By: Rob Gira, Executive Vice President, AVID Center
As a long-time collaborator with the College Board and as a former AP® English teacher, I was pleased to see the New York Times article, “Rethinking Advanced Placement,” noting some of the key changes that are ahead for AP. Author Christopher Drew interviews veteran AP teachers, college professors who are consulting with the board on proposed improvements, and Trevor Packer, the College Board Vice President who oversees AP.
With the prolific growth of AP, and participation by broader groups of students, it is not surprising that since 1997 AP scores have declined, as Drew notes, dipping from an average of 3.13 to 2.68. With nearly two million students taking exams, the College Board has been criticized for moving away from AP’s original mission, to serve a select group of highly capable students, toward a broader, reform-minded approach. Increasingly, AP has also become an important part of student transcripts, as they compete for spots at top universities. This has led some educators to assert that a “stampede” into AP has diminished its quality. At AVID Center, we support the notion that more students should take AP, as long as they have support. We also believe that a well implemented AP program can bring academic coherence to a school and to a district.
Some of the most heated and yet articulate debate about access to AP can be read in Jay Mathews’ Washington Post column, “Class Struggle,” a spin-off of his book that examined AP gatekeeping practices at some of America’s most exclusive high schools. Mathews became interested in AP in the ‘80s when, as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, he ran across a then-unknown AP calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, who was achieving remarkable AP access and success at Garfield High School, in an impoverished inner city, aided by visionary principal Henry Gradillas. He subsequently discovered AVID, embracing Mary Catherine Swanson’s efforts.
Mathews’ Challenge Index has created a listing of America’s Best High Schools, based on AP participation. This, in turn, has further increased AP’s popularity, as principals and superintendents seek to improve the perception of their schools in the community. Being high on the Challenge Index list can help schools retain and even recruit motivated students and families. Still, many schools are reluctant to open the AP floodgates, even with the AVID support structure. Mathews has often chided elite high schools that engage in gatekeeping practices. “When the best schools in the country cannot resist labeling some of their students as mediocre and denying them the most challenging courses,” he says in the introduction to his book, Class Struggle, “then all schools, no matter how ambitious and affluent, are in trouble.”
Many high school AVID academic elective teachers are also AP teachers, and AVID site team plans focus on AP access and success. At AVID Center, we have encouraged AVID sites to give more students the opportunity to take the challenging AP tests. As Mathews stated in an 1998 ACCESS interview, “If a kid tries to take an AP test and does poorly, he’s still better off than if he had not taken the course or the test.... He has essentially gone ‘one-on-one’ with Michael Jordan and Jordan has beaten him, but he has a much clearer idea of what he needs to do to get up to that level. It’s not a distressing experience for the student, but enlivening and fortifying.”
As AP gained a greater threshold in our public schools, criticism of the College Board has mounted, even with volumes of research that point toward the importance of AP participation in a college-ready student’s portfolio. For years, despite an Equity Statement and an Equity department devoted to democratizing AP, the College Board has still suffered from an elitist reputation. Now, AP appears to be suffering from its own success. Some universities, MIT included, have stopped giving college credit for AP courses. Some secondary educators have also criticized the “AP push,” with students taking multiple exams. In AVID, we want students to face as many challenges as possible, monitored closely by their AVID teachers.
I have heard some AP teachers, especially those who teach history and biology, complain about the exams. And, as any of us who are close to the AP discussion know, the issue of breadth versus depth has dominated this discourse for years, especially pertaining to AP tests like biology and U.S. History, two of the exams that the College Board will redesign, focusing more on critical thinking and key concepts, as opposed to memorization, lists of facts, and lock-step lab experiments. Since over 60% of AVID’s 22,000 seniors last year—most of them the first in their families to take the challenging AP course and go to college—took at least one AP or IB exam (many take multiples), the AVID Center is, of course, interested in any changes that could impact their success.
What are the right moves the College Board has made?
For several years, the College Board has focused attention on AP quality. For example, the College Board has conducted their AP course audit. The Board has also engaged experts to examine particular courses and calibrate them against actual college courses. They also work with other non-profits like the AVID Center to provide professional development for teachers. Another excellent resource the College Board provides is their AP Central.
