Want your school to try Advanced Placement? Here's how.
I have written this weekly online column for almost a decade. From the beginning, one of its goals was to be ahead of every other media outlet in news and arguments about Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and tests.
I had been investigating AP and IB for two decades, and concluded they were the most beneficial programs in American high schools. Some people disagreed. That means, over time, that more has been written here about those programs, both good and bad, than anywhere else.
Much of this conversation has focused on the upper tier of high schools where AP and IB are common. That highest 10 percent of schools have more or less turned into AP or IB academies, mostly because that is what the selective colleges, the ones their students and parents lust after, want them to be.
AP and IB are college level courses in many subjects that end with college level exams written and graded by outside experts. Students who score well on those exams can receive college credit, but the programs' most important benefit, in my view, is giving students a taste of what foot-high reading lists and essay-filled exams are going to be like in college, and raising the standard of excellence in our mostly mediocre high schools.
The vast majority of U.S. schools don't do much with AP or IB and are beginning to realize that they are missing out on something, although they are not sure what. (There is a tiny group of small private schools that are trying to rid themselves of AP, for reasons often discussed here that have little to do with America's education problems. (We will revisit them again soon, since I can't resist making fun of their fantasy that they are the wave of the future.)
School board members, principals, parents, teachers and counselors from public schools discovering AP or IB often write me and seek advice, because they have heard this column is AP/IB Central. I am obviously in favor of both programs, but try to introduce them also to the thoughts of those who wonder if such challenging courses are good for most kids. They also get a lot of information from the College Board, the sponsor of AP, whose members see the program as a way to prepare more students for higher education.
Now a new source of independent information about AP, The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, has issued one of the most detailed and useful reports ever on the program, particularly for schools in rural and urban areas where parents and teachers doubt their kids are up to taking college courses in high school.
The report, "Raising Rigor, Getting Results: Lessons Learned from AP Expansion," is by David Wakelyn, program director of the center's education division. Available on the association Web site, nga.org, it manages in 16 pages to explain what AP is, trace its growth and report the results of a concerted effort to expand the program in six states--Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Nevada and Wisconsin.
The six-state initiative began in 2005, focused on minority and low-income students in 51 high schools in rural and urban districts. They ranged from schools like Oak Hill High School in Wales, Me., which had no students in AP in the 2005-2006 school year, to Edward W. Clark High in Las Vegas, Nevada, which had 372 AP students that year.
As Wakelyn describes it, the NGA took an amazingly intelligent approach to softening the natural resistance to change at these schools. Usually well-intentioned reformers with money tell school districts in some detail what they have to do to get it. In this case the study organizers simply offered some data showing that, based on PSAT results and other findings, those schools had many more students ready for AP than were being allowed to take it. They described programs that had worked for other districts. Then they wrote some checks and told the pilot schools to do with whatever made sense with the money.
I have been writing about different ways to do AP since 1982. I thought I had seen everything. But these educators came up with ideas that were new to me. Clark High in Las Vegas required all sophomores who had scored proficient on a standardized reading test to take AP English Language and Composition in their junior year and AP English Literature in their senior year. Deering High School in Portland, Me., asked students which AP courses they wanted---a shocking departure from standard procedure--and discovered a previously unknown yearning for AP computer programming. At the Clark County (Las Vegas) Virtual High School, credit was awarded not by how much time the students spent in their seats, but whether they fulfilled the course requirements and took the AP exam.
The schools tried dozens of approaches to preparing both students and faculty for the courses. Alabama established teams of middle and high school teachers who coordinated their activities. Maine paid mentors $2,500 stipends to meet three times a year with new AP teachers. Wisconsin and Nevada instituted weeklong statewide summer institutes for teachers. Their state governments in many cases came up with more money.
The results of the first three years of the initiative in those 51 schools were promising. Nationally, during that time, the percentage of seniors with a passing score on at least one AP test sometime in high school edged up from 14.8 to 15.2 percent. The NGA's pilot schools started from a lower point but had more growth, from 6.6 to 8.3 percent. With 55,000 students in the pilot program, its size roughly matched the number of students in some small states. But the percentage of seniors in those states who passed an AP test rose only from 6.2 to 6.5.
There is much room for improvement. In 2000, 405,000 seniors across the U.S. took at least one AP exam. In 2008, that number had climbed to 758,000. But an examination of PSAT scores shows that 600,000 students who did not enroll in AP likely would succeed in AP Calculus and AP English Literature.
Every year on newsweek.com I rank the top high schools in the country based on their participation in AP and IB exams. It doesn't take much to make that list. A school could do it by having only half of its juniors and half of its seniors take just one AP exam each of those years. But only 6 percent of American public high schools meet that standard.
When I talk to educators in states like the ones that participated in the NGA study, they say they never thought that their students would be up to such a thing. College courses in high school? Well, maybe for our smartest kids, but we don't want to set the rest up for failure, they say.
There is plenty of data showing that NOT getting average students into AP or IB is what will lead to failure in college. Even students who only score 2s on the 5-point exams, which is below the 3-point passing mark, do better in college than students who don't take AP.
The National Governors Association has provided a blueprint for many more schools to try this. For the sake of their students, lulled into the hopeful fantasy that sliding through high school won't hurt their futures, I hope they give it a chance.
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