Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Advanced Placement Push in Struggling High Schools - A Poor Fit

March 7, 2017

OPEN LETTER TO: Denver School Board and Staff
By Peter Huidekoper Jr.  
Cc: College Board, Colorado Education Initiative, Colorado Department of Education, A Plus Colorado

Here in March, high schools decide which classes to offer next year and students try to sign up for the right courses, so I hope it is timely to make one practical suggestion.
       Drop the AP classes in those high schools in Denver where these courses are a poor fit.
  • If fewer than 20% of the students who take the AP tests did not score a 3 or better for three straight years, do not offer that class next fall.  (See Manual, MLK Early College, etc. p. 3.)
  • If fewer than 30% of the students who take the tests did not achieve at least a 3 for three years in a row (the score which the College Board “means that you have proven yourself capable of doing the work of an introductory-level course in a particular subject at college,” at the B-, C+, or C level[i]), re-examine this option. (See Abraham Lincoln, Bruce Randolph, and John Kennedy.)  We all want rigor and relevance; AP classes aren’t the only solution.  Good schools and teachers can design classes that better serve a large number of their students. 

Responsibility lies with DPS and CEI
   I have no desire to embarrass students who have taken AP classes and tests, or teachers who offer these classes. I believe, though, that the numbers below tell a story that should disturb the folks at Denver Public Schools[ii] and at the Colorado Education Initiative[iii] who have made this AP push for over five years.  I do not hear anyone acknowledging that these courses might not be the best way to support students who are far from being “college ready.” I hear no one saying—we’ve tried this, we’ve seen where such courses are and are not proving helpful—and we realize now that, in our lowest performing schools, we need a more creative and nimble response than more AP classes. (As if merely offering such a “prestigious” so-called college-level class is good in and of itself!)
   I see no shame in not being ready for a college-level class when in high school.  Please note:
·         As I have written before, as a senior in high school, I was not viewed as among the top students eligible for the most rigorous English classes.  The class I took was no piece of cake! (Hamlet, Lord Jim, Mayor Casterbridge, etc.)
·         When I taught AP Literature 30 years ago at a New York private school, the course was not open to all seniors.  Most were ready for the challenge; my students were better readers and writers, as 12th graders, than I had been at that age.  And yes, most of them scored a 3 or better.
·          When I now tutor with College Track and help several AP students at Rangeview High, I find almost all are challenged but not in over their heads with the rigor of these “college-level” English classes.  I am glad they have the opportunity.  For juniors and seniors like them, expanding access to AP courses has been good.
    But when the far majority of students in a number of high schools are unable to score a 3 or better on the AP tests, I am convinced we must, instead, create courses that better meet their needs rather than stating that merely “taking an AP course”—whether you get a 3 or better—has proved worthwhile.  I find no such proof.  CEI used to make this claim; schools like Delta High, part of CEI’s cohort 2, should stop making it[iv].  (See the quote from Trevor Packard of the College Board, column --->.)
   Denver Public Schools can lead the way by seeing where this push has not succeeded and realizing that it is not a step backwards to withdraw AP courses from schools where it is a poor fit.  When most 11th graders are not achieving at grade level—as is the case in most DPS high schools[v]—it can sound just, even noble, to say we “offer AP classes creates opportunities for those who have been kept out of these classes in the past.” Or we can be honest and humble enough to admit: when over 4 out of 5 do not pass the “final exam” (if you will), it’s time to make a change. 
   A few examples.  Does anyone call this success?
·         On the English AP exams in 2016, of 60 students who took the test at Martin Luther King Early College, 0% passed.
·         At DCIS Montbello, of 50 tested, 4% passed.
·          A total of 150 English AP tests were taken at Abraham Lincoln, High Tech Early College and Manual High; only 8% passed at all three schools.
·         On the History and Social Sciences AP exams, at four small DPS high schools, not one of the 100-plus students who took the AP test scored a 3. At DCIS at Montbello, 3% out of 92 passed. Out of the 79 students taking the exam at Abraham Lincoln and the 88 students at MLK, 1% passed.
AP Classes Failing Students
From POLITICO – 8/21/2013
   Enrollment in AP classes has soared. But data analyzed by POLITICO shows that the number of kids who bomb the AP exams is growing even more rapidly. The class of 2012, for instance, failed nearly 1.3 million AP exams during their high school careers. That’s a lot of time and money down the drain; research shows that students don’t reap any measurable benefit from AP classes unless they do well enough to pass the $89 end-of-course exam.
     In its annual reports, the nonprofit College Board, which runs the Advanced Placement program, emphasizes the positive… [However] Because so many students now take more than one AP class, the overall pass rate dropped from 61 percent for the class of 2002 to 57 percent for the class of 2012.
   Even more striking: The share of exams that earned the lowest possible score jumped from 14 percent to 22 percent, according to College Board data.
   “Well-meaning policy makers encourage Advanced Placement in order to set high expectations,” said Kristin Klopfenstein, an education professor who has studied AP trends and now runs the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado. “But their eagerness for expansion has gotten ahead of the support systems in place for these kids.”
   At least a dozen states now give schools incentives to offer AP classes and fill them up with students….
    [In Colorado, 37 Legacy Schools are supported by the Colorado Education Initiative.  The effort includes cash incentives for students and teachers: http://www.denverpost.com/2012/10/17/cash-incentives-for-colorado-students-a-study-in-progress/]

