A growing number of Alabama high schoolers this spring took year-end exams for their Advanced Placement classes, hoping to make passing scores, earn college credits and ease their paths in higher education.
They are part of a steady expansion and emphasis on Advanced Placement classes in Alabama since 2008.
The change has been led by A+ College Ready Initiative, a public-private partnership between A+ Education Partnership and the Alabama State Department of Education. It is an early, targeted attempt to raise academic expectations and improve student achievement in Alabama public schools. The boom it is fueling in Advanced Placement (AP) classes offers a window on what happens – and what doesn’t happen easily or at all – when Alabama works to raise the education bar.
First, a definition: AP courses are considered college-level courses, created by college faculty, and thus harder for students. To earn college credit, students must earn a score of 3, 4, or 5, considered a passing, or qualifying score.
While Alabama students can take multiple AP classes and multiple AP exams, last year only 36% of those exams earned a qualifying score.
Alabama’s 36% pass rate is well below the national average of 57.5%, according to data from the College Board, the non-profit which conducts the AP program nationally. And, as the program reached more students, the pass rate dropped steadily from 2009-2010, where it was 45%. .
Supporters of AP say not to get hung up on pass rates because much of the benefit of taking an AP course is simply having the experience of taking the course, which some refer to as the “AP effect”.
The AP effect is the idea that students who take AP coursework perform better in college simply because they have been introduced to the higher-level coursework in an AP class.
That AP effect has been elusive for most of Alabama’s high schoolers until recent years. Since 2008, Alabama has seen steady expansion of the AP program, due in large part to the A+ College Ready initiative. Mary Boehm, director of A+ College Ready, said that more than 25,000 qualifying scores have been earned by students at schools participating in the initiative, many of whom would never have had the opportunity to take rigorous AP coursework.
When the 2016-2017 school year begins, A+ CR will be supporting 156 high schools in 76 school districts. That includes support for 600 AP courses and teachers and more than 25,000 students will be enrolled in those courses.
As part of laying that foundation to get students prepared for the rigor of AP coursework, more than 1,000 6th through 10th grade teachers will be teaching more rigorous courses.
Even with that expansion, only one-fourth of Alabama’s 11th and 12th graders enroll in an AP course, which is also below the national average of 36%, according to data from the College Board, the non-profit which directs the AP program nationally.
Where Are AP Courses Offered?
AP courses are offered not only in traditional classrooms, but also through the Alabama’s distance learning program, called ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, & Students Statewide).
As of the 2014-2015 school year (2015-2016 data are not yet available through the College Board), 244 of Alabama’s 362 schools* offered AP coursework in 33 subjects, meaning 118 did not offer AP coursework.
[*Schools included in this analysis are schools that enrolled students in 9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th grade.]
Of the 118 that didn’t offer AP coursework that year, 51 schools did not offer any AP coursework during the time period from 2009-2010 through 2014-2015.
An analysis of where AP coursework is offered turned up a few conclusions.
Number one: location matters.
In Alabama, nine out of 10 schools that are located in a city offer some type of AP coursework.
That’s not the case in Alabama’s rural schools, where only half of Alabama’s 224 rural schools offered AP coursework in the 2014-2015 school year.
Number two: wealth matters.
Schools that have more students in poverty (as measured by the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals) are less likely to offer AP courses.
Every school where fewer than 25% of students were in poverty offered AP courses.
Only half of schools where more than 75% of students were in poverty offered AP courses.
Number three: size matters.
Every school with more than 1500 students offers AP courses.
Only 20% of schools with fewer than 300 students offers AP courses.
Through ACCESS, 37 schools that would not otherwise offer AP courses were able to do so during the 2014-2015 school year. Thirty of those schools are in rural areas.
Schools can offer AP courses in a traditional classroom as well as through ACCESS, as both may be sources of different courses. A total of 116 Alabama schools offered AP through ACCESS.
Why expand AP Offerings?
Generally, national experts believe that expanding access to AP courses improves a student’s chances to be ready for college-level coursework.
Alabama’s A+ College Ready (A+ CR) program began in 2008, was initially funded by a $13.2 million grant from National Math Science Initiative, and now is entirely funded through the Education Trust Fund. The AP expansion effort began because “we felt like academic achievement was not where it needed to be, and this could be a proxy for helping schools and students and teachers reach a higher plane,” Boehm said
“At the time, AP was unevenly being offered across the state. We felt like it was an equity issue. We focused on schools where little or no AP was being offered,” Boehm said. “Historically, meaning 20 years ago, AP was the province of the top 10% of the kids in school, but in A+ College Ready schools, it’s definitely approaching 30 to 40 to 50% of the kids who are juniors and seniors in the schools who really embrace the work having the opportunity.”
