A Principal’s Mandate to Improve AP Scores

I recently got the following comment from one of my readers:
At the beginning of school this year our new principal showed the faculty that our passing rate for AP was 40% while the state rate was 70%. He then announced that every AP teacher would be placed into the same PLC in order to raise scores. Our school is in a working class town. We have just under 800 students. We offer 7 AP courses along with 9 ECE courses. Any suggestions about where we should start in addressing this problem. Every teacher would like their scores to improve, but as a group, we are all over the place as to what would be a good initial strategy. I have looked at our reference groups in state and we are near the top.
I do think I have some suggestions for you.
• By this time of the year, you should have determined if there are any areas of weakness that your students have come into your classes with. Now would be a good time to determine if there are things that prior year teachers could do so that next year’s crop of AP students can enter the course better prepared to hit the ground running. For example, I want my students to have fluent recall of unit circle values. When they didn’t have that, I needed to talk to our Pre-Calculus teacher about placing greater emphasis and not allowing the students to use a “cheat sheet” showing the unit circle values. In exchange for more time spent on that topic, I was also able to identify some other topics that were not as important and on which the teacher could spend less time.
• AP teachers as a group should work out a schedule for extra tutorial sessions, mock exams and Saturday prep sessions. Beginning in February, I offer additional AP prep time before or after school twice a week. I coordinate my schedule so that I don’t conflict with the other AP teachers extra tutorials. We also set our mock exams so that the students only have one or two during a week. English is able to do theirs much earlier (February) while Calculus normally waits until mid-April. You might want to find an experienced reader and hire them to score some of the English or social studies essays. You might find that an essay that your teacher scores as a 7 might only get a 3 from an experienced reader. That reader may be able to give your kids some hints and feedback to improve those scores while there is still plenty of time to incorporate those suggestions into your own teaching. As we get closer to exam time, we offer Saturday sessions with each subject getting 2 Saturdays to work with the students. We also plan that as exam week approaches, we focus on the exams that are coming up most immediately. If my exam is in two days, the AP government teacher might let me pull students from his class to spend extra time working on calculus. Then, when my exam is over, the kids use my class time to study for the later AP exams. I might have one group in class working on AP economics, another group preparing for AP chemistry, while still others go to the lab to complete an activity for AP biology.
• Spend some time trolling AP Central and make sure you have all of the resources available from there such as released exams, curriculum modules, special focus materials, etc. There is a free downloadable spreadsheet index for calculus that allows me to sort all of the released questions by topics and then incorporate them throughout the year as I hit those topics.
• Look at my blog post from 9/19/2009 on interpreting your AP Instructional planning report and spend some time as a group looking at those reports and trying to choose a few areas or topics on which to focus improvement efforts.
• Is there one subject in which the students seem to do particularly well? What is that teacher doing differently? Do teachers feel as though they need additional training? College Board does offer training or you might travel to a nearby school that is more successful and spend a day observing their classes and talking to their teachers about what they are doing differently.
• Read the post on creating master learners from 11/9/2009 and discuss as a group the extent to which you are doing this in your classes and what additional efforts might be necessary in this regard.
• Talk to the principal about what additional resources he is willing to provide to help meet the challenge he has set forth. He might need to purchase additional materials or equipment or pay to send teachers to training. He might be able to find funds to pay experienced readers to score some of your essays or to even have that reader come and spend a Saturday working with your students on improving essays.
• In January, when you are back in school but college students are still home for the holidays, have some former students come to your classes and talk about how their AP experience has helped them be more successful in college. Have them describe some of the strategies that they used in preparing for their exams.
I hope that these suggestions have given you a place to begin. Any challenge is better undertaken with a group of like-minded folk who can share ideas and strategies. Good luck to you and your fellow AP teachers.
If any of my readers have suggestions to add, please send in a comment!

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