   Advanced Placement classes, available in 34 subjects from art history to calculus, are supposed to be taught at a college level. The exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 5. The College Board considers 3 a passing grade, though fully a third of the universities that grant college credit for AP require a score of 4 or 5. …
      Advocates often argue that students benefit from being exposed to the high expectations of an AP class, even if they don’t pass the test.
   Yet there’s no proof that’s true.
   In fact, taking an AP class does not lead to better grades in college, higher college graduation rates, or any other tangible benefit — unless the student does well enough to pass the AP test, said Trevor Packer, a senior vice president at the College Board.
     In the past, the College Board has pointed to studies that found a correlation between taking an AP class, whatever the outcome, and succeeding in college. Yet that research was flawed because it didn’t control for other predictors of college success, such as family income or high-school grades, Packer said. More rigorous studies find benefits only for students who earn at least a 3 on the AP test.
   That means, Packer said, that hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in AP may be better served by lower-level classes that focus on building foundational skills. “We have no interest in collecting exam fees,” he said, “if the kids are not going to benefit.”
   Those exam fees, however, continue to roll in. The nonprofit College Board, which also runs the SAT, reported net assets of $609 million at the end of fiscal year 2012, up from $491 million two years earlier.



Here is a three-year overview of AP results for most Denver high schools
        (From DPS* - Assessment, Research & Evaluation – AP Tests Taken/Passed by School)


2014
2014
2015
2015
2016
2016

# tested
% passed
# tested/
# passed
% passed
# tested
% passed
Denver School of Science & Technology: Stapleton
190
73%
309/260
84%
259
89%
Denver School of the Arts
265
54%
537/352
66%
495
76%
East
998
57%
1988/1082
54%
1874
60%
Denver School of Science & Tech: Green Valley Ranch
39
58%
139/89
64%
171
55%
KIPP Denver Collegiate        
85
48%
182/76
42%
214
53%
Denver Center for International Studies
140
53%
253/131
52%
289
50%
South
152
31%
541/178
33%
528
43%
Thomas Jefferson
201
35%
416/165
40%
495
42%
North
55
24%
215/76
35%
172
41%
West Leadership Academy           
X
x
27/1
1%
101
41%
High-Tech Early College
X
x
213/40
19%
121
36%
STRIVE Prep – SMART Academy
112
81%
266/155
58%
333
31%
               In the following four schools  …   less than 30% of tests taken scored at 3 or above in 2016



Noel Community Arts
X
x
85/19
22%
111
28%
John Kennedy
36
21%
173/41
24%
199
27%
George Washington
148
31%
344/105
31%
452
27%
Bruce Randolph H.S. (6-12)
36
26%
157/36
23%
153
24%
 In these four …  less than 20% of tests taken scored at 3 or above in 2016




Abraham Lincoln
107
23%
493/97
20%
365
19%
Manual H.S.
2
2%
82/8
10%
80
19%
Collegiate Prep
42
0%
59/4
7%
118
19%
DCIS at Montbello
21
22%
179/19
11%
174
10%
In these five … less than 10% of tests taken scored at 3 or above in 2016




Martin Luther King Early College
55
13%
221/31
14%
233
6%
Kunsmiller Creative Arts
16
25%
18/0
0%
42
5%
Venture Prep
56
0
35/4
11%
49
2%
Summit Academy
7
0
11/0
0%
3
0%
Montbello
32
30%
closed
x
x

KUDOS to DPS for being transparent about and publishing the school by school AP results each year. 

If the “passing rate” looks low at under 30% or under 20%, imagine what it would be if these schools did not have many students doing well on the Spanish AP, scoring a 3 or better. One example: Abraham Lincoln.  In 2016, 58% of students at Abraham Lincoln taking the Spanish AP passed.  But only 8% of 78 students taking an AP test in English passed, and 5% of 127 students taking AP tests in STEM classes passed, and only 1% of the 78 students taking an AP exam in History and Social Sciences passed.

