Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The AP Lever for Boosting Access, Success, and Equity: Four New Jersey Districts with Different Demographics Substantially Increased the Number of Students Taking AP Exams without Significantly Decreasing the Average Student Scores

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The AP Lever for Boosting Access, Success, and Equity: Four New Jersey Districts with Different Demographics Substantially Increased the Number of Students Taking AP Exams without Significantly Decreasing the Average Student Scores

Article excerpt

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People are starting to be aware. People are sort of surprised at the initial AP enrollment numbers. That you know, we removed some of these levers, and all of a sudden, like, 'Where did this come from?' Students capable of AP work were always there, folks. You just were missing them.

--New Jersey superintendent

Preparing students for college remains a primary aim of K-12 education. Yet every year, studies show that goal has not been achieved. Among students in the class of 2013 taking the ACT, for example, less than 40% met three or more college-readiness benchmarks, and almost one-third were unable to meet any benchmark (Adams, 2013). Furthermore, almost 60% of students in their first year of college have to take remedial courses (SREB, 2010). Certain groups of students--including youth of color, youth living in poverty, youth receiving special education services, and youth who are learning English--are more likely to be among the underprepared, often a result of fundamental systemic structures that place students on different academic paths.

These structural barriers create gaps in academic opportunity that lead to disparities in student outcomes. These gaps can be closed if districts attack structural barriers that affect how students are placed in academic courses, including tracking and admission to honors courses. Access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses, in particular, is a ready target. While critics fault AP courses for sacrificing depth for breadth, AP courses are often seen as the most rigorous coursework that high school students have access to, and they offer students an opportunity to gain college credit (Schneider, 2009).

But districts often face resistance from teachers and families when they try to open up AP because of concerns about watering down the content or slowing the pace. However, districts in this article and reports by the College Board (2014)--which administers AP exams--show that increasing access is not correlated with decreasing scores. Districts can address concerns and resistance and make increasing access to AP a productive first step in addressing issues of equity because:

* Changing course requirements is relatively straightforward;

* Results can be measured and communicated clearly; and

* Many parents and members of the public see value in taking AP courses.

Further, by increasing access to AP courses, district leaders can build a constituency and develop momentum for working on issues of equity that are more complex or challenging of the status quo.

The districts

The districts highlighted in this article are members of the New Jersey Network of Superintendents (NJNS), comprising 15 superintendents who work together to develop systemwide approaches to educational equity. To achieve their shared goal, NJNS superintendents meet monthly and engage in a variety of activities, including analyzing data, observing classrooms, and getting feedback on district strategies.

Jersey City Public Schools is a large urban district with over 80% of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. When the superintendent arrived in 2012, she asked school board members how many students took AP classes. "They really didn't know," she explained. "They didn't get any reports." She quickly found, however, that the district's highest-performing high school (one of the top-ranked in the state) had many AP offerings but that students in the other high schools had few, if any, AP opportunities. In response, she charged one of her assistant superintendents with going "full steam ahead" in adding AP courses to all high schools.

Elizabeth Public Schools is another large urban district with over 80% of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch and almost 15% enrolled in bilingual education, with students speaking over 44 languages. Like Jersey City, Elizabeth has a test-in high school that ranks high on state and national lists and offers a range ofAP courses. …

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