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Rigorous Course Enrollment Proves as Important as Attaining High Test Scores

by Dennis A. Johnston, Ph.D.
Senior Director, Chief Research Officer
AVID Center

Earlier this week, the College Board released its 10th annual AP® Report to the Nation highlighting three “Districts of the Year.” Two of these currently implement AVID. Districts are recognized after significantly increasing AP participation and the percentage of students earning a score of 3 or higher on AP exams. We at AVID Center congratulate these three districts and would like to extend congratulations to all schools and districts that have opened AP access to desirous students, regardless of their level of success on the AP exams.

Much has been made, over the years, of the significance of students earning a successful score (3 or higher) on an AP exam. The College Board, for example, uses the percentage of students scoring in this range as partial evidence for identifying “Districts of the Year,” and “...worthy of recognition” (The College Board, 2014). Moreover, increasing AP participation while concurrently raising the percentage of students scoring 3 or higher on AP exams, the report goes on to say, “...indicates that the district is successfully identifying motivated, academically prepared students who are likely to benefit most from rigorous AP course work.” True. But I would also submit that the focus on AP exam pass rates neglects a key element critical to a student’s successful transition to and through college.  We must also recognize the very positive impact AP course participation and completion alone has on college enrollment and persistence rates, regardless of exam score. 

Recently, several colleagues and I completed a report looking at AP, IB®, and Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE®) course enrollments and test scores among students enrolled in nine districts located in a large southern state. Each of these districts has AVID implemented in many of their schools that provide support to more than 30,000 AVID students combined. We wanted to know the impact rigorous course enrollment might have on college enrollment and persistence rates among AVID students when compared with the general population in the district. Our findings show that last year, the average percentage (46.5%) of AVID students enrolled in AP, IB or AICE courses was significantly higher than students in the general population (29.7%) though AVID students were significantly less likely to earn a score of 3 or higher, 19.5% vs. 40.5%, on AP or IB exams. However, when we looked at the college enrollment and retention rates of the two groups, we found that a higher percentage of AVID students enrolled in college and persisted into their second year at both two-year and four-year colleges!

These findings support other research suggesting that exposure to a rigorous curriculum in high school is one of the most important factors related to college enrollment and success (Adelman, 2006). AVID promotes open access to rigorous courses by transforming schools and cultivating a college readiness culture on campus. Nick Salerno, superintendent of the El Monte Union HS District in California and recipient of the College Board’s AP District of the Year for a mid-sized district, stated in the AP Report to the Nation, “This Higher Ed-K–12 collaboration, coupled with our strong AVID programs and staff, promotes a college-going culture and provides access, information, and motivation for our students.” He goes on to say, “These programs...have removed many obstacles and hurdles that our young people have faced and provided opportunities for students who previously may not have had the confidence to venture into advanced college-level course work.”

It seems to me that if the end game is to prepare all our students to gain access, persist, and graduate from college, then we should be focusing on the opportunities schools have to afford rigorous instruction and course offerings to all students rather than just those who score 3 or higher on AP or IB tests.  I’d like to hear what you think...

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Reader Comments (1)

Fantastic connections to the world of rigorous expectations for all students. Referencing Adelman's Toolbox, I agree with your statements that, "exposure to a rigorous curriculum in high school is one of the most important factors related to college enrollment and success." One of the challenges/opportunities that principals face is proving positive impact on their UIP scorecard. Opening the doors to rigorous courses and providing AVID Elective Classes to support studnets in their rigorous curriculum is a great start. Rigor and Support; they go hand in hand as Mary Catherine always says.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGordon Mosher

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