        Overall, less than 30% scored a 3 or above
#Tested - # Passed in AP tests in these categories

World Language & Culture
English
STEM (math, science, engineering, etc.[vi])
History & Social Science
Noel Community Arts
23          96%
28       7%
1            *
47         4%
John Kennedy
28          96%
11         *
35         17%
117       10%
George Washington
33         79%
132    18%
142       21%
107      20%
Bruce Randolph H.S. (6-12)
35         63%
61      13%
17         24%
40         8%
         Overall less than 20% scored a 3 or above




Abraham Lincoln
55         58%
78      8%
127          5%
79          1%
Manual H.S.
17          59%
37       8%
8              *
18          6%
Collegiate Prep
22         86%
71      6%
x
25          0%
DCIS at Montbello
9            *
50        4%
23          17%
92          3%


Colorado Education Initiative - Aurora Central and Abraham Lincoln

My central criticism of CEI’s AP effort, other than its lack of transparency, has been in its choice of schools.  News articles and press releases from CEI have celebrated success in high schools like Arvada West in Jefferson County, Glenwood Springs in Roaring Fork, and Thomas Jefferson in DPS.  All great stories.  Congratulations! But in Denver what works for Thomas Jefferson might not be best for Abraham Lincoln, and in Aurora Public Schools, what helps Rangeview might actually hurt Aurora Central. CEI’s first cohort included these two chronically low-performing high schools.  I began to challenge this development four years ago. (AV#95 - Mismatch- Adding More AP classes in low-performing high schools- March 2013; AV#114 - Questions continue on rationale for more AP classes in our lowest-performing high schools - June 2014.)  Today, simply asking questions is not enough. Thus my proposal.

The three-year support for CEI’s AP push in these two schools (2012-2013 to 2014-15) ended almost two years ago.  A report from CEI on whether the AP initiative helped these schools is beyond overdue. 

Aurora Central:  Aurora Public Schools stopped releasing school-by-school AP scores after 2013.[vii] What we do know is that Aurora Central High now approaches year 6 as a school on Priority Improvement / Turnaround and hence is a candidate for closure by the state.  Would anyone now claim this was a school, with its myriad challenges, where adding AP classes was a good use of everyone’s time?

Abraham Lincoln:  CEI’s focus is AP math, science and English; the results I have tracked for years make it clear the effort at Abraham Lincoln has failed (Addendum A).  DPS now lists Abraham Lincoln as a school on Priority Watch and as one of the schools it might close for poor performance.[viii]

Colorado’s Unified Improvement Plan for Schools for 2015-16 – And a look at the most recent UIP by
Other states have made this mistake
    Across Maryland, more minority and low-income students, who were targeted in a nationwide expansion of the rigorous college-level courses, have been funneled into Advanced Placement classes, but their success rate has been low. Failure rates of 75 percent are not uncommon in schools with high percentages of low-income and minority students….
   In Maryland, students who haven't been prepared in earlier grades flounder in AP classes, or are awarded A's and B's in the courses and then fail the national exam. In more than a dozen schools in the region last year, about half of students who had earned high grades at their schools failed the exam.
   No research exists to show that taking the class and failing the exam leaves students better prepared for college.
these two schools—written at the end of the three-years of CEI’s support—suggests how little the AP initiative meant to them.  I scroll through Abraham Lincoln’s 45-page UIP[ix], and the 32 page-UIP for ACHS[x].  I cannot find a word about AP–the scores, the benefits, or any thoughts as to whether AP offerings will be a part of the school’s improvement efforts the following year.  Not a word.

No surprise, really. Anyone who understood the trials and tribulations of these two schools should have been able to predict they had more important priorities. (See Addendum B.) 

This is where those of us on the outside—the central office at DPS, or CEI, or funders with more money than wisdom--must realize our so-called help can create unnecessary distractions for schools that seek to improve academic achievement for their low-performing student body.  Having worked at a foundation where I once thought we had the best ideas on just what would help 10 Colorado high schools (and Abraham Lincoln was one of the 10! - 1990-1992), I was guilty of this arrogance.  I only wish more of us could learn this lesson before we keep making the same mistake, again and again and again.

Schools like Abraham Lincoln and Aurora Central desperately need to change and improve. 

We make mistakes; the AP push has been one of them.  Let’s own up to it and focus on what can truly help.  



Addendum A - Abraham Lincoln High School

(Insanity: doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”) )

AP Tests in MSE* passed – from DPS Accountability, Research & Evaluation
*MSE = Math, Science, and English courses – the focus of CEI’s AP Initiative
(For 2016 DPS changed the way it presented results.  We find results for all STEM tests and all English tests—see page 3—but no breakdown by the specific test/course.)


