Friday, February 05, 2010

Digging into Advanced Placement

By Marc Korman.

The Washington Post’s top notch education columnist, Jay Mathews, recently wrote about Advanced Placement Grade Reports. The reports give data behind the headline numbers of how many students are taking AP exams. Mathews’ column inspired me to take a look at how Montgomery County is doing with AP Exams.

Encouraging students to take AP exams is a major initiative of the Montgomery County Public Schools, and other school districts around the country. In the school system’s strategic plan, Our Call to Action: Pursuit of Excellence, one of the milestones for all schools is to “increase enrollment and performance of all students in…Advanced Placement…courses, with a focus on improving enrollment and performance of African American and Hispanic students.”

AP classes are considered college level, meaning coursework is rigorous as teachers are supposed to cover more material at a deeper level. At the end of the school year students can take a standardized exam that many colleges and universities will accept for credit. Scoring for the exams is 1 to 5. Those who receive a 3, 4, or 5 are generally considered qualified for college credit, though higher education institutions are not uniform in what scores they will accept. There are lots of benefits to AP including challenging classes and the potential for college credit. But there are also concerns that people are being pushed into AP classes they may not be prepared to take to improve participation rates. AP participation statistics are part of US News and World Report’s methodology in ranking high schools, though they also adjust the participation rate based on test scores to help determine overall ranking. The Washington Post Challenge Index also includes the amount of AP tests taken in its formula.

My own experience with AP classes at Richard Montgomery High School in the 1990s was positive. My recollection is that I took seven AP courses. However, I only took six AP exams because I did not feel adequately prepared by one of the courses to take the exam. Happily, there was no pressure for me to take the exam because I would not have done well.

A Montgomery County Public Schools Office of Shared Accountability memo shows some of the challenges facing the AP program in the County. The headline numbers are impressive. There has been significant growth in how many AP exams are being taken:

Unfortunately, the success rate has not kept up with the amount of exams being taken:

The increase in exams being taken is also not entirely due to more students enrolling in AP classes. In 2005 10,411 students took at least one AP exam. In 2009, 14,673 took at least one exam. Meaning approximately half the total increase of 8,411 more AP Exams taken in 2009 was due to more students taking multiple AP exams and not more students taking one AP exam. For example, in 2005, 707 students took four different AP exams. In 2009, that number was 1060. The data does not show if taking multiple exams in a year has any effect on scores.

And not surprisingly, there is a lot of variance in how many tests are being taken per high school. The low in 2009 was Wheaton with 38. The high was Wootton with 203.

AP Classes have a lot of value. Even if students are not scoring high on their exams, I believe there is value to taking more intensive classes with higher expectations. At a minimum, MCPS should be applauded for promoting AP classes and making sure they are available to all students.

But as one teacher said to me, we should be encouraging more students to take AP exams, but we also need to offer more support for those students so they do well in them.

MCPS should work with stakeholders and consider how to better reconcile the goal of encouraging more students to enroll in AP classes and take the exams and helping more students score highly on the exams. MCPS’ own numbers indicate that achieving one of those goals does not necessarily take care of the other.