Closing race, poverty and gender gaps in advanced high school course-taking

I just read this press release from the The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management put out by Wiley-Blackwell:

WASHINGTON, DC—October 5, 2009—The latest research from the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management explores the wide disparities in advanced high school course-taking (such as Advanced Placement courses) among race, poverty, and gender groups in Florida.

The study finds that black and Hispanic students are less likely to enroll in advanced courses than their white peers because they arrive to high school with lower scores on eighth grade statewide exams. In fact, when black and Hispanic students have the same 8th grade test scores as whites, they are more likely than white students to enroll in the courses. Gaps in pre-high school performance also explain much of the advantage of non-poor students over poor students but do not appear to drive the higher rates of course-taking among Asians and among females.

Furthermore, despite concerns that schools serving minority and low-income students are not offering advanced courses, there are currently few such disparities in Florida. Black and Hispanic students in Florida actually attend schools that are more likely to offer advanced courses than do white students.

The findings support greater investments in disadvantaged (black, Hispanic, and poor) children long before they enter high school. The authors also suggest that a reallocation of students to different high schools is unlikely to remedy racial disparities in course-taking and may, in fact, increase them.

The findings do not seem too surprising.  I don’t imagine many people are surprised that the reason students don’t choose higher level classes such as Advanced Placement is due to lack of preparation that starts much earlier than high school.  It is clear that school districts that want to increase the diversity in advanced courses must prepare students in under-represented groups at much earlier levels.  This would give some credence to things like the “Pre-AP” program that many school districts are looking at.

Techniques for an Effective Advanced Placement Exam Registration

The task of registering students and creating the exam order for the Advanced Placement Exams can be  very daunting.  There are more than 30 different exams with many overlapping testing times.  Some students receive fee waivers, and some don’t.  Schools must collect payments and keep track of who as paid and who hasn’t.  Mistakes in exam orders translate into fees, $13.00 for a un-administered exam, $40.00 to order an alternate, $78.00 for an exam that a fee was never collected.  These errors can quickly use up the small portion of the exam fee that the school gets.

Fortunately, there are many techniques an AP coordinator can use to organize the process and increase the accuracy of the AP exam order.  John Vidulich, a counselor and AP coordinator at Monarch High School in Louisville, CO and I, Mike Elings, General Manager of Total Registration,  presented a workshop at the 2009 AP Annual Conference in San Antonio, TX.  This workshop titled “Techniques for an Effective Exam Registration” presented coordinators with techniques that can  increase the accuracy of their order while lowering their stress levels.  Due to the difficulties with the economy, we assume that many people were not able to attend the AP Annual Conference this year.  We feel that most AP Coordinators could get some valuable ideas from our workshop, so we are making the workshop notes available as a pdf download.  You can download the notes at  Feel free to use this as you see fit.

Coordinators who would like to simplify their registration by registering students for the AP exams on the Internet, should visit  This service uses the techniques covered in the handout while removing the bulk of the data entry as students register online.  The coordiantor may then log in and print all the necessary reports, no longer needing to use MS Excel or a database program.  For 2009, Total Registration registered more than 30,000 students for nearly 56,000 exams for 96 schools across the globe.  The schools using this service report (in the year end survey) that their order is more accurate while taking much less time and staff resources to organize.  You can obtain a quote for this service at

Who should be taking AP courses?

I just read a blog post by Joanne Jacobs “Hard to great”.  In this post, Joanne shares some comments by a 2nd year Teach for America teacher, lamenting about the quality of her AP student’s papers.  You can read the teacher’s comments here.  Here’s an excerpt from her post:

I gave the students their Multiple Choice scores back on Friday. I wasn’t too displeased with their scores for a first test–on the AP exam a student needs to get about 60% of the multiple choice correct and write three decent essays to score a passing grade and the class multiple choice average was a 58%–but I knew that the kids would be very upset. Most of them are used to never getting anything but high A’s, especially on *gasp* multiple choice tests. In many cases this was their first real experience with a test they needed to study for. I decided to ease them into seeing their grades, so I projected up the spreadsheet I use to keep track of unit exam grades, minus student names, and showed them the score range and how I calculated their total score from the multiple choice, essay, and IDs. They gasped when they saw the low range of scores, but at least they knew what they were getting into before they stared at all of those little pink dashes on their own scantron. I explained carefully about the 60% benchmark and about what a hard test it was and how they shouldn’t be discouraged if they didn’t do as well as they would have liked (that’s what the AP grade bump is for, after all!) and then I gave back their scantrons. I think the song and dance worked, because I didn’t have a full scale riot on my hands, but at least one girl did spend the rest of the period slumped back in her chair glaring death rays of hatred at me.

Many of our nation’s  best students have had an easy time in school finding it only necessary to go through the motions.  This is one of the greatest reasons why schools choose to offer Advanced Placement courses.  Give the students a challenge, have them “kick it up a notch”.  Historically schools have encouraged only the most motivated or prepared students to enroll in AP courses.  Lately, the trend has changed.  AP programs all across the country are growing as witnessed by the increase in the number of AP exams administered every year (see “2009 – Another Record Year for AP Exams “).  There are three primary ways that the AP program grows:

  1. Add AP courses in a school that does not offer them
  2. Increase the number of AP courses offered in a school
  3. Increase the enrollment in existing AP courses

All three of these are factors in the growth of the AP Program worldwide, but the largest factor appears to be #3.  Schools are encouraging more and more students to attempt AP classes.  Ideally, it is great that more students are given the option of participating in these challenging courses.  Practically, the problem occurs when students are not prepared for these classes. The lack of preparation for some students is not a new thing and has probably been around as long as people have been learning and educating, it is just magnified as schools cast larger nets when recruiting for AP courses. 