2012 – BEFORE CEI AP INITIATIVE
2013 – First year of CEI AP INITIATIVE
2014 – 2nd year of CEI AP INITIATIVE
2015 – 3rd year of CEI AP Initiative

N tested
N passed
%
N tested
N passed
%
N tested
N passed
%
N tested
N passed
%
Biology
8
*
*
8
*
*
13
*
*
33
3
9%
Calculus AB
29
2
7%
26
1
4%
35
13
37%
38
8
21%
Chemistry
0
*
*
11
*
*
9
*
*
11
*
*
Computer
Science A
13


11
*
*
9
*
*
8
*
*
Eng. Language & Composition
77
4
5%
75
3
4%
86
3
3%
53
1
2%
Eng. Literature & Composition
37
4
11%
49
2
4%
37
0
0%
28
4
14%
Environmental Science
0
*
*



13
*
*
15
*
*
Physics B
24
0
0%
37
1
3%
18
3
17%
31***
2
6%
Physics 2









3
*
*
Statistics






7
*
*
11
*
*

167**
10
6%
187**
7
3%
176**
19
11%
183**
18
10%
* Scores not reported for groups with fewer than 16 students
** Total of tests taken where # passed is available
***Now called Physics 1.


Addendum B -  Abraham Lincoln and Aurora Central: ACT scores and remediation rates 
Indicators these schools should have higher priorities than more AP classes


2012
2013
2014



Remediation rates*


Abraham Lincoln High School
65%
63%
58%


Aurora Central High School
68%
61%
63%




ACT scores**


2013
2014
2015
2016
Abraham Lincoln High School

15.6
16
14.8
16.4
Aurora Central High School

15
15.2
15.1
15.9
* http://highered.colorado.gov/Publications/Reports/Remedial/FY2015/2015_Remedial_relMay2016.pdf
**2013-2015 – CDE - http://www.cde.state.co.us/schoolview;


Remediation rates/ACT/PARCC scores at other DPS high schools with poor AP scores

Remediation rates (2014): Manual – 76%; Bruce Randolph -75%; MLK Early College – 48%.
ACT scores (2016): Manual – 16.3; Bruce Randolph 15.8%; MLK Early College – 16.3%.

A better answer than AP? - Such rates and scores lead one to applaud efforts in DPS such as we read about here - http://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/co/2015/08/05/data-from-act-and-dps-shows-that-hispanic-students-arent-college-ready/.



ENDNOTES


[ii] “Denver schools push for students to take tougher courses,” by Jeremy P. Meyer, The Denver Post, 10/05/2010, “Denver Public Schools is on a blitz this month to encourage more students to be like Sanchez, touting the increased number of students taking Advanced Placement courses and concurrent college classes.”
[iii] Colorado Education Initiative “goal is to enroll 30,000 new high school students in AP math, science, and English courses by 2017.”  CEI began its Colorado Legacy School program in 2011-2012. “Our Colorado Legacy Schools (CLS) initiative works with 37 high schools across the state to dramatically increase the number and diversity of Colorado high school students who are succeeding in AP math, science, and English courses — especially students typically underrepresented in AP courses such as females, and students of poverty and color.”  http://www.coloradoedinitiative.org/our-work/colorado-legacy-schools/
[iv]CEI made this assertion itself several years ago; I quoted from it in AV#95. “At its web site the Colorado Legacy Foundation answers the question ‘Why AP?’: ‘A high school student who passes just one AP exam has a 72% chance of graduating from college, compared to a 30% chance without AP.  In fact, students who take an AP course but do not receive a passing score on the AP exam are still 24% more likely to graduate from college than their peers who have not engaged in AP coursework.’”  This statement no longer appears on CEI’s website.  But Delta High School still uses this quote on its website for ‘Why A.P.?’; see http://dhs.deltaschools.com/advanced-placement.php.
[v]2015 PARCC results – DPS 11th graders proficient in English: less than 36%.  
                                       - Abraham Lincoln High 11th graders proficient in English: 7.6%.
[vi] DPS explains to me that STEM tests include Biology, Calculus AB and BC, Chemistry, Computer Science, Environmental Science, Physics 1 and 2 (which replaces Physics B from 2014 and earlier), Physics C (Electricity and Magnetism, and Mechanics), and Statistics.
[vii]AV#137 – “Up until 2013 Aurora Public Schools released results on the AP tests at its high schools.  But as of a year ago March, the APS Division of Accountability and Research told me ‘our office doesn’t do the AP report any longer.’”   In March 2017, still true.

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