On access and success in advanced placement courses

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Jacqueline Rabe Thomas’ excellent article about access to AP (Advanced Placement) courses being elusive for low income students should lead us all to ask why.  It should also lead us to ask how we change this reality.

Having worked in school districts across eight states, I have found there are several reasons why the enrollment of low-income students in AP and other advanced courses is low.

  • Low income students often have lower literacy and test scores in reading, writing, language arts and math

There’s an old saying that, “it’s hard to look smart if you can’t understand the question.” Research has shown that low-income students may hear 30 million fewer words than middle-income children by age 3 (Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland, 2/16/2014) and that middle-income children enter school with about 1,100 words in their vocabulary while low-income children have about 500 words (Reading First National Conference, Oral Language and Vocabulary Development, 2008)

  • Based on these lower scores fewer low-income students are encouraged to take advanced courses
  • Too often adults may assume that if students’ literacy scores or grades are low they are not smart enough to succeed in AP courses. This assumption has disastrous effects on access to advanced courses for low- income children and children whose primary language is not English.
  • Many parents of low- and middle-income parents are not aware of the opportunities offered by AP courses in terms of gaining college credit, college entrance and lowering college costs.
  • AP courses can be expensive because the enrollments are often low. As school districts look at areas to cut with budget reductions one of the first considered as discussed in Bridgeport is AP courses.

In Connecticut in particular the reality is that there is no state requirement for students to have literacy in either English or math in order to graduate.  This policy failure lowers the sense of imperative that students be well prepared for advanced courses in school or life after school.

As important as the fact that only one low-income student in ten is enrolled in AP courses in Connecticut, is that only one student in three passes an AP course in New Haven (and New Haven is not atypical of many districts nationwide with high numbers of low-income students).   The number of students enrolled in AP courses does not tell the whole story.

What needs to be known is how many pass the AP exam with scores from 3-5.  In the movie “Stand and Deliver” about AP Calculus teacher Jaime Escalante’s success with low- income Hispanic students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles taking AP Calculus, the majority of students passed with scores between 3 and 5.  When enrollment in AP courses was opened in the Fairfax County, Va. public Schools in the early 2000’s, enrollment and scores at the 3, 4 and 5 levels all increased.

If we want to increase the enrollment and success of low-income students we must consider several steps.

  • The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation offers grants to districts with large numbers of low-income students to increase the numbers of underrepresented students in gifted and talented programs like the Renzulli program and advanced programs like AP.
  • Twenty years ago, Carol Horn, Coordinator of Gifted and Talented programming for the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, created an innovative program called Young Scholars to identify students with great potential in their early childhood years. It is based on classroom observations, staff and parent recommendations and a test, the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT), that did not depend on standard literacy skills. Young Scholars experience challenging instruction and enhancing preparation in English and math.
  • An AP course could be more than one year. With College Board approval, it could, for example, be a year and two summers to assure that students have skills and knowledge needed to do well on the AP test.
  • While it can be sensitive and controversial (because teachers are often assigned to AP courses based on seniority), if a teacher’s record continually shows that their students do not pass their AP tests it may be wise to hold them accountable to improve their instruction and pursue professional development, or if necessary reassign them.
  • Some would ask why students don’t just take AP courses on line. They can. But each vendor like Johns Hopkins charges for these courses and the AP exam itself costs $94.  Many low-income parents cannot afford either charge, cannot afford internet access and may not know how to apply for financial aid.
  • In districts that cannot afford AP, it would be wise to create regional centers on Saturdays where students from multiple districts can take a wide cross section of AP courses. This could be at regional high schools, vocational technical schools, community colleges or colleges.

Advanced placement courses offer a wonderful opportunity for students to prove to themselves that they are capable of and ready for higher education.  It is up to us to enhance their possibilities for success.

Nicholas A. Fischer is a former superintendent of schools in New London, Fall River, MA. and Christina Public Schools, DE.


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