Increase success in college by broadening student access to AP classes
Gregg Fleisher, Senior Vice President, National Math and Science Initiative, for the McClatchy-Tribune
In the 2010-2011 school year, approximately 903,630 U.S. public school graduates took at least one Advanced Placement exam and 540,619 achieved a passing score, according the College Board.
That is a huge achieve-ment: a rise of 34 percent from five years ago in the number of students passing, and a 40 percent increase in the same period for the number of students taking the exam. These gains are an important step for students preparing for the rigors of college-level courses.
But those students who took the exam represent just under a third of the more than 3 million high school seniors in the United States. We know that students taking and passing AP exams matriculate at higher rates and perform better in college than their peers, as shown by a 2007 College Board study by Rick Morgan and John Klaric.
That’s why, if we’re serious about closing the much-talked-about skills gap in the United States, and improving opportunities for our students, it’s crucial that we enroll more students in rigorous programs such as the AP and give them the tools to do well.
AP classes do more than teach integrals or “The Canterbury Tales.” By challenging and empowering high school students to successfully complete college-level coursework, AP classes dramatically increase students’ college readiness, according to a study by the National Center for Educational Accountability.
Students earning a three or higher on AP exams are three times more likely to earn a college degree than students who do not pass, and black and Hispanic students who pass an AP exam are four times more likely to earn a college degree than those who do not pass, according to the study.
More broadly, AP classes help students realize their potential as scholars and problem solvers. The experience of tackling a seemingly insurmountable goal – mastering college-level content knowledge in less than a year – and ultimately triumphing is a powerful one for students of all backgrounds, and most especially those black and Hispanic students who are traditionally underrepresented in AP classrooms.
When students take AP classes and pass the AP exam, it proves they have the potential to excel in college and beyond. When all students are given the opportunity to participate – and the incentive to succeed – in the most challenging high school courses, they’re more prepared to succeed at the college level.
At the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit that supports efforts to bolster math and science education in the United States, we have an AP program, active in 462 schools in nine states, that encourages all students – not just “honors” students – to try their hand at AP classes and see what they can do if they put their minds to it. We want students to study challenging topics in high school classrooms before facing them in college lecture halls.
To achieve the best possible results in getting more students to pass, we try to remove barriers that hinder schools’ and teachers’ best efforts. For example, we provide professional development for teachers in the summers and during the school year that schools can’t often afford.
Because AP teachers often are not able to discuss concerns or difficulties they have in class with colleagues because they are often the only AP teachers in their subject at their school, we provide an AP expert whose job it is to support and be on call for the AP teachers in the program. And because schools often cannot afford the math and science equipment needed to start an AP class, we provide funding for equipment with support from a public-private partnership whose grants come from foundations, large companies and the U.S. government.
What we’ve found is that, on average, in the first year the program is implemented in a school, the number of math, science and English AP exams that students pass almost doubles. That means a sharp increase in the number of students taking college seriously and putting themselves on a path to completing a college degree.
Are AP classes hard? You bet. Can many more high school students handle them and succeed in them? Definitely – especially if they have the opportunity and the right support.