After collaborating with the College Board on the AP Challenge Grant in California, a successful effort that broadened AP access throughout the state, the AVID Center began our annual National Conference in 2003, with support from the College Board, to keep the spotlight on rigorous opportunities for all students and to showcase best practices combining the rigor of AP, IB, and dual enrollment. Some of these best practices are available on our website.
What has also been impressive about the College Board’s efforts is the focus on equity. The demographic improvements for low income and minority students are well-documented in the College Board’s “Report to the Nation.” In addition, the College Board’s AP Equity office provides support for schools’ and districts’ efforts to increase access to AP. Over the years, I’ve noticed that many of our AVID educators are gaining awareness of the College Board’s Equity Statement.
This past December, at AVID’s National Conference, Trevor Packer participated in a panel moderated by Scott Swail of the Educational Policy Institute, and also featuring Donna Ford, a professor from Vanderbilt; Bob Poole, Regional Development Specialist for the IB Americas region; and David Conley, noted college readiness researcher and writer, and CEO of EPIC.
Following is an edited version of Trevor Packer’s responses to Scott Swail:
Swail: What do we know about how the AP program helps students with rigor, with college going, and most importantly college success?
Packer: What we do know is that AP is not a cure-all; that all AP is not good AP. All AP does not translate into increased college success, but AP programs that grow out of rigorous middle school and high school preparation - such that students are capable of earning a score of three or better on the AP exam - do correlate strongly to increased four-year degree completion, higher first year GPA, higher second year GPA.
We are very excited that College Board researchers have just completed a national study of what happens to AP performance when open access policies are put in place. To our surprise and, we think, to the surprise of many, we are able to see there is no correlation between score declines and changing to an open access policy. In fact, we have seen a aggregate scores go up in districts that have put in place a concerted open access policy. So, we’re hopeful that research like that can go toward changing mindsets about the fears of score declines.
Swail: Historically, when we think of Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate, we don’t think of equity. Are there some examples out there that show schools balancing between not only high achievement college-level courses, but ensuring that there is equity in terms of who has access to these courses?
Packer: In terms of the good news, we just finished a decade in which the growth of African American and Hispanic student participation in AP every year, has been at least double that of the growth and participation among white and Asian students. So, catch up is happening. Things are changing for the better.
The AP classroom today looks very different from the AP classroom ten years ago. So that’s very good, such that there are now some states, like the state of Florida, in which Hispanic students are overrepresented in AP classrooms. You are more likely to find Hispanic students represented in an AP classroom than in a non-AP classroom.
What’s the bad news? In many states, the equity is still not there, and in no state with a significant population of African American students has that gap been closed. So the College Board has been very aggressive about this; we’ve begin releasing an annual report card that we take to every state department of education each January, that shows them what the demographics are of their non-AP classrooms versus what the demographics are of their AP classrooms. And, we talk with them about strategies, policy changes they can implement to make a difference.
Swail: The arguments in Waiting for Superman are about teacher quality, and we obviously know that there’s a large relationship there. What are some of the key points in terms of teacher quality, education, and induction as they relate to AP?
Packer: A shift in practice that we are trying to achieve with AP teachers is to move away from the sort of “whole model” of teaching AP, where teachers have a college-level textbook and try to cover it all. That means teachers end up lecturing a lot because it is easier to put on the chalkboard when the Salem Witch Trials occurred, than to teach the students in a really interactive way that helps them truly learn and understand.
With our research, we show that without really strong professional development, learning outcomes will not shift upward in a meaningful way. It’s not enough for a teacher to go to a five-day summer institute or weekend workshop… we’re really focused right now on rolling out a new professional development model that would serve teachers where they are during the academic year at their own pace. We are looking at ways they can download formative assessment activities to employ in their classrooms. We are piloting that new online formative assessment and professional development system in three school districts this coming school year, Hillsborough and several others and then rolling it out to the general school population in the fall of 2012.
In subsequent blogs, we will discuss IB and dual enrollment efforts, but we’d like to hear from practitioners about their AP success. Feel free to share your good work with us!