Wednesday, September 30, 2015

#95 - Mismatch - Adding more AP classes in low-performing high schools

March 26, 2013

Why the push to expand AP classes in schools
where so many students fail to achieve qualifying scores?

Nearly four years ago, an article in The Denver Post’s offered this headline and tagline:

Advanced coursework is pushed in DPS
Although many students haven't fared well on the AP tests,
officials want more exposed to college-level classes.
by Claire Trageser, Aug. 21, 2009

Since then a disturbing number of Denver students—at least several thousand—have not “fared well” on the AP tests.  But this “push” has continued in spite of several articles like this one in The Post, and another in 2010, and again in 2011 (see Addendum A).  And in spite of the strange “reasoning” a DPS official provided then—see the opening paragraphs of Trageser’s article here.   Have we learned nothing?  Can’t we see this does not make sense?

The Post article began:

Denver high school students have performed poorly on Advanced Placement tests during the past five years. But administrators say they'll push more kids than ever to take AP courses next year because they improve the odds of being successful in college.
"Some kids will go out and fail; we know that," said Antwan Wilson, the instructional superintendent for Denver high schools. "We don't want the first time they are exposed to a class like this to be in college. That's awful late to be learning those lessons."
Although 1,500 more AP tests were given in Denver Public Schools in 2008 than in 2004, the percentage of students passing those tests stayed at about 40 percent.
UPDATE: In 2010 in DPS, 36% passed; 2011, 34.6% passed; 2012, 37.1% passed. 
For a range of (better) ways to improve our lowest-performing high schools, please consider attending the Urban High School Summit, April 24, 11:30-6:30.  History Colorado Center. See A Plus Denver for details -
DPS has continued to add more students into its AP classes.  The number of AP exams taken has increased dramatically since 2005-06, from 2,261 to 4,931 in 2011-12.  DPS can fairly report that the number of exams earning a qualifying score has increased from 954 to 1,829 last year.  At the same time, however, the pass rate—the percentage of students who take the AP course and then pass the AP tests—has declined from 41% in 2005-06 to 37.1% in 2011-12, well below the pass rate of 59.8%[1] in Colorado last year, and across the nation of 60%[2].  

Last month the Colorado Legacy Foundation (CLF) included two DPS high schools—South High and Thomas Jefferson—in its second cohort of ten schools to take part in the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) in Colorado.  CLF has a good story to tell about expanding Advanced Placement in three high schools in its pilot program last year, but as I explain later, those three schools were fertile ground for such an effort[3].  Unlike our low-performing high schools.

In this newsletter, I ask six questions on the expansion of AP classes in many low-performing high schools in Denver and the metro area; to support my questions, I then offer three personal stories and, in a 12-page Addenda, I provide data and articles as further evidence why we should rethink this trend.  Again, my concerns have been raised in articles over the past several years, but the reporters were objective enough not to take a position.  In Another View, I have no such constraints.  I believe it is a mistake to expand the AP classes in schools where most students are not at grade level. My point was put nicely by Kristin Klopfenstein, director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado: it “strikes me as putting the cart before the horse.”

Six Questions

1.       Why push for and celebrate the rising number of students enrolled in AP classes, when an ever larger percentage of the students, based on the criteria of the College Board, are not “passing”?[4]

2.       How well does it serve students to be in courses where most of them do not “pass” the test that is meant to signal satisfactory knowledge of the material?  AP scores range from 1 to 5; a 3 is considered a passing or “qualifying score.”  Consider that:
  • In 2011 out of 35 students at Abraham Lincoln taking the AP test in English Language and Composition, only 3 passed.  In 2012, the number taking the test more than doubled; 77 took the test, but only 4 passed.  At Lincoln, in 2012, of the 24 students who took the AP in Physics, not one passed. (Lincoln is now in its first year receiving full support from the Colorado Legacy Foundation as part of the NMSI effort.)
  • In 2012, out of the 46 students at South and Thomas Jefferson who took the AP in Government and Politics: Comparative, 6 passed. (As mentioned above, these two schools will be part of the NMSI effort beginning next year.)
  • In 2012 out of 38 students at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College taking the AP test in English Language and Composition, one passed; out of 24 who took the AP test in English Literature and Composition[5], not one student passed.
How did it help most of these students to take these AP classes?   

3.       Can a DPS official give a convincing educational reason for pursuing this course in the face of ever-growing scores of 1’s and 2’s—which do not qualify for college credit?  Antwan Wilson’s “explanation” (page one) does not hold up; by that reasoning, why not force all juniors and seniors to “benefit” from the opportunity to fail an AP class before they graduate!  Please explain the value of having two-thirds of the students take a class which they do not “pass.”  If two-thirds of the students in one of my English classes were not able to “pass the final,” I am not sure I would have been asked back the next year. We deserve a sound rationale for putting hundreds of students into AP courses where, the evidence tells us, most are likely to fail.  Without one, we ought to call a halt to this “push.”

4.       What is our goal here: to expand the number taking AP courses to help more students meet the challenge of a rigorous academic course? Or to boost the numbers enrolled in AP classes, whether they are the “right” courses for them or not? 

5.       Is it wise to use financial incentives (as the Colorado Legacy Foundation/NMSI effort does[6]) to create more AP classes in low-performing high schools?  Will some schools take the money and add the AP classes, even though they do not meet the needs of their students?  Does the boost in numbers benefit our low-performing students—or the bottom line of the College Board, sponsor of the AP exams?[7]

A Better Idea
See the Colorado Department of Education’s recent “Briefing Paper: Number 1 – Predicting Future Need for Remediation,” for several common sense recommendations, such as intervention, tutoring, and “assistance… (to) help students achieve proficiency before they exit.”
CDE -  Fact Sheets/Latest Findings Colorado Student Data
             6.  Based on graduation rates, 10th grade CSAP scores, 11th grade ACT scores, and college remediation rates, the far majority of students in Denver, Aurora, and several metro-area school districts either do not graduate or, if they do, are not meeting expectations for college readiness.  Would it not be more sensible to offer fewer college-level courses, and instead, more courses that meet the students where they are—below grade level—to help them achieve success in meeting the state’s high school expectations?