Teachers in schools that become a part of the initiative almost universally push back at first, worried that their students aren’t ready for the more rigorous AP coursework, according to Boehm.
Realizing that laying a foundation for students to be successful in AP classes is an integral part of success for the program, Boehm said they have been “very aggressively bringing rigorous courses to grades 6 through 10” in recent years.” This “builds a pipeline of better-prepared kids,” she added.
Expanding AP access to schools that don’t already offer AP costs money: Money for training teachers, money for carving out additional classes. Boehm offers easy remedies, and not just by offering that training at no cost to schools (which they do), but also by asking schools to consider exchanging traditional Honors classes for AP classes.
Each year, A+ CR has added schools to the program, working with 161 high schools since the program began.
A big part of what A+ CR offers to schools is training teachers. In that training, Boehm said, teachers sometimes struggle to bring significant teaching changes to their classrooms, but that’s the point in training teachers. Teachers who were hesitant were given the extra push.
Moving the education bar “for as many kids as possible”
Since A+ CR first began, Alabama made changes to College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS) in math, English, and science. Schools began to understand how few of their students were prepared for college.
And the results of the 2015 statewide ACT test for all 11th graders confirmed it. Statewide, only 12% of 11th graders reached the benchmark score in all four subjects areas. Reaching that benchmark indicates a student is “college-ready”.
That test data forms the foundation for Boehm and her staff to help school officials identify which students might be ready for AP courses at some point, including students who may have historically been overlooked, including African-American and Hispanic students.
According to Boehm, that means anywhere from 50% to 75% of students are now being targeted for a more rigorous opportunity than they were in the past.
Boehm stressed that in A+ CR schools, “The idea is that this is not for a few kids, but it is for as many kids as possible”.
As an example of how schools can change the way they think about preparing students for more rigorous coursework, Boehm said, “Many of our schools are not offering chemistry to all their kids. They’re offering physical science in the 10th grade in place of chemistry, which they already have gotten in the 8th grade.”
As part of laying that foundation, “We’re saying no, here’s a very rigorous physical science course that you can offer your kids in the 8th grade so that by the time they get to the 10th grade they can handle chemistry.”
ACT asks a student to know some biology and some chemistry in the 10th or 11th grade, if they’re going to be college-ready. “It’s not the kid’s fault that they’re not ready,” Boehm said, because the standards are in place in the 8th grade physical science course to get students ready for 10th grade chemistry. But teachers must make certain students are offered the material in a timely fashion to get them ready, and many just aren’t doing that, she said.
Boehm is quick to point out that teacher’s actions are not intentional. Rather, it’s the way teaching practice has evolved in Alabama.
It is clear she believes we all need higher expectations for our students in school.
As another example, she points to how many schools stretch Algebra over a two-year period, often seen as Algebra IA and IB. As a result, Boehm said, “At the end of their sophomore year, they’ve just finished Algebra I. That does not give them the opportunity to get to any higher-level math.” Yet, the ACT suite of testing expects students to get that higher-level math and when they don’t, test results show it.
“Educators have done it in good faith, thinking that by slowing things down they can give more kids the opportunity to master the material, but they’re really, in essence, doing them a disservice,” Boehm said.
It’s not just educators that try to slow things down, Boehm added.
Parents looking for an “easy senior year” are also not doing kids any favors, she said. “If they were playing football, would Coach Bryant or Coach Saban want them to have an easy senior year? I don’t think so. So [students] really have to keep having productive struggles to really meet their potential to do this college thing.”
Jason Manoharan, Vice President for Advanced Placement and Instruction for the College Board, cautioned that “AP is not a panacea. It simply can’t make up for systematic achievement gaps. What we do see, however, is that students [who take AP courses] do perform better in college, they graduate on time at higher rates.”
Given the cost of college, graduating on time can be a financial boon for students and parents.
Why Some Schools Aren’t Offering AP
If AP is a better way to prepare students for college, why aren’t all schools offering AP courses?
Boehm said there are a number of barriers to schools who want to offer AP, and most of those barriers are due to a lack of understanding of what’s required and a lack of money to support additional teachers.
Though the A+ CR initiative has had great success in expanding across Alabama, Boehm admits they are not happy with their inability to get AP into schools in the Black Belt area of Alabama. She said schools there are hesitant because they feel students will not be ready for AP.
