and attainable and something that [most] kids can do,” Mr. Kendler said.

“Most students,” he said, “didn’t view themselves as AP material before, … but now we’re seeing increasing numbers.”

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Chart: AP Participation

While those numbers are still low—Sharpstown currently has 250 students in AP courses—participation has increased 20 percent over last year. Mr. Kendler expects the number to grow significantly higher as word spreads that enrollment is open and encouraged for just about everyone.

The College Board, which sponsors the AP courses, has itself been trying to recast the program as being within reach of any student willing to do the work, regardless of academic standing. The new direction has drawn praise from many observers, who say the trend could challenge students to stretch their academic pursuits and bridge the academic gap between lower-achieving black and Hispanic students—who traditionally have been underrepresented in the program—and their white and Asian-American classmates.

But the shift in thinking has also raised concerns that more students will struggle to meet the standards and fail, and that ultimately, the quality of the program will be watered down to prevent that from happening.

Perfect Score Required

Several prestigious private schools, in fact, have eliminated their Advanced Placement offerings, asserting that the program isn’t rigorous enough for their students, or restricts teachers’ flexibility in instruction. A number of selective universities have also tightened up on awarding AP credit.

Harvard University, for example, raised its requirements for students seeking advanced standing, which allows them to finish a bachelor’s degree in three years. The university will require a 5, a perfect score, on four AP exams for the advanced designation. In the past, students could score 4 or better on the tests.

“While AP has been seen as a way for schools to close the achievement gap, [some reports] suggest that minorities still are underrepresented in AP classes, and that their test scores suggest their AP teachers are less well-prepared than those teaching white students,” said Jennifer Dounay, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States who has compiled reports on state trends and policies on the Advanced Placement program.

“There is also a concern among some that AP, in trying to go beyond its initial mission to serve only academically gifted students to serving as many students as sign up, is going to compromise the program’s high benchmarks,” she wrote in a e-mail.

But College Board officials argue that the course standards have persisted for nearly 50 years and are tested against college-level courses to maintain their comparability. Although some students will flounder, the officials say, most will achieve beyond what had been expected of them.

“Our position is simply if a student is willing to take on the challenge of doing college-level, rigorous work in high school, they should be given that opportunity,” said Walt Jimenez, the director of curriculum and assessment for the AP program. “And those students—regardless of their performance on the [AP] exams—tend to be better prepared for college.”

Pointing to research showing that students’ access to a high-quality academic program is a strong predictor of college success, the New York City-based board has created a “pre-AP” initiative to help middle schoolers get prepared for the more difficult content they will encounter in high school. In addition, its Equity and Access initiative has placed more emphasis on getting students just to take the courses, without worrying about whether they can score well on the tests given at the end of each school year.

Government Incentives

Districts across the country have been following that lead, tapping into federal and state incentive programs that offer grants and bonuses—and pay test fees for needy students—to encourage more youths to enroll in the upper-level classes.

Houston is trying to get students on track early, requiring all 6th graders this year to take the “pre-AP” English classes. Eventually, middle school students will also take the preparatory mathematics classes, district officials say.

Other urban districts, notably Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and Chicago, have also kicked up recruiting tactics, leading to rapid growth in enrollments. The move has required many schools to urge more teachers into advanced-training programs to meet the demand for AP courses. Study periods and tutoring sessions are also being expanded to help students tackle the demanding workload often associated with the classes. In some rural districts, where resources and teachers are too few to make it practical to offer the AP program, online courses are available.

The Advanced Placement program was established in 1955 to give high-achieving students access to college-level coursework. Since then, participation has expanded from just 1,200 students to more than 1.1 million last school year.

About 70 percent of those enrolled in the courses take the AP tests each year, with about 61 percent earning a score of 3, a benchmark many colleges consider acceptable.

The College Board endeavor, coupled with the federal and state incentive programs, appears to be paying off. The number of African-American students taking AP exams, for example, has doubled since the late 1990s, to about 80,000, though they still make up less than 5 percent of all test-takers. More than 10 percent of the test-takers are Hispanic, while Asians make up 13 percent.

But some of the stabs at expanding, even requiring, the program have met with resistance.

In Bellevue, Wash., a proposal to require all high school students to take at least one AP course in each of the core subjects in order to graduate was shot down after parents expressed doubts that their children could succeed.

“What we should be doing is preparing every single kid in the country for college,” argued Superintendent Mike Riley. His AP proposal fueled emotional reactions from parents who worried that the course requirements would be too hard or stressful for their children.

Others, he said, suggested that opening up the courses to average students would eventually lead to lower standards. The response surprised him, given that 80 percent of the district’s 5,000 high school students end up taking at least one AP course before graduating.

“The AP program is the one place that we can be pretty certain that if we can get kids to that level, they will be able to do pretty well in college or wherever they go next,” Mr. Riley said.

‘Right Kind of Curriculum’

Some federal and state officials agree. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, about $24 million is offered annually to states to expand access to the AP program among underserved students.

Texas officials have promised districts $97 for each student who scores well on an AP exam, a bonus that has added as much as $100,000 to some district coffers.

According to ECS data, a dozen or so states provide financial incentives of their own to districts that offer AP courses. At least 10 pay some or all the $44-per-test fee for students who can’t afford the cost. Some states also provide money for teacher training. Several factor AP offerings into their schools’ accountability formulas.

Still, many schools aren’t equipped to handle the growing enrollments in the program, some experts contend. In many low-performing schools, where administrators struggle to recruit and keep teachers qualified to handle the regular curriculum, finding someone equipped to teach advanced courses often proves difficult, according to David Ely, a member of a national panel that studied the AP and the International Baccalaureate programs in science and math.

Mr. Ely, an AP biology teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School near Burlington, Vt., has seen many of his students thrive in the program over the past 25 years beyond their own expectations. Although the AP program is considered the premier curriculum, it is not ideal, he said.

“For kids to have this opportunity to really stretch themselves is great,” Mr. Ely said, “But I do wonder if AP is the right kind of curriculum. … It’s extraordinarily broad.”

The National Research Council panel he served on suggested in its 2003 report that even though the curriculum may be challenging, too often it is laden with specific content, giving students little opportunity to master substantive knowledge. (“Scholars Critique Advanced Classes in Math, Science,” Feb. 20, 2004.)

Though the College Board disagreed with that assessment, it has been working to balance coverage of content with more in-depth knowledge of subjects.

Expanded access, meanwhile, doesn’t necessarily translate into more success. Hundreds of thousands of students who take the courses still opt not to take the voluntary tests. And many students who pass the courses fall short of the “passing” grade.

In 2003, nearly 70 percent of black students who took AP tests scored lower than 3, while 65 percent of white test-takers received that passing score.

But some observers say test results should not be the primary motivation, either for students or educators.

“The continuing growth of black student participation in the AP program is encouraging,” the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reports in its October issue.

“Even for the more than 50,000 black students who took but did not receive qualifying grades on AP exams,” the publication continues, “the college-level curriculum of the AP program will better prepare these students for the academic rigors of a strong college.”

Even in Washington state’s Bellevue district, where 90 percent of AP students take the exams, officials haven’t fretted over test scores. But with only 67 percent of those students earning an acceptable score—about the national average—the limited emphasis on passing may change.

“We’ve taken the position from the beginning that we didn’t care how kids did on the test, we just wanted them to have that kind of challenging experience,” Mr. Riley said. “But we’ve been doing this long enough now that I want us to get a little more serious about seeing the test scores go up.”

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