                                                                  Three stories

1.       Trying to hit the fastball – one League at a time – 1957-1968

I faced Cub League pitching until I was 10, Little League pitching until I was 12, Babe Ruth pitching until I was 15, and then pitchers in high school and American Legion until I was 18…. The pitching got tougher as we grew up, but we were not set up to fail; 18-year-olds weren’t whipping fastballs by a petrified 14-year old.  Sure, I played with and against a few guys whose skills and strength showed they were ready to jump to the next level before the rest of us. At 18 that began to happen—one teammate signed a contract right after graduation, two others went on to play minor league ball.  Ready, you might say, for AP Baseball.

But most of us weren’t there. And most DPS and Aurora juniors and seniors aren’t ready for college. Look for the soon-to-be-released report on high schools from A Plus Denver, which lists over 15 high schools in these two districts where over 50% of last year’s 10th grade were at grade level.  Or consider their remarkably high remediation rates—close to 59% in 2011 in both districts, over 27% points above the state average of 31.8 that year.[8]  

My advice: one step at a time.  Let high school players face high school pitching; they might be overmatched—but they will find some success.  They won’t strike out every time.  When four out of five students in your high school “strike out” after a year spent taking an AP course, it is time to stop and rethink what we are doing.

2.       Teaching an AP class in New York, Emma Willard School, 1985

Teaching AP English to bright high schools seniors at a girls’ boarding school (founded in 1814, now preparing for its 200th anniversary), I found the fiction and the poetry assigned extremely challenging[9].  The writing prompts demanded a great deal of the reader.  I would not say all of the essays the girls produced that semester were strong, but they made progress, and most scored a 3 or better on the AP test that spring.  Keep in mind, too, that fewer than half of the seniors were taking the class—this in a college-prep school where virtually every girl was headed off to four-year colleges the next fall.  Not a course—given the extra demands—for everyone. 

I taught that class with Jack, the academic dean and my colleague, now retired after 40 years of teaching.  His perspective on AP courses is worth sharing:
  • As a student, you have to be prepared; you need to have sufficient background; to undertake the course you need a certain level of skills.  If it isn’t there, I can’t see it as a good idea.
  • You have to have students who want to go the extra mile.  Not all students need to be at that 3-level, but if most students are capable, the weaker students can be drawn along and be successful.  But if most students in the class can’t perform at that 3-level, I don’t see the point. 
  • You need teachers who are ready and willing and able. AP does more than anything I know of to train people to teach the material.  But if it is a subject the teacher didn’t major in or maybe hasn’t studied deeply in many years, it’s not enough.

3.       Tutoring in Aurora, Rangeview High School, 2011-2013

The College Track program in Aurora includes sophomores with GPA’s of over 4.5 who take an AP class and are doing well.  Good for them.  If the AP classes are truly college level work, this is great.  Several students tell me they have signed up for more than three AP classes as juniors.  I am only an occasional tutor, but I can’t help but compare the reading and writing skills of these sophomores with the high school students I taught in Vermont and New York.  I wonder why so many here are jumping into “college level work”; in spite of the AP name, I am skeptical as to whether these courses truly demand what will be asked of college freshmen.  Ironic—and telling, is it not?—that many of our students do not test as “college-ready” in math and so will take a summer class to improve, even as a number of them are placed in AP classes next year. Our program has 10 out of 51 sophomores with pre-Act scores (the PLAN test) of 21 or better; they are well on track to be eligible for a four-year college.  I hope they and their equally capable sophomores and juniors are put in challenging classes, honors classes, advanced classes.  But three-college level classes as juniors?  That should be extremely rare—but in today’s world, it is not.

What about the good news regarding more AP classes in Colorado and in DPS?

Wait a minute, you say.  What about the good news we read on the expansion of Advanced Placement classes across the state of Colorado?   Why this criticism when just last month the Colorado Department of Education announced:  “Colorado ranks in top 10 for Advanced Placement scores”? Am I disputing any of CDE’s cheerful news release?

The ninth annual AP Report to the Nation, released today by the College Board, reports that Colorado ranks ninth in the nation for the percentage of the class of 2012 students scoring a three or higher on Advanced Placement (AP) exams.

AP exam scores are reported on a five-point scale.[10] Students receiving a three or higher earn a qualifying score to apply course work for college credit. Colorado has ranked in the top 10 nationally for the past six years.

Colorado highlights:
·         The number of Colorado graduates who took an AP exam in high school increased from 17,303 in 2011 to 18,358 in 2012.
·         59.8 percent of Colorado 2012 graduates that took AP exams received a score of three or higher which qualifies them to apply the course work for college credit. The number of graduates that scored a three or higher also increased from 10,692 in 2011 to 11,442 graduates in 2012. 
·         Colorado ranked sixth in the nation for improving the percentage of graduates scoring a three or higher on an AP exam in the last decade by 10.5 percent. 
·         Colorado made progress in closing the participation and achievement equity gaps compared to 2011. Hispanic/Latino students made up 22.5 percent of the class of 2012 and 11.6 percent of those students scored a three or higher on an AP exam.
Colorado Department of Education news release, Feb. 20, 2013

All true, as far as it goes.  But such announcements fail to address the specific issue I tackle here–another reason why I believe it is important to lift the curtain and see where this story is far less rosy.  My concern is a narrow one: the rapid growth of AP courses in schools where it is proving least helpful.

What I would challenge is the good news DPS reports, as in its 2011 press release[11] on AP results that spoke of “continuing the strong trend that started in 2005.”  How is that accurate when the percentage earning grades of three or higher (a “qualifying score”) had declined in Denver from 41% in the class of 2005-06 to 34% in 2010-11? Unless you believe the numbers enrolling in AP classes (300 more in 2011 than in 2010) is a positive story—regardless of the results. I don’t.