The underlying premise of opening up the classes to more students is that there are many under represented student groups who have not participated in AP courses in the past. Personally, I think it is important that schools encourage every student who is capable to take the challenge of AP courses.  The problem occurs when schools, in an attempt to meet particular diversity goals, recruit students who are not prepared.  It will be very interesting to see the long term affect of opening up AP courses.  Schools and the College Board will need to work very hard at keeping high standards and expectations for AP courses as more students take classes.  If the standards are lowered, more colleges will make it difficult for students to get credit for their AP scores (see “Tufts University AP Credit Policy Reduces Students’ Credits “).  This in turn would diminish the AP program.  The key to success will be for schools to raise their expectations in all the courses leading up to AP courses.  This way, all students will be more prepared if they choose to enroll in AP courses, with the added benefit that all students, AP or not, will receive a better education and be more prepared for college level work.  Of course, these changes are tough to make as they are systemic and take a long time to come about.  Schools that have a great long term vision are more equipped to succeed at this.

Preparing Students for AP Courses – A New Program

I recently read an article in the Democrat and Chronicle  about a  summer program designed to prepare incoming 9th graders for the challenges of AP courses in Rochester, NY.  12 incoming freshmen participated in the Global Gear Up program that allowed the students to participate in world history research projects.  I am strongly convinced that schools will need to focus on increasing the standards and rigor in classes leading up to AP courses.  Programs like this are a great start at accomplishing this.

AP programs are growing at schools all across the country.  ap_exam_chartThere are two primary ways schools accomplish this.  One is to increase the numbers of courses offered while the other is to open up existing classes to more students.  The problem with the latter is that  students are often not prepared for the rigor of AP courses.  If this is the case, teachers have a hard time moving at the the necessary pace and covering the depth required by Advanced Placement courses.  As schools increase the participation in AP courses, it is imperative that they focus on increasing the rigor on classes leading up to the AP courses.  This will allow all students to be more successful in class.  This approach also has the added benefit that students who do not choose Advanced Placement courses are held to a higher standard and thus learn more.

Any thoughts on the issue of preparation for AP courses?  Share your thoughts by submitting a comment.

Teacher’s Unions Square Off With AP Incentives

Mass Insight seems to do a great job at stirring up teacher’s unions on the East Coast.  I just read another article in The Salem News about how the Peabody Federation of Teachers is worried about how Mass Insight’s grant will be implemented at Peabody High School.

Mass Insight’s Massachusetts Math & Science Initiative supplies funds to provide training and reward students and teachers for great scores on Math, Science and English AP exams.  Here’s an excerpt from their website:

The goal of the initiative is to increase student enrollment in mathematics, science and English AP courses, as well as to improve student performance as reflected by an increase in the number of qualifying scores (3, 4 or 5 on a 1 to 5 scale). The program will provide extensive training for AP and Pre-AP teachers, establish AP lead teachers, demand additional student preparation, and provide performance-based financial awards for students and teachers. Under the leadership of Morton Orlov II, who is the President of the Mass Math & Science Initiative in Massachusetts, up to fifteen additional high schools will be selected through a competitive process to participate in the program during the 2009-2010 school year, with the goal of implementing the program in 90 high schools by 2013.

It seems like a successful program that was started initially by Exxon Mobil and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  There is a training piece for teachers as well as rewards for both students and teachers.  This is where the unions get their hackles up.  It appears that the teacher’s unions oppose the rewards for teachers as they view this as merit pay, and teacher’s unions definitely oppose merit pay. 

Advanced Placement classes typically take more energy to teach as there is often more grading and preparation than other classes.  It is a misconception that teachers all want to teach AP classes and nobody wants to teach the other classes.  When I was teaching I did not find this to be the case.  Most teachers understand the extra work that is involved in teach AP courses.  Many also understand that there are added challenges in teaching the driven students, just as there are challenges on the other end of the spectrum.  Most AP students parents are very involved in their student’s education.  This is often a good thing, but can also be a problem.  These parents require constant communication and are constantly questioning the teacher.  For many teachers, it is just not worth it.  There is also the added work of the AP Audit, a relatively new process implemented by the College Board. 

So why are teacher’s unions opposed to outside organizations or grants supplying funds for training and stipends for success?  Perhaps  they want everyone to get paid the same, whether they are good or bad, work hard or are lazy.  Unfortunately, this union mindset gives teachers a bad name.  Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good things the  unions do, but things like this do not help the public perception of the profession.

The goal of the initiative is to get different students to consider AP courses.  This is a good thing and works towards greater diversity in the AP classes and increased success in college.  Obviously if the demand for AP classes rises there will need to be more AP teachers.  This initiative funds training and incentives for teachers to take on the challenge of AP courses.  Schools and teacher’s unions need to welcome this outside support, especially in times of deep budget cuts.