Nearly 50 years ago, the U.S. faced a hot scare in the cold war. The Soviet Union launched in 1957 the first satellite, Sputnik, into space, sending the U.S. into a tizzy of fear. So the government poured billions of dollars into the space program as well as better math and science programs in American schools.
Now, the nation's schools are facing an economic scare in part due to countries like China and India taking on more American jobs.
In President Bush's State of the Union address earlier this year, he called for 70,000 new high school Advanced Placement math and science teachers over the next five years. It would more than double the number of teachers of the college-level courses in schools today.
The College Board, which administers and oversees the AP program, is enthusiastic about the president's plan, noting in part that students who take AP science or math courses are five times more likely than others to major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or STEM. "The United States needs to gear up to remain competitive" with nations like China and India, says Trevor Packer, executive director of the AP program at the College Board. "And research shows that AP is a good way to do that."
The AP program has excited more than a million students and more minority students than ever to dive into the college-level classes.
But over the past few years, the program started to slide in pockets nationwide. "As Advanced Placement began to be celebrated as a driver of school improvement ... some schools have rushed to provide greater opportunities" for students and labeled courses AP that do not follow the AP course descriptions, Trevor says. Administrators eventually realized that many students were not passing or even taking the end-of-year National Advanced Placement Exam, meaning they'd get no college credit. But many seniors who took so-called AP courses in the fall could use that information when applying to competitive colleges, essentially getting their foot in the door due to the AP reputation for rigor, and they'd be accepted to certain universities before ever having to take the $82 AP exam in May.
But all that should change. The College Board now calls for check-ups on individual courses in schools worldwide, Packer says. Beginning with the 2007-08 year, teachers must submit a syllabus for review by college professors that teach the particular course in college, providing each teacher with a mentor and helping to ensure that students signing up for AP in Kansas and in New York receive the same learning. Schools must also submit a list of college-level textbooks and resources they use and must fulfill minimum content criteria for courses.
An annual ledger, naming the schools authorized to offer AP, will be available to the public on the Web and sent to every college and university admission office prior to early admissions decisions every fall, Packer says.
Several years ago, Baltimore County Public School District saw some AP courses watered down, which Superintendent of Schools Joseph A. Hairston correlates to teacher quality. But when he came in 2000, he crafted for the entire district a Blueprint for Progress, which outlines the vision, mission, beliefs, performance goals and key strategies for the district and changed all that.
"We are encouraging principals at this time to increase the level of rigor in high schools and to do that we have to align the academic standards to the AP criteria," he says. "And there are many good strategies and teaching techniques from the AP program" from which all teachers can benefit, Hairston says.
Just the Facts
AP was born in 1955 when a handful of secondary schools and colleges wanted to ensure high school particularly senior year was meaningful and to ensure that freshman year in college was not about learning what should have been taught in high school, according to Packer. So they developed rigorous exams, with a passing score being 3 or higher on a 1-5 scale, to ensure high school students had learned at the college level.
The program started with 104 high schools, 130 colleges, and about 1,000 students taking 10 different courses. Now, about 15,000 high schools, or about half of the nation's high schools, and 3,600 colleges and universities participate with 1.2 million students taking 35 courses.
The U.S. Department of Education plans to provide about $4.8 million in new funding this year to help pay all or part of the AP test fees. The AP Test Fee Program offers states a chance to make it more affordable for low-income students to take the $82 exam. Fee reductions can make the exam free for low-income students in most states; other states require the student to contribute about $5 to $10 per exam.
The College Board also set up regional officers to connect teachers to workshops and provide scholarships. The board develops, prints, ships and scores the exams using student exam fees, Packer says. The board also underwrites the costs of teacher professional development and for teachers in the years leading up to AP.
Results are mixed but some studies show that taking AP in high school will give students an edge in college to think more critically, write better, and have more comprehensive study habits even if they don't pass the exam. In the latest Advanced Placement Report to the Nation, released in February, all 50 states and the District of Columbia saw an increase last year in the percentage of high school students earning a 3 or higher since 2000. The number of students taking AP has more than doubled in 10 years.
"We must encourage our kids to take more challenging courses and the Advanced Placement program has been proven to make a difference in student performance," according to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Under President Bush's AP Incentive program, she says, "we will increase the number of students taking AP math and science exams from 380,000 today to 1.5 million by 2012."