The Big Picture – AP Program, 2001-2012 – Passing Rate – National, State, and DPS

Here are some facts, beginning with data on the growth in numbers nationally and in Colorado, and the passing rates in both, in contrast to the passing rate in DPS—between 33-38% for the past six years.  

US – Percentage of graduates who took at least one AP exam during high school
Colorado - Percentage of graduates who took at least one AP exam during high school
Colorado – Number of graduates who took at least one AP exam during high school

US – Percentage of  graduates who scored a 3+ on an AP exam during high school
Colorado- Percentage of graduates who scored a 3+ on an AP exam during high school
Colorado – Number of graduates who scored a 3+ during high school

National Passing Rate (3,4, or 5)
Colorado Passing Rate

Total number of AP exams taken in Colorado

Number and % of exams earning a 3,4, or 5

31,297 (59.8%)
Denver Public Schools Passing Rate


DPS – number tested and percentage of AP tests earning a qualifying score – over seven years*

Number tested
Percentage of AP tests taken that earned a qualifying score
*Figures taken from 2006-10 scores reported Feb 2, 2011, and from 2008-12 scores reported Sept. 12, 2012, DPS Office of Accountability, Research and Evaluation; where the two reports had different numbers for 2008 – 2010, the figures used here are from most recent report.

Breakdown of results on six major types of AP tests
DPS – number tested and percentage of AP tests earning a qualifying score – over seven years*

’06 to ’12 change
All Language Tests
239   47.3%
231   47.2%
252   57.5%
160     60%
300   63.7%
283   61.8%
400  66.3%
All Science Tests
315    36.2%
392  43.1%
412   39.1%
479   36.7%
594   36.5%
776     39%
647     42%
AP Math Tests
221   35.7%
312   33.7%
377   39%
402   43.5%
464   47.8%
502   43.2%
590  40.7%
All Social Science Tests
860    37.9%
949   31.9%
974   27.9%
1,365   26.2%
1,372   29.7%
1,712 26.1%
1,901 30.6%
All Arts Tests
77    64.9%
84    38.1%
90   63.3%
70    45.7%
166   51.2%
146  43.2%
137  56.2%
All Literature Tests
549   46.3%
784   40.4%
731   39.5%
1032   33.1%
1218   29.3%
1164  32.7%
1,256  31.4%
*Figures taken from 2006-10 scores reported Feb 2, 2011, and from 2008-12 scores reported Sept. 12, 2012, DPS Office of Accountability, Research and Evaluation; where the two reports had different numbers for 2008 – 2010, the figures used here are from most recent report.


Greatest improvement:
All Language Tests (+7%) – All Language Tests include a few for German, French, Italian, and Japanese, but the most common AP Language taken is Spanish Language (392 out of 400 tests taken in 2012).  The increase in the percentage proficient in Spanish, from 59.8% passing in 2008 to 66.8% in 2012, is the main reason for the improved score here.

Improvement: All Math Tests (+5%) – The improvement came largely from a higher percentage passing on the Calculus AB Subscore Grade and on Calculus BC in 2012 than in 2006.  The percentage passing Calculus AB improved in 2008 and 2009, but it has declined since then (see below).  The percentage passing the Statistics AP has declined from 37.1% in 2006 to 34.2% in 2012—while the number taking the test has more than tripled.

’06 to ’12 change
Calculus AB
122  31.1%
150  31.3%
115  43.5%
161   44.1%
221   38%
257  36.6%
334  35.3%
35    37.1%
57    29.8%
54   38.9%
94    23.4%
64   21.4%
82    41.5%
117  34.2%

Significant declines in percentage earning passing scores:

All Literature Tests         -14.9%
All Arts Tests                     -8.7%
All Social Science Tests    -7.3 %

Some would like to celebrate the dramatic increase in the number of DPS high school students taking the English Literature tests – from 549 in 2006 to 1,256 in 2012.  However, 46.3% scored a 3 or better in 2006. This dropped to 39.5% in 2008. Last year only 31.4% earned a passing score.    

AP Pass rates at 16 Denver high schools - highest to lowest – from 76% to 8%

Along with the declining passing rates is the concern about the dramatic range of passing rates by Denver high schools, especially to see at least seven schools where the percentage of students scoring a 3 or better is so low.  In some the pass rate is so minimal as to demand the question: what is the point?  In 2012 the pass rate at Montbello was 8%, at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College it was 14%, at West - 16%, and at Bruce Randolph - 19%.  George Washington (21%), Abraham Lincoln (24%), and South (25%) were also unable to see more than one-quarter of their students taking the test to score at least a 3.

Number tested
Number passed
AP Pass rate 2012
Denver School of Science & Technology
Denver School of the Arts
Denver Center for International Studies
Thomas Jefferson
KIPP Denver Collegiate High School
John Kennedy 
Abraham Lincoln 
George Washington
Bruce Randolph
Martin Luther King Jr. Early College

*At several schools—notably Lincoln and Randolph—the students perform well on the Spanish Language AP; the far majority of those who take this test score a 3 or better.  It is great to see such strong results in Spanish, a positive sign of the academic potential of many students for whom Spanish is their primary language (see Box 1).  However, when we see that, in other subjects, the percentage passing is so low (see Box 2), we realize that even the mediocre overall AP numbers above are somewhat deceiving—and even more disturbing.

