Advanced Placement Classes Saving Students

        My blog has been quiet, but my life has been incredibly busy this summer.  I taught four weeklong AP summer institutes for AP Calculus teachers and presented as part of the Equity and Access strand at the AP Annual Conference in Las Vegas in July.  Now I am enduring a week of teacher meetings and professional development before the fun starts next week with the kids.  I had just finished hearing a speaker who addressed the importance of giving all students an opportunity to tackle advanced level coursework, when I checked my email and someone had sent me a link to the Politico article with the headline “Advanced Placement classes failing students.”  I do not even know where to begin to address the ridiculousness of this article.  I suppose I will start with their misleading use of data.  They mention the large increase in the number of lowest scores (1’s  on the 5-point scale), but interestingly they fail to mention the even larger increase in the number of recommended scores.  The very first sentence of the article (“Taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to nudge more students into Advanced Placement classes–but a close look at test scores suggests much of the investment has been wasted.”) can be easily disproven with some simple research into the actual numbers.  In 2012, there was a federal investment of $30 million dollars and additional state funds of approximately $15 million dollars to provide exam fee support for low income students.  The scores these students earned on their AP exams would have generated $230 million in potential college savings using the average credit hour cost at a public four-year university.  Wasted investment?  I think not.  The article also trots out Dartmouth College as a very tired example of a school that plans to stop accepting any AP scores for credit.  (This probably has more to do with their desire for tuition dollars than with their concern for academic rigor.)  I have taught for 30 years and have not had a single student even apply to Dartmouth.  Why not mention the THOUSANDS of colleges that do award credit or advanced placement for AP performance or who take AP experience into account in their admissions or scholarship selection process?  There was so much simply wrong and offensive in this article that I decided to try to find something within it with which I could agree.

       I do agree there are schools who have expanded their AP programs without carefully preparing their students and teachers and that has not served anyone well.  It’s just as irresponsible to throw a random kid into an AP class as it is to throw a random kid into a swimming pool.  You should assess swim skills first!  If the kid turns out to be a poor swimmer, does that mean they are destined to sit  on the edge for the rest of their lives watching others (perhaps natural swimmers or those whose parents could afford swim lessons) frolicking about and enjoying the pool?  No!  That would be stupid.  We need to outfit non-swimmers with flotation devices and help them develop their skills under the guidance of responsible and well-trained adults.  At the end of the swim season, they might not have mastered all of the strokes, but they should at least be able to keep themselves afloat.  Students who earn a 1 on an AP exam know they are not strong swimmers, but they have often learned enough to  keep from drowning in their first college courses.  More importantly, they had a chance to frolic with others in the pool and might realize how fun it can be and want to come back again to continue improving their skills. 

       As I was reading the Politico article, a former student came in after dropping her sister off for our freshman orientation session.  She reported she had just graduated from Texas A&M University (in four years) with a degree in electrical engineering and minors in physics and mathematics.  In many schools, this Hispanic female would have been denied access to AP classes because she didn’t fit the mold of what some people think an AP student should look like or because she didn’t meet an arbitrary grade or test score requirement.  I am so glad she went to my school, a school strongly committed to helping more students succeed in rigorous classes.  There are schools that are not getting it right and that’s one of the reasons I write this blog.  Politico chose to focus on places that are doing things poorly and cheating kids of opportunity.  My next post will introduce you to several teachers who are expanding access and getting strong performance from students that some people think should just stay out of the pool.  It’s too bad so many more people will read the Politico article (focusing on the negative and things done poorly) than will read my blog (focusing on the positive and things done well).  If you read the Politico article and sent the link on to others, I hope you will do the same with my next post. 

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