Boehm said she understands the worry of bringing AP to unprepared kids. “We don’t want to have a program that would cause a lot of kids to fail, especially in your junior and senior year, so there’s a balance in bringing a program that could have negative impact on a bunch of kids.”
Manoharan agreed. “Simply parachuting a kid who’s ill-prepared for an AP course into an AP course will not make that kid college ready, he said.”
What A+ CR does is help school administrators see how Honors courses that are already being offered could be turned in to AP courses. Boehm’s staff then helps find more students who could take the course.
While that may mean the first year of the program may find students unprepared, “you have to step off the ledge some time,” Boehm said. Teachers may have to do some catch-up and also teach AP material, which is challenging for teachers and students.
While some teachers are hesitant to take on that additional responsibility, Boehm said, once teachers see the additional support that A+ CR offers, they step up to the plate and are willing to change their practices to include more rigorous coursework.
Teachers ask, are the kids ready?
When A+ CR first begins working with a school, teachers almost always question whether their students are ready and whether students actually need the opportunity that AP, and courses to prepare them for AP, afford students, Boehm said. Typically, English teachers are on board, but math teachers are more hesitant.
Teachers worry their 8th grade students aren’t ready for Algebra courses, for example, and they’ll flat out say that it’s wrong to push them into classes where they haven’t been prepared.
“They truly believe that they are protecting their kids,” Boehm said. She shared stories of teachers who were initially resistant who then see how students are able to handle the material successfully.
A teacher needs to know exactly the status of every child in their class, where they fall on that ACT scale, and how many of them are on each level. Instruction may then need adjustment, and that work is moving slowly, Boehm said.
“Change is hard. This is very aggressive change,” she said. Boehm stressed that A+ CR works hand-in-hand with teachers all along the way to ensure they are supported. That intense teacher support extends for three years.
Only five of the 161 A+ CR ready schools have left the program since 2008. Boehm said they likely found the change to increased rigor was harder than they initially thought.
Asked why Boehm believes the program continues to expand so successfully, she said, “There’s still a need and schools still express interest.”
She believes that word-of-mouth among teachers who have experience in the program helps, too, as teachers move from one school to another and share the success their students had with AP.
What about those exam passing rates?
There’s no doubt that a big part of an AP course is earning a qualifying score on the AP exam. Earning those qualifying scores is proving difficult for Alabama’s students.
Alabama’s students are near the bottom nationally in achieving qualifying scores on the AP exam. Only Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi have lower pass rates.
23,785 of Alabama’s public school students took 43,573 exams in May 2015 and received qualifying scores on 15,679 of them. Students can take multiple exams. College Board does not share data on how many students received qualifying scores, so it’s unclear how many of those students actually earned a qualifying score.
And though Alabama’s rate has dropped from 45% to 36% from 2009-2010 until 2014-2015, the number of students taking AP exams has increased by 83% over the same time period, from 12,292 to 23,785.
Boehm doesn’t worry too much about qualifying scores or pass rates. Changing the culture of what is expected of students is the groundwork that must be laid first.
Boehm believes A+ CR has been successful in improving pass rates, sharing that more than 25,000 students have received qualifying scores on AP exams since they began in 2008.
“Many of these students never would have had a shot at AP. What that says is that students and teachers when given the opportunity will step up to the challenge,” Boehm said.
Manoharan, too, cautioned against using pass rates to gauge success in the first years after AP is implemented in a school. Many of Alabama’s schools are in their first few years of implementing AP.
“AP programs take a while to take hold,” Manoharan said. “When AP courses are initially offered, you see lower pass rates initially, but over time, those come up.”
Essentially, the AP culture has to develop, where teachers buy in and professional development for teachers improves the total classroom experience.
Regarding the AP Effect, Manoharan agreed with research that shows that simply taking an AP course does not predict the kind of success that those who actually achieve a passing score on an AP exam.
Research shows that students who achieve a qualifying score on an AP exam are more likely to be successful in college and have higher GPAs. But it’s tough to sort out which of those students might likely have done well anyway, given the drive to seek out AP coursework particularly in a state where AP is not the norm like Alabama.
However, Manoharan said that even students who don’t achieve a passing score on an AP exam are more likely to graduate on time.
Asked what advice Boehm has for parents and teachers who want AP coursework in their schools, she encouraged both groups to talk with administrators and teachers at their school.
“Giving their students the chance to have a college-level course, even in the nurturing environment of high school, is a great gift for a child. Then they can realize they can handle college-level work.”