Box 1
Number taking Spanish Language AP
Number passing Spanish Language AP
% passing Spanish Language AP
Abraham Lincoln
Bruce Randolph
John F. Kennedy 
KIPP Denver Collegiate
Martin Luther King Jr. Early College

Box 2    
Number taking tests in subjects other than Spanish Language AP
Number passing tests besides  Spanish Language AP
% passing AP tests besides Spanish Language AP
Abraham Lincoln
Bruce Randolph
John F. Kennedy 
KIPP Denver Collegiate
Martin Luther King Jr. Early College

Percentage of students taking AP exam at low-achieving high schools

At the three Denver high schools with AP passing rates of over 50%, the majority of students appear on track to graduate ready for college classes.  ACT scores of 21 or above predict fairly strong college readiness; at DSST (an average ACT composite score of 24 in 2012), Denver School of the Arts (22) and East (21), most students appear ready for college level classes.  So it makes sense that so many 11th and 12th graders at these schools take at least one AP course.

On the other hand, it is hard to understand why, in high schools where few students are on track to graduate ready for college, such a large number are placed in AP classes.  The old Montbello High is being phased out, so this look back may seem unnecessary; still, one wonders why, in recent years, it placed so many students in AP classes—with such poor results:

Montbello High School
# tested
% Passed
# tested
% Passed
# tested
% Passed

Far more troubling is to see this trend continue in schools where no more than one-quarter of the students pass, and where the scores on the 10th grade TCAP (most students below proficient) and the ACT (a school average of 16 or below) indicate that few juniors and seniors are on track to be college-ready.  It is especially puzzling to see that two of these schools (South and Lincoln) are now part of the Legacy Foundation’s initiative to expand the number of AP classes.[12] 2011 remediation rates were 67.5% for South graduates, 78.3% for Lincoln grads.  So the solution is … more college-level classes? 

Abraham Lincoln 
George Washington
Bruce Randolph

The case for giving more students the opportunity to take AP classes

I recognize there is more than one side to this debate.  At its web site the Colorado Legacy Foundation answers the question “Why AP?”:
Studies have shown that student who take AP courses are less likely to need remediation and more likely to graduate from college.  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. [13] 
(See also a piece by Jay Matthews, “Taking but Flunking AP test,” May 23, 2012.  His article includes the argument made by CLF, but by the end, he no longer sounds convinced -

CLF then adds:
Unfortunately, many students either are not offered this opportunity or do not take advantage of it; 70% of Latino and 80% of African American students who show potential to succeed in AP classes do not enroll.  If we hope to close the achievement gap, expanding access to and success in AP must be part of the solution.”

Persuasive, to some. 

But an 11th grader reading two years below grade level is not likely to have, at that point in time, the skills needed to succeed in a college-level class.  These juniors need great support their final two years—remedial work, intervention, classes that help them get closer to graduating with the skills and knowledge expected of a high school graduate.  Doesn’t that come first, well before we make them take an AP class where—as DPS keeps showing us—students succeed less than 40% of the time?


Three key findings from the data above:
1.       a huge discrepancy between the national pass rate and that in DPS—60% to 37%;
2.       a decline in the rate of DPS students who pass the AP test the past seven years—41% to 37%;
3.       a terribly low pass rate on the AP tests at a number of Denver high schools (7 schools where no more than 25% pass). 

What I see is a plan that puts hundreds of students into AP courses for which they are not prepared.  It sets them up for failure.  It is completely contrary to the time-honored guide to good teaching: “Meet students where they are.”

Let’s first help students achieve success in meeting the state’s high school expectations. Once that is accomplished, yes, of course, keep challenging them—and wherever possible, offer college-level classes.  But one step at a time.

The easy answer?

As hard as an AP class can be for a student, as demanding as it is for a teacher to learn the curriculum and attend all the professional development classes to teach an AP class well, what we may need to admit is that AP FOR ALL is an easy answer. It doesn’t require the more difficult work of figuring how to adapt curriculum and instruction to help a 10th grader move from unsatisfactory to proficient by the time he or she graduates—or to wrestle with bigger questions about the impersonal structure of our large high schools, and much more.  All of us who have followed trends—fads?—in public education need to ask if we are caught up in another one, especially when the facts we look at say: this is not working.

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with.     Comments are welcome.
303-757-1225 / / Peter Huidekoper, Jr./ 8802 N. Piney Creek Rd./ Parker, CO  80138. 


Addendum A – Six news articles on Advanced Placement
Concerns raised in numerous articles regarding the expansion of AP tests and the high failure rate
Several news articles over the past few years in The New York Times, USA Today, The Denver Post, and Education News Colorado have raised concerns about the expansion of AP tests.  I quote from these pieces to remind readers of the issues raised and to ask if DPS has satisfactorily answered the questions the press has posed.  Especially in light of the current 37.1% pass rate in the district.   

1.       “Expansion of A.P. Tests Also Brings More Failures,” by Tamara Lewin, Feb. 10, 2010, The New York Times.
The College Board report emphasized the rising proportion of seniors who had taken at least one A.P. exam, and received at least one passing grade. The share who took at least one A.P. exam last year was a third larger than it was for the class of 2004, while the share that got a grade of three or higher was about a quarter higher than in the class of 2004.

While the majority of students who take A.P. exams still earn a passing score of 3, 4 or 5, which is enough to earn college credit at many institutions, the share of failing scores has risen with the program’s rapid expansion. In 2009, about 43 percent of the 2.3 million A.P. exams taken earned a failing grade of 1 or 2, compared with 39 percent of the one million exams taken by the class of 2001.

Whether there are benefits for students who take an A.P. exam, but do not pass, remains a matter for debate. 

The College Board said that students who got a 2 or higher were more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within four years than other students.  Some educators say that being exposed to college-level work helps even those students who fail the exam.                                                 

2.       “Failure rate for AP tests climbing,” Feb. 10, 2010, USA Today.
The findings about the failure rates raise questions about whether schools are pushing millions of students into AP courses without adequate preparation and whether a race for higher standards means schools are not training enough teachers to deliver the high-level material. “The standards don't teach themselves," says Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond, a noted teacher-quality expert who says schools shouldn't treat AP as "another silver bullet" that will raise standards and assure academic success. "You have to build the whole system. You can't just bring in one thing and think that it's going to solve everything," she says.