Fourteen percent of public school students in the class of 2005 earned a 3 or higher on one or more AP exams, up from 13 percent for the class of 2004 and 10 percent for the class of 2000, according to the report. At the same time, the public high school population has increased by more than 100,000 students in the last five years, so schools have done more than maintain the proportion of students who succeed on exams. New York leads the nation with 23 percent of students in the class of 2005 earning a 3 or higher, the report claims.
Arkansas' improvements are unmatched, the report states. In one year, the number of students in AP doubled, the number of Hispanic and low-income students in AP more than doubled and the number of black students in AP more than tripled. It could be attributed in part to policy legislation that mandated that in 2008-09, all districts must provide AP courses in each of the four core areas. The state also covers AP exam fees for all students and provides professional development funds, the report states.
Even Latino students are well represented nationwide, with more than 13 percent of the student population being Latino and about the same percentage taking AP exams, although Latino representation is low in some states, the report says.
Despite seeing more blacks and native American students in AP, they still remain underrepresented. African-American students make up more than 13 percent of the student population, but only 6.4 percent take AP exams.
Vision of Equity
Much work needs to be done, but more students are getting the chances they need.
"Our real concern is spreading them out to everyone and making sure it's equitably serving them even if it does mean capping and giving another student a chance, or spreading the experience so more students are prepared for college," Packer says.
Illinois recently enacted a law to ensure that every student has equal access to a rigorous curriculum that challenges and prepares them for college and work. The law provides $1.5 million to schools where 40 percent or higher of students are receiving free or reduced price lunches to expand AP to low-income students, says Lou Berman, principal educational consultant for the Illinois State Board of Education.
Chicago Public Schools, where every high school offers AP, is a success story on its own. More black students are succeeding in AP than any other district nationwide, says AP administrator Tom Jezuit.
He came to Chicago schools in 1998 when the International Baccalaureate program was expanding and dovetailed with AP. From 1995 to 2005, the number of students getting 3 or higher on the exam rose from 1,249 to 4,050 in the same period. About 42 percent of students were passing the exam and getting college credit. In one year, black student participation in taking AP exams rose from 923 students to 1,676. "That's growth," Jezuit says. And from 2004 to 2005, more than 16 percent of Chicago students were taking AP exams, which is better than the national average, Jezuit adds. About 12 percent of students nationwide take more than one AP exam; in Chicago, it's 15 percent.
In the district's Gates Foundation-funded small schools, Cynthia Barron, Small Schools Area Instruction Officer, which is like a superintendent, and other administrators realized they had to pump up their AP program. So they looked at the number of trained teachers in AP, the status of the program, and how many students were taking courses and exams. Many students were taking AP courses but not taking the final test. "That made us reevaluate what we were doing," Barron recalls.
Each Area Instruction Officer in the district has made AP expansion a priority. A federal grant helped the district last spring, when the U.S. Department of Education awarded the district $2.76 million to expand the AP and pre-AP programs, which were used in six high schools and 18 feeder schools that serve them
In Bellevue (Wash.) School District 405, Superintendent Michael Riley says when he came in about 10 years ago he centralized programs, emphasizing a K-12 curriculum displayed on the district Web site. "Every kid in the right conditions can be an AP or IB student," Riley says, pertaining to the district goal.
Last year, 85 percent of Bellevue high school students took at least one AP course. From the beginning, Riley says he makes sure every student takes an AP test, but they have a choice to take the real test or a previously administered test, which is graded by AP standards but would not count as college credit. "Using that approach, 90 percent of kids in AP courses took the real AP test," Riley says. "It's not forcing kids to take the test. ... For me, the important thing is the accountability and it's a real honest-to-goodness AP course. It's less about how many college credits you get."
Baltimore County Public School District has also seen big changes in AP course popularity, growing by 65 percent in the past four years, Hairston notes. The number of minority students taking one or more AP exams increased from 360 to 668 in four years, he adds. In addition, the passing rate increased by 71 percent, which is 11 percent higher than the global passing rate. "That is incredible," Hairston says.
Further south in Miami-Dade Public Schools, where 60 percent of students are Hispanic, the number of AP exams taken over the past five years has grown by 71 percent, with the number of students scoring a 3 or better increasing by 54 percent, according to Beatriz Zarraluqui, administrative director of Advanced Placement Programs, which oversees Advanced Placement and ensures equity and access for all children.
