College & Workforce Readiness

States Urged to Take Comprehensive Approach to AP Programs

By Catherine Gewertz — May 12, 2016 4 min read
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If states want to expand access to Advanced Placement courses equitably, they should consider requiring all high schools to offer at least one AP course, and to double down on enrolling students who have typically been underrepresented in those classes, according to a new policy brief on the subject.

Those are just two of the strategies outlined by the Education Commission of the States in its examination of statewide strategies that promote fairer access to AP courses. It analyzed AP use across the states, and noted the uneven access that has been reported in previous research. Studies have found, for instance, that while AP participation overall has soared in recent years, students in rural and small districts have fewer choices of AP classes than their peers in bigger towns and cities. There are longstanding gaps in participation among ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups, as well.

To inform states as they shape AP policies, the ECS created a 50-state comparison showing how each state handles issues such as teacher training and interfacing with colleges and universities. You can see, for instance, which states require their high schools to offer at least one AP course, and which ones have statewide policies specifying the score students must earn to get credit in their public colleges and universities.

The ECS also wrote a policy brief identifying 11 principles of an AP policy that would focus on fair access for all students.

Ensuring access. Most of the AP equity practices fall into this category. In addition to doing better outreach to underrepresented students and requiring each high school to offer at least one AP course, ECS suggests states make broader use of exam-fee waivers and subsidies, and take steps to ensure better online access to AP classes. (The College Board offers guidance for schools that want to offer online AP classes.)

Advising students into AP courses should be based on “objective metrics,” such as scores on college-readiness tests, rather than subjective judgments about who is, or isn’t, a good match for AP, the ECS said. This advice could hit a nerve among educators who believe test scores don’t fully capture a student’s potential to succeed in AP, and that more holistic judgments should be used instead.

But the ECS emphasizes that it’s suggesting “objective metrics” as a way of expanding, not filtering, the pool of potential AP students.

“Students capable of succeeding in an AP course may not see themselves as ‘college material’ and consequently not enroll. Or, teachers or counselors may—consciously or not—base decisions on which students are ‘AP material’ on criteria unrelated to a student’s ability to pass an AP course and exam,” the brief says.

“Encouraging or requiring school staff to use objective metrics, such as scores on college-ready assessments, to identify students with AP
potential may broaden the pool of students enrolled in AP courses.”

State support for AP must be a key part of a comprehensive strategy, too, ECS says. States must design systematic ways to support pre-AP courses, and teacher training for AP courses, and to provide financial incentives for offering AP.

Quality assurance is another area that states must think about as they design AP strategies, the ECS says. States can enhance schools’ incentives to create good-quality AP programming by factoring AP scores into states’ accountability systems, and requiring students to take the AP tests, not just the courses, according to the brief.

Factoring AP scores—not just course or test participation—into states’ evaluations of their high schools could push them to make sure that their programs are well designed and that teachers are prepared to help students succeed on the tests, Jennifer Dounay Zinth, the author of the policy brief and the director of the ECS’ High School Institute and STEM Policy Center, explained in an email. Also, requiring students to take the test would provide a better indicator of the quality of the school’s AP curriculum and instruction, she said, because it offers a sign of whether students actually mastered the material.

Awarding credit. States must also tackle the question of how their colleges and universities award credit for AP courses. The ECS urges states to adopt uniform policies across their higher-education systems that spell out the scores students must achieve to earn college credit.

The ECS showcases Arkansas and Kentucky as good examples of states that designed comprehensive strategies for AP classes. They use many of the practices outlined in the brief.

Arkansas, for instance, requires its school districts to report to their communities, and to the state board, the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic breakdown of the student population taking AP courses, taking the exams, and scoring 3 or higher. The state doesn’t specifically mandate special outreach to enroll underrepresented students, but it requires public reporting of data that facilitates spotting those gaps and taking action.

When it comes to using “objective metrics” for AP advising, for instance, Kentucky demonstrates how test scores can be used to draw more students into AP, rather than screen them out. State law there requires that students who score high enough on the state test in 10th grade, or a college-admissions exam in 11th grade, be counseled to enroll in AP classes.

Photo: School counselor Al Reid, left, shares pizza with seniors Christopher Ward, center, and Jaime Quinteros in 2004. The students were members of a support group at Wakefield High School, in Arlington, Va., that was formed to encourage Black and Hispanic boys to take advanced classes and help them succeed once enrolled. --Allison Shelley/Education Week-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.