3.       “Colorado: AP participation, success up,” by Nancy Mitchell, Feb. 10, 2010, Education News Colorado.
EdNews reported on the College Board’s state-by-state assessment of AP performance.  That College Board report showed that in the United States, 56.1% of the class of 2010 scored a 3, 4, or 5; and in Colorado, 59.9% of the class of 2010 scored a 3, 4, or 5.  Mitchell’s article noted that in Denver Public Schools the pass rate in 2008-09 was 33%, down from 40% in 2004-05. 

But as the number of students statewide taking AP classes has grown, the actual percentage of test-takers earning that 3 or higher – considered the passing rate on an AP end-of-course exam – has declined.  Consider that in 2004, 10,454 Colorado students took at least one AP exam and 6,746 achieved a 3, 4 or 5 – for a 65 percent success rate. In 2009, 15,499 students took at least one AP exam and 9,476 passed it, or 61 percent. 

Colorado ranks 8th in the nation in the percentage of its high school seniors earning a 3 or above on AP exams, and 5th in the country in expanding that percentage over the past five years.

Districts such as Denver Public Schools have sought to increase enrollment in AP classes in recent years as a way of strengthening the high school curriculum and giving students a taste of college.  Denver school board members have set a goal of annually increasing student participation in AP classes by 3.5 percent, along with increasing those students earning a 3 or above on their AP exams by 3.5 percent yearly.  The district released data last week showing the number of all high school students taking AP classes has more than doubled since 2003-04, to nearly 4,500. The number of students passing AP exams has increased by 97 percent in that same period.

As in the state and the nation, the percentage of DPS students failing their AP exams also has risen. In 2004-05, DPS administered 2,021 AP tests and 808 earned a 3 or higher, for a passing rate of 40 percent. In 2008-09, DPS gave 3,369 AP exams and 1,127 scored at least a 3, for a passing rate of 33 percent.  

Doubts raised by three years of reporting in The Denver Post – to what effect?

This trend in Colorado and in Denver was examined by The Denver Post three years in a row.  Some would say each story has communicated a similar warning—but with little impact.  Perhaps after three tries the Post’s reporters concluded their questions fell on deaf ears, so they stopped asking. I, for one, am grateful they tried, and this newsletter builds on their work.  The third article below speaks of the debate “heating up.”  It didn’t then; I hope it does now.  We are long overdue for a thoughtful review of the merits of Denver’s policy on AP classes. 

4.       “Advanced coursework is pushed,” by Claire Trageser, Denver Post, Aug. 2, 2009.

The AP push was piloted two years ago in four high schools, including Thomas Jefferson.
"We found students who were just getting by in classes but whose PSAT scores showed they had potential," said Thomas Jefferson principal Sandra Just. "Then we could say to them, 'We think you could be successful in this class.' "
But not all students taking AP classes are succeeding. At Lincoln High School, another pilot school, the number of students who took AP tests increased to 252 from 181 between 2008 and 2009, while the number of students who passed AP tests increased to 50 from 44.
In each of Lincoln's 10 AP classes, except Spanish language, fewer passed than failed the 2009 tests. No students passed the AP studio-art test, and only one student each passed the AP biology, physics and calculus tests. No students passed physics or calculus in 2008; biology was not offered then.
AP exams are scored 1 to 5, with marks of 3, 4 and 5 considered passing. On eight of the 2009 tests, the majority of students scored a 1, including 28 on the AP American history test and 46 in AP European history. Sixty-five percent of students who took AP tests at Lincoln scored a 1, and 15 percent scored a 2.                        

5.       “DPS touts benefits of taking tough courses,” by Jeremy Meyer, Denver Post, Oct. 5, 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. Events to drive home the college message are planned throughout the month.
The DPS graduation rate hovers around 52 percent. Half of those graduates usually go to college, but 55 percent of those need remediation in at least one subject once they get there.
The hope is that by stressing the importance of college and adding rigorous college-level courses, those numbers will improve toward goals of an 82 percent graduation rate by 2012 and a 63 percent college enrollment by 2013.

"Our first and foremost goal is to graduate students prepared for college and careers," said Superintendent Tom Boasberg. "We know a key element to that is rigor."
"The national data is clear that the rigor of the high school courses is a key predictor of high school graduation and college success," Boasberg said. "We are very intentionally pushing more and more of our students into more rigorous course opportunities."
Some critics are questioning the increased ubiquitousness of AP — courses designed to push the highest achieving students that are now being offered to everyone.
"AP doesn't solve the problem of kids coming into high school ill-prepared," said Philip M. Sadler, a senior lecturer in astronomy at Harvard University and editor of the book, "AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program." "It's for the kids who are champing at the bit and are really well prepared for college," he said. "Americans just love these easy solutions. If we put AP in all schools in the country, somehow kids will know more math, be harder working and go to college. Show me the research."

6.       “More Colorado students take AP classes, even as debate heats up,” by Kevin Simpson, Denver Post, May, 8, 2011.

Colorado participation in the AP program has increased more than seven-fold since 1973, with 270 schools and more than 32,000 students signing on last year.   

And while AP used to target only the academic elite, more recently schools have expanded access as reformers insist that exposure to AP's academic rigor, regardless of test performance, provides a strong predictor of college success.

Yet AP also faces persistent push-back.

Concerns that the program can breed academic burnout haven't gone away. Some educators question whether, in an era of competitive open enrollment, high schools are tempted to funnel too many kids into AP for statistical window dressing.

Further on, Simpson noted:

Denver Public Schools have been pumping up AP, as well as other options like concurrent enrollment in college classes. AP enrollment has roughly doubled in the last five years, as has the number of students taking one or more AP tests.

Although both tests taken and tests passed have risen in similar percentages, the pass rate varies widely among schools — from a high of 65 percent scoring 3 or higher at the Denver School of Science and Technology to a low of 8 percent at Montbello.