It started with Superintendent of Schools Rudy Crew, who led the AP way and mandated that every high school offer a minimum of eight core courses, Zarraluqui says. So when students move from school to school, given the high mobility rate, they can pick up an AP class where they left off, she says.
Florida alone has the greatest number of passing grades received by black students when compared to other states, according to the Information on Advanced Placement Program: Florida and the National Public Schools Only 1987-2005. In 2004, Gov. Jeb Bush signed the Florida Partnership for Minority and Underrepresented Student Achievement Act, which allowed the education department to contract with the College Board to prepare students for post-secondary success, focusing on minority students and those underrepresented in post-secondary education. It demands all public high schools to provide the PSAT or PLAN to all sophomores and use the results to identify students ready to enroll in advanced courses.
Something for Something
To rev up motivation, some districts are giving out cars to students that pass AP exams. And some in Texas are giving students and teachers cold hard cash.
Packer thinks these are not bad ideas, as long as students are taking AP and benefiting.
In Greensboro, N.C., the Advanced Placement Diploma Program at Guilford County Schools is touted as cool. The "It's Cool to Be Smart" program claims that AP students who pursue the program have a chance to win a new car, a laptop computer or a college scholarship thanks in part to a local car dealership and other sponsors. To qualify for the prizes, students must earn an AP diploma by taking at least five AP courses and scoring a 3 or higher on the AP exams.
In its second year in 2003, the Cool program saw a 64 percent increase in the number of AP diplomas given. Minority enrollment rose by 172 percent since the year 2000-01.
"We were enrolling all kinds of students but we were particularly enrolling those that never saw themselves in AP classes," says Ann Barr, coordinator of Advanced Learner Program at Guilford County.
The prizes and plan have led more minority students to get involved as they simply push those that wouldn't normally take the leap, although some parents and others have worried pushing more AP classes on students adds undue stress, Barr says. "In a lot of cases, teachers and counselors who were skeptical have come around and said that the students who experience this kind of course never would have before," Barr says. "This was more of a good thing than a bad thing."
And even if students have a full course load, work part-time, play sports and attend club meetings, Barr says they can get help in high school. "We really feel like high school is still a time where someone is still monitoring [student success] but in college, you have to be self-directed and no one is checking up" and looking out for students, Barr adds.
In Texas, Advanced Placement Strategies Inc. works with Texas schools to manage AP and pre-AP incentive programs for students, teachers and schools. Since 2000, the non-profit corporation has managed the AP Incentive Program whereby a private donor encourages teachers and schools to strengthen AP participation. In 70 districts statewide, 5,000 teachers take the program, which pays teachers and students based on passing exams, according to President Gregg Fleischer. The company provides curriculum support as needed.
"As far as the incentives, the results have been phenomenal," Fleischer says. "And in every district with an incentive program, the results increase substantially. There is inertia with the incentives to get students more involved in the whole process and get them to take the course. Typically, it's $100 for each test if they pass it. And we think it's consistent with the scholarship landscape out there."
Fleischer recalls that the largest payment to any one student was $700. When asked if he thinks this gives students the wrong impression, that they are paid to study hard might set a bad precedent, he says, "What is the alternative? You can have students who don't even have that chance."
He adds that students must work hard for the cash, which in many cases comes in handy as many are hurting financially. Many students end up taking courses they wouldn't normally take and are fascinated with the course, pursuing it in college, Fleischer says. "We're trying to spark some type of interest that maybe wasn't there," he adds.
Teachers, who get stipends for training, also get $100 for each passing exam, and sometimes $500 if schools start at ground zero, Fleischer adds.
Plans of Action
To prepare Greensboro students for the rigor, the district offers the Guilford County Schools Academic All-Star Survivor Camp, based on the popular Survivor television show, whereby selected incoming ninth graders attend summer camp for three weeks at local college campuses. They work together on projects, prepare for the PSAT and SAT and develop leadership skills.
Five years ago, the superintendent found that AP courses were not equitable between the more rural high schools and larger city schools in the 15-high-school district, according to Barr. The district then required that every ninth through 11th grader take the PSAT, which determines National Merit Scholarships. The district equalized the number of AP offerings so now every high school offers no fewer than 15 courses.
Also in Greensboro, first-time students to AP could attend summer programs at the JumpStart Academy, where students develop study, reading and research skills and prepare for more rigorous work, Barr says. Mentors give them the first assignments before they walk through the classroom door in the fall. "So when they come in they don't feel so overwhelmed," Barr says.
