AP surges as a tool for schools raising standards

Nationally, 56 percent of AP exams taken by the high school class of 2011 earned a 3 or higher, but there are wide disparities. The mean score is 3.01 for white students and 1.94 for blacks. In New Hampshire, almost three-quarters of exams earn a 3 or higher; in Mississippi, it’s under a third. In the District of Columbia, more than half of exams score a 1.

At Detroit’s Mumford High School last year, none of 62 AP exams earned higher than a 1. But at the nearby Renaissance magnet high school, a quarter of the 113 AP exams earned a 3 or higher, and the school had the second most black students scoring 3 or higher in literature in the country.

When Kayla Morrow began teaching social studies at Baltimore’s Academy for College & Career Exploration five years ago, the school offered no AP courses and barely any honors.

“We were just kind of graduating kids from high school and just pushing them out the door and just hoping something positive would happen,” Morrow said. When a grant arrived for Morrow and others to get training and develop AP courses, “pretty much all the teachers were like, ‘yes, we really need this, we all did this when we were in high school, it’s a crime that we don’t have this.'”

Last year 36 students took AP exams in three subjects, scoring on average 1.4.

The AP government class Morrow teaches, she says, isn’t just harder than regular classes. It’s fundamentally different, and—surprisingly—less test-driven.

“What AP is really trying to teach you is for a lot of things, there’s really not a right and wrong answer. It’s, ‘how do you get to that?'” she said, adding the AP training improved her teaching in regular classes, too.

As for not passing the exams, “students take ownership of that,” she said. “They’ll work harder for you. In fact, they’ll be more appreciative for knowing where they stand.”

Sean Martin, who helped start an AP literature program at Heritage High School in Baltimore before moving this year to another school, said some of his AP students read at a seventh-grade level.

“I knew for a lot of them … it was going to be very difficult to get them even to the level of a 2,” he said. Still, he said, simply putting students who want to push themselves together in a class with a goal is valuable.

“We set a higher bar and we could do things a little differently, and really have meaningful class discussions,” he said. Classes “take on a different feel when every student in the room is success-oriented.”

The two teachers note advanced college credit isn’t the only worthy goal: Both have heard former students report their AP preparation helped them place out of remedial college classes, which also saves time and tuition.

Klopfenstein, however, is skeptical. While data show students who do well in AP courses do better in college, it’s not clear whether that’s because they took AP. And the evidence is weak for any college benefit for students who take AP courses but do poorly on the exams. Schools with many students struggling in AP may need more focus on skill-building.

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