The cultural shift is a work in progress.

"Awareness is a big part of it," says Antwan Wilson, the district's assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness. "Most students who traditionally take AP courses, they understand where they're going with those courses, why they're in it. We have to increase awareness, that these open up doors so the things kids dream about can become reality."

Kristin Klopfenstein, founding executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, has studied AP extensively. She used to argue in favor of exposing non-traditional AP students to the program and subscribed to the conventional wisdom that the academic rigor alone would be beneficial. 

But then she looked closer. When she controlled for additional factors, like the other courses students were taking, the data showed that when kids struggle with AP, it's actually a poor predictor of how they'll do in college.

She's a fan of AP as originally conceived, but says most schools don't put enough emphasis on preparation and support necessary for a broader population to be successful in those courses.
"This whole push to use AP as a reform effort strikes me as putting the cart before the horse," Klopfenstein says. "If a student can't do high school work, why do we think they'll be able to do college-level work?  We want to get more first-generation college students, so when they're in high school we want them in an advanced curriculum to find out what they're made of. But we've taken that to the extreme by saying every kid should take an AP course."

The College Board's Trevor Packer (vice president for Advanced Placement) allows that the jury is still out on whether mere exposure to AP courses truly benefits students who don't fare well on the tests.  But he adds that the biggest concern surrounding AP's expansion involves the inconsistency of the preparation students receive for the college-level courses.
"That's where we really see the quality diverge," he says.

This article also spoke of the influence on high school ratings by Newsweek, which “computes an index based entirely on Advanced Placement, IB and Cambridge test stats — specifically, the ratio of tests taken to graduating seniors.”

In DPS, Wilson says he's extremely proud of George Washington, whose IB program propelled it to 11th in Colorado on the Newsweek scale, and East, which ranked 14th.
"But I believe a school's success extends beyond the limited metrics of Newsweek," he adds. "I spend zero time talking to my schools about that. What we should be doing is making sure all our courses are rigorous."
Klopfenstein, of the Education Innovation Institute, contends that in the case of the Newsweek rankings, like college rankings published each year by the U.S. News & World Report, schools understand the measures and, in some cases, manipulate the numbers.  "So I think the Newsweek rankings have caused some distortions in school behavior that aren't good for kids," she says. "I've heard from many parents who are very frustrated because they feel their kids are being forced into AP when it's not appropriate for them. And I do think that's a function of the pressure of the Newsweek rankings."
Even the College Board's Packer voices concern that some schools would use the simplicity of Newsweek rankings to prioritize AP above investments in pre-high school preparation for college-level work.  But he calls such cases "isolated incidents."  

Addendum B - Colorado Legacy Foundation

1.       A high “passing rate” is not automatically a positive sign, as CLF’s Program Director, Dr. Gregory Hesse, pointed out to me in this email.  High pass rates can also be indicative, in some cases, of programs that exclude many students who might well benefit from AP classes. Hesse wrote:

The metric that we embrace is overall number of students earning qualifying scores, not to be confused with pass rates. Our contention is not that all students are able to earn qualifying scores on advanced placement exams, but that all students are able to learn at advanced rates. For this reason, we work to convince more students to engage in AP courses based on the well-supported notion that students who challenge themselves in more rigorous courses learn more. In my time in education, I have come across many schools capable of boasting extraordinary pass rates that have not always been indicative of successful programs. A recent trip brought me to a high school where 18 of 20 AP Literature students had recently passed the AP exam; a 90% pass rate. Of course, the senior class contained 450 students, 430 of whom had decided not to enroll in this academically rigorous course. By allowing obstacles to exist between students interested in receiving a higher-quality education and AP instruction, we can all improve pass rates while simultaneously continuing an inequitable education process based upon limited access to instructional rigor. For this reason, the Colorado Legacy Schools initiative strives to remove the myth of pass rate from the collective understanding of Advanced Placement programs.

2.       “Colorado Legacy Foundation wins $10.5M grant to push AP courses,” Feb 10, 2012, The Denver Post.
The Colorado Legacy Foundation will channel $10.5 million in federal funding over the next five years to a program that encourages enrollment in Advanced Placement classes to close the achievement gap. The primary goal of the grant is to improve student performance among traditionally underserved students in 30 high schools. Colorado was one of only two states — Indiana was the other — to receive the federal funding, channeled through the National Math and Science Initiative.

"This is a complex program and so much more than getting kids to take advanced curriculum," said Helayne Jones, president and CEO of the Colorado Legacy Foundation. "There's proven research that shows kids who are not performing as well as they'd like benefit from having higher standards and curriculum. There's a paradigm shift that supports the notion that every child can succeed and should be allowed to succeed in a rigorous curriculum."

The program will provide $100 financial incentives to students who achieve qualifying scores on standardized tests for the rigorous AP courses in math, science or English, and similar incentives to their teachers. The money also allows for more teacher training, covers half the cost of student exam fees and supports additional time for course review and exam preparation.

The foundation already has implemented parts of the program in seven pilot schools and reported an 80 percent increase in the number of students taking AP classes and a 53 percent increase in the number of students earning qualifying exam scores.

In the next round of the program, the foundation will target a statewide distribution of schools. About 30 have expressed interest and will host site visits over the next several weeks.

Over the five years of the program, 10 schools will be invited to join each year. The Colorado Legacy Foundation also must raise matching funds — about $3.5 million over the course of the program.
"Major requirements for funding happen around year three," Jones said, "and that's when we'll have good hard data showing results of the program — which will make it easier for fundraising."                               