And vertical teaming is big in Greensboro, realizing they must start preparing students in middle school. Teachers from middle and high schools in the same subjects meet at least once a quarter to exchange ideas, Barr says. They discuss consistent vocabulary and skills that are introduced and reinforced. What does a student need when they come into a course and what do they need to graduate to the next grade?
Teachers might say, " 'We did that but maybe we didn't do it enough'," Barr adds. " 'And it would really help if you had your students do this.' Just that dialogue" is helpful, she says.
Chicago created a system-wide professional development program for AP teachers. Administrators wanted teachers who had been teaching AP to work with newer teachers to AP. Professional development also focused on the high school principal's role in leading AP. "We have always had professional development that the College Board offered but we haven't done a good job at building capacity in our own system," Barron says. "If the principal doesn't buy in to it, it won't happen. And if you don't build capacity to lead, it won't happen."
They also built a vertical team concept so that students would be ready to take AP Calculus when they reached high school, for example.
It was about building participation and considering how to improve critical reading and writing strategies of young people so they were AP ready, Barron says.
Now, Chicago schools are doing a better job in collecting data, in terms of how many students are taking courses compared to how many are taking tests. They also keep better records of which teachers have been trained in AP. Now, administrators can see the numbers of students taking AP courses and numbers of students taking exams, and compare that to how many got a 3 or better. "You can't hide anymore," Barron says. "We know we have to look at the rigor in those classes."
At Lincoln Park High School in Chicago, administrators are proud to have the largest AP program in Illinois, administering more exams than any other school in the state last year. It was ranked #31 in last year's Newsweek's top 100 schools based on AP and IB programs.
With 33 percent of the student body being black, 30 percent being white and 17 percent being Hispanic, 88 percent of the seniors who took AP scored 3 or above on the exam. Last year, about 53 percent of the senior class was in at least one AP class.
The success at Lincoln Park may be in part due to the screening of students to ensure they can handle the load, according to assistant principal Phyllis Wright. In the spring before the fall when students would start AP, expectations are carefully explained to students and parents, Wright says. The student may want AP Calculus and English, but a central control officer that reviews the student's course load from previous years, including grades, realizes it might be too much. "It sounds a bit schmaltzy, but you look into the kid's heart and we say, 'How much do you want this? How hard can you work?' " Wright asks. "If a kid really wants it we'll give it to him."
Once students are in AP, as in most schools nationwide, students have to stay in class, even if they are failing, Wright says. Most students are successful, even if they are in over their heads. "The kid that fails is failing because they chose not to work," Wright says.
In Miami-Dade, administrators also created a summer program for transitioning eighth graders to being freshmen. Students learn at a young age what they must study and what college fairs they must attend if they want a college career, Zarraluqui says. The four-week summer program covers language arts and math with a specific curriculum designed by the College Board, with pre- and post-tests to expose students to what it takes.
Like Chicago, guidance counselors in Miami-Dade discuss with students their courses for the following year and encourage students to take more rigorous courses. "They might not have straight A's but they have a desire to take the course," Zarraluqui says.
In Baltimore County, Hairston's Blueprint for Progress maps every student's instructional program, something the College Board has been advocating, and pushes to strengthen middle school instruction, have students take more rigorous courses by the time they reach high school and invest more in feeder schools. The district also eliminated 286 courses that weren't rigorous enough and weren't aligned to any uniform curriculum. And the district is building on professional development, adding 7.4 new teachers for AP this coming year at a cost of $517,000, Hairston says.
Hairston says even students who only score a 2 on the final exam are still graduating at a higher skill level than they would if they had no exposure to it.
The district's AVID, or Achievement Via Individual Determination, program helps boost rigor, where students who were identified four years ago as heading in a "bad direction" are taking AP courses now and receiving college scholarships.
But on the downside, Hairston admits that pushing such rigor on students and teachers is overwhelming at times. "Students have lives and teachers have lives," he says.
It requires in part a relentless focus, tutoring, getting students to believe in themselves and asking questions of the teacher, he says.
"Obviously, when you begin to raise the level of expectation you change the level of aspiration at the same time," Hairston says. "The objectives are that children can be all they can be and we ask the same of our staff."
Angela Pascopella is senior features editor.