3.       “Pilot high schools post AP test gains in Legacy initiative,” Kevin Simpson, The Denver Post, Aug. 16, 2012 -  See also CLF’s report on the strong results for students in the three pilot high schools: Fountain Fort-Carson, Mesa Ridge, and Widefield -

4.       “Colorado Legacy Foundation Announces Second Group of Schools to Participate in Advanced Placement Program,” Feb. 26, 2013, Press Release.
Additional Schools Selected to Implement the Colorado Legacy Schools Program 
DENVER, CO – Today the Colorado Legacy Foundation (CLF) announced the second cohort of schools to participate in the Colorado Legacy Schools initiative with funding from the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI). Colorado Legacy Schools is a local replication of the proven National Math and Science Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program (APTIP), which has an unparalleled record of closing achievement gaps and increasing college readiness in program schools. This initiative provides funding for extensive teacher training, student exam fees, classroom equipment and supplies, awards for those who excel, and extra time on task for students during Saturday study sessions.

“Last year, Colorado Legacy Schools’ three schools represented just over 1% of the total number of schools in Colorado giving AP exams, yet they accounted for 19% of the growth in passing scores statewide,” said Dr. Helayne Jones, President and CEO of the Colorado Legacy Foundation. “We fully anticipate replication of that success with this second cohort of schools. Colorado Legacy Schools is about changing the culture of learning environments so that every student has the opportunity to receive the supports they need to succeed in AP coursework. We believe that demographics in an AP classroom should mirror the diversity of the school’s hallway. This program advances that principle, and we look forward to working closely with CDE and educators through the state to expand this success.”

The ten high schools, from rural, urban and suburban school districts throughout Colorado, are: Delta High School, Denver South High School, Greeley Central High School, Harrison High School, Northridge High School, Pueblo South High School, Rangeview High School, Sand Creek High School, Skyline High School, and Thomas Jefferson High School. These schools will receive support to dramatically increase the number and diversity of students succeeding in AP math, Science, and English courses for three school years beginning in 2013-2014.

In the 2011-2012 school year, the three participating pilot schools increased the number of students earning qualifying scores on AP math, science, and English exams from 48 to 256—a 433% increase which accounts for nearly 20% of the overall increase in these subjects for the entire state of Colorado. The impact on historically underrepresented students was even more profound, as these three schools increased the number of African American and Hispanic students earning qualifying scores by over 1,000%.

The Colorado Legacy Foundation is expected to expand Colorado Legacy Schools to include an additional 10 high schools in 2014-2015, for a total of thirty participating schools.
Initial funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Defense and Exxon Mobile. These investments led to CLF receiving the Investing in Innovation (i3) Grant through the US Department of Education for expansion of this work throughout the nation.
To learn more about the Colorado Legacy Foundation, please visit

5.       My comment on CLF’s success in its pilot project.

It is good to be sure something works before you take it elsewhere.  But there is plenty of evidence that some reforms work well in certain schools and not in others. (It is a painful lesson I had to learn first-hand working for a foundation, 1990-96.)  The relevant medical terms are “donor-donee compatibility” and “transplant rejection.” Some bodies reject the new organ; some schools are inhospitable to programs that fit in nicely elsewhere.
Consider the following differences between CLF’s pilot schools and low-performing urban schools like Denver’s Abraham Lincoln and South High.  Without claiming that Colorado’s School Performance Framework can predict if a particular school will benefit from more AP classes, the SPF data is revealing. 

CLF’s three pilot schools in 2011-12

The Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness scores for the three schools in 2011, the year before their participation in CLF’s initiative, show all three were Meeting the state’s expectations: Fountain Fort Carson (with rating of 83.3%), Widefield (75%), and Mesa Ridge (66.7%).  So they were schools where additional AP classes were probably a good fit.  Each school’s composite ACT scores—while only Approaching the state’s expectations, were not far below: Fountain Fort Carson - 19.1; Widefield - 18.9; and Mesa Ridge 18.4—another sign that many of their rising seniors were capable of college level work.
Now look at SPF’s report on Abraham Lincoln last year. Not likely to be a setting where a large number of rising juniors and seniors have the skills to succeed in AP classes.

State Performance Framework - 2012

Abraham Lincoln High School 
Performance Indicators

ACT Composite
Academic Achievement
Postsecondary & Workforce Readiness

Rating- Does Not Meet
Rating- Approaching
Rating – Does Not Meet

Does such criteria matter when CLF picks its schools?  Apparently not, for it has selected Denver’s South and Thomas Jefferson for its work in 2013-14.  South scores almost as poorly as Lincoln in these three categories.  The school may well have a strong commitment to raise its academic performance, but at present, why not focus on helping more students attain grade level proficiency? College-level work can wait.


South High School 
Performance Indicators

ACT Composite
Academic Achievement
Postsecondary & Workforce Readiness

Rating- Does Not Meet
Rating- Approaching
Rating – Does Not Meet

Furthermore, the recent the 2012 pass rate for students taking Advanced Placement courses at South (25%) and Thomas Jefferson (34%) suggests most students there are not ready for a college-level class.  Which, let me be clear, is nothing to be ashamed of!  The shame, or the folly, in my view, is placing students in courses for which they are not prepared.

2 Denver high schools

Number tested
Number passed
AP Pass rate
South High
Thomas Jefferson High

Addendum C – The College Board

To be fair, the College Board does speak of its goal of seeing that more low-income and minority students take and do well on Advanced Placement courses.  And it has reduced fees for many low-income students.  But the vast growth in AP classes and tests is surely a great financial boon to the College Board. 

From “Student Performance on AP Exams Improves,” by Caralee Adams, Education Week, Feb. 20, 2013.

Among the strategies that the College Board suggests in promoting equity in AP is for districts to work with middle and high school counselors, reach out to parents with information about programs, provide targeted mentoring, and host summer bridge program, according to the new report.
Subsidizing the Cost

It costs $89 for students to take an AP exam. Last year, the College Board provided a $28 fee reduction for more than 439,000 low-income graduates to take the exam—more than double the number covered in 2008 with the test subsidy.

Addendum D - 2 examples of the reading/writing tasks on AP English Literature and Composition

  1. Example from English Literature and Composition 2011 Free-Response Questions
Question 2 
(Suggested time—40 minutes. This question counts as one-third of the total essay section score.)
The following passage is from the novel Middlemarch by George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Ann Evans (1819–1880). In the passage, Rosamond and Tertius Lydgate, a recently married couple, confront financial difficulties.
Read the passage carefully. Then write a well-developed essay in which you analyze how Eliot portrays these two characters and their complex relationship as husband and wife. You may wish to consider such literary devices as narrative perspective and selection of detail.
(The test then provided a page from the novel for students to read and examine.)
  1. Example from English Literature and Composition 2012 Free-Response Questions
Question 3
(Suggested time—40 minutes. This question counts as one-third of the total essay section score.)
“And, after all, our surroundings influence our lives and characters as much as fate, destiny or any supernatural agency.” Pauline Hopkins, Contending Forces
Choose a novel or play in which cultural, physical, or geographical surroundings shape psychological or moral traits in a character. Then write a well-organized essay in which you analyze how surroundings affect this character and illuminate the meaning of the work as a whole.
You may choose a work from the list below or one of comparable literary merit. Do not merely summarize the plot.
Absalom, Absalom!                                        The Age of Innocence
Another Country                                              Brideshead Revisited
Ceremony                                                        The Color Purple
Daisy Miller                                                     Death of a Salesman
The Glass Menagerie                                      The Grapes of Wrath
Great Expectations                                         Heart of Darkness
Invisible Man                                                  King Lear
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets                       M. Butterfly
A Midsummer Night’s Dream                     My √Āntonia
Native Son                                                   No Exit
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest             One Hundred Years of Solitude
Oryx and Crake                                           A Passage to India
The Piano Lesson                                           The Plague
The Poisonwood Bible                                    Pride and Prejudice
A Raisin in the Sun                                           Snow Falling on Cedars
Sula                                                                 The Sun Also Rises
Tess of the D’Urbervilles                                Waiting for Godot
When the Emperor Was Divine                   The Women of Brews

Addendum E – DPS Press Release and the “strong trend”

“DPS Graduating Class Up by Nearly 500 Students over Past 2 Years,” Aug. 2, 2011. DPS Press release:
A big focus of the district's reforms-as laid out in the 2010 Denver Plan-has been high expectations for all students and increased rigor in all academic programs. At the secondary level, high school leaders have worked to expand concurrent enrollment in college courses and Advanced Placement courses to a much broader range of students. These are accelerated courses that allow students to be eligible to receive college credit in the subject if they post a qualifying score on the final AP exam or pass the college-level course.

For the 2010-11 school year, the district's preliminary data shows that the number of students enrolled in AP courses grew by more than 300 over the previous year, continuing the strong trend that started in DPS in 2005.

Over that time, the number of times that DPS students have taken and earned a qualifying score on AP exams, which allows them to earn college credit for the class, have also increased dramatically. AP exams taken has increased from 2310 to 4440 since 2005-06, and the number of exams earning a qualifying score has increased from 954 to 1504 over that time. 
"The leaders at our high schools have been very focused on student engagement and post-secondary readiness," DPS Assistant Superintendent Antwan Wilson added. "I want to thank and commend them and all of their teams-teachers, counselors, and support staff-for their tremendous commitment to the success of our students."

[1] See page 5, “Colorado ranks in top 10 nationwide for scores on Advanced Placement Exams,” Feb. 20, 2013.
[2] “Student AP Scores Rise: Equity Issues Remain,” Ed Media Commons, by Mikail Zinahteyn, Feb. 20, 2013,
[3] See Addendum B -section 3 for results of CLF’s pilot program, and section 5 for “My comment on CLF’s success in its pilot project.” 
[4] This view of low pass rates is not shared by some advocates of the effort to expand AP classes.  A strong counterargument speaks of high pass rates as indicative, in some cases, of excluding too many students who might well benefit from AP classes. See email to me Dr. Gregory Hesse, Program Director of the Colorado Legacy Initiative, Addendum B-section 1.
[5] This former English teacher who taught an AP English class—see next page—is particularly  intrigued by the number taking, and not passing, the literature tests.
[6] “Cash incentives for achievement on academics a study in progress,” by Kevin Simpson, Oc.t 18, 2012, The Denver Post.  The National Math and Science Initiative grant--through the Colorado Legacy Foundation–provides funds to cover $89 per student for the test, awards checks to students, and to teachers who earn $100 for each passing score.  “At Widefield the average reward (for AP teachers) has been about $2,000….” See also Addendum B- section 2.
[7] I should acknowledge that the College Board speaks of equity as among its chief goals, and it offers reduced fees for low-income students who take the test.  See Addendum C.
[8] 2012 figures not yet available.
[9] See examples at Addendum D, taken from the web site of The College Board,
[10] *A “qualifying score” means a 3, 4, or 5; a score of 3 or higher is considered passing and equivalent to a college course score of “middle C” or above. According to the College Board, “AP Exam scores are reported on a 5-point scale as follows: 5  Extremely well qualified, 4  Well qualified, 3  Qualified, 2  Possibly qualified, 1  No recommendation.”
[11] “DPS Graduating Class Up by Nearly 500 Students over Past 2 Years,” Aug. 2, 2011. See Addendum E.
[12] See more on these two schools in Addendum B-section5 on the Colorado Legacy Foundation Schools.
[13] My question would be—in which cases is this true?  I would like to see this broken out for those students who were able to score a 2 on the AP test versus those who scored a 1.  I would like to see this broken out by high schools where there were some qualifications to enroll in the AP  class—often a teacher’s recommendation—versus those where nearly all students, regardless of their previous academic performance, could take the course.  I would like to see this broken out for schools like the three in the Colorado Legacy’s pilot program—where the average ACT scores were within striking distance of being college ready, in contrast to schools like Abraham Lincoln, South, and Thomas Jefferson.  Perhaps in a year or two the Legacy Foundation will have such information.