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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

2 of 6 Stories

Pushing Advanced Placement
California hopes to include more minority students

By Kay Mills

Mojave, California

Veronica Gomez hated reading, she says, but "started to like it" because of the Advanced Placement literature and composition class that she is taking as a senior at Mojave High School. She explains that reading was hard for her because she didn't understand why writers were saying what they were saying. The AP class guides her through Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," and Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," her favorite. This is only the second year that her school has offered AP English.

Mojave, with 500 students in a small, wind-swept town in the high desert northeast of Los Angeles, and Gomez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who work in local fast food restaurants, epitomize what the creators of the state's AP challenge grant may have had in mind when they established the program to increase opportunity for students to take more rigorous college preparatory courses. State Senator Martha Escutia (D-Montebello) sponsored the legislation, part of Governor Gray Davis' budget, enacted two years ago to increase both the number of Advanced Placement courses in California high schools and the number of students enrolling in them.

California was also reacting to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit charging that minority students often lacked access to these courses. The state spent $16.5 million in the first year of the program, and budgeted $12.375 million for this school year because the size of the grants decreases each year.

The challenge grant program is "important because the state has a constitutional obligation to provide all students access to what is required for them to have a reasonable opportunity to compete" to get into college, said Jeannie Oakes, professor of education at UCLA and a member of the program's state advisory board. The University of California, for example, gives AP courses extra weight when calculating applicants' grade point averages so a student who received an A gets five points instead of the usual four. Thus, as matters stand today, "AP is the gold standard for education," Oakes said, and "a family or a student shouldn't have to go to heroic measures to get access to the courses."

Ideally, Advanced Placement courses provide challenges for bright high school students who might otherwise be bored. Increasingly, students take the AP courses and exams to improve their chances to win admission to top-rated colleges. In 1988, 39,040 California public high school students took AP exams. By 2001, that number had climbed to 146,922.

The number of students taking AP exams has increased nationally as well. In May 2001, 820,880 students took Advanced Placement exams, a 9.8 percent increase over the year before, and 34 percent higher than 1996. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia provide support in some form for AP courses. Some encourage or require AP classes in high schools, pay students' examination fees or help teachers attend AP training programs. For example, Arizona subsidizes AP exam fees for minority students; California and Oklahoma provide exam subsidies for low-income students; and Georgia and South Carolina pay for the AP exams for all students.

 
At Bakersfield, California, High School, 314 students took AP classes last year, but Principal David Reese wonders if the "challenge grant" program is "just giving the same kids more opportunity."  
Two years ago, the Florida legislature created the College Board Florida Partnership to increase the number of students, including those from rural areas and minority groups, who attend the state's universities and succeed there. The program, backed by Governor Jeb Bush, highlights AP and pre-AP institutes, training high school faculty to teach these courses, and providing other support for students at the state's 372 high schools. Florida spent $8.2 million the first year, $5 million this year.

Rural high schools have been targeted in such efforts in California and elsewhere because they often cannot recruit teachers with the skills to handle AP calculus, economics or other advanced courses. Inner city schools attended by African American and Latino students may also lack AP courses. Inglewood High School near Los Angeles offered only three AP courses three years ago-none in math or science-while Beverly Hills High School, serving a large number of more affluent white students, offered more than 14 AP classes.

This difference in access led four African American and Latino students at Inglewood to file a statewide class action suit in 1999 charging that they had been denied equal educational opportunity.

The ACLU convened a team of UC professors, including Oakes, to address the access issue. That group found "a clear relationship between the level and type of AP offering and the demographics of a high school's student population...Whether high schools are large or small, the availability of AP courses decreases as the percentage of African American and Latinos in the school population increases."

The team's proposals for action became a blueprint for the challenge grant program, said Rocio Cordoba, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. She said that the ACLU is monitoring the program to confirm that the kind of students it represents-minorities and low-income-reap the benefits. Adjustments may be needed down the road, she added.

The grants help schools train teachers to handle AP classes, provide tutors to help the students, and buy class materials. To qualify, a high school must either offer three or fewer advanced classes or no advanced math or science classes, have low college preparation rates, or have a majority of students whose families have sufficiently low incomes that they qualify for free or subsidized lunches. Out of 651 high schools in the state, around 550, the number earmarked in the legislation, have met one or more of these criteria, according to Ron Fox of the California Department of Education.

Mojave and Bakersfield High Schools-both in Kern County, roughly 100 miles north of Los Angeles-offer two approaches to providing more AP opportunities. Bakersfield High started the program with five advanced classes-English, calculus, U.S. and European history and Spanish-and has added economics, biology and studio art. An honors physics course was converted into an AP class as well.

 
  The California "challenge grant" program has enabled Mojave High School Principal Sal Frias to increase the number of Advanced Placement courses from one to seven.
Next year Principal David Reese hopes to add AP government and perhaps world history. With 2,700 students and 121 faculty, Bakersfield can provide the instruction face-to-face. As planned in the legislation, the school received $30,000 from the challenge grant the first year and $22,500 the second. Schools receive $15,000 for the third year of the program and $7,500 for the fourth.

Two years ago 289 Bakersfield High students took the AP exams offered each May. Students who pass these exams with scores of 3 (out of 5) or better receive college credit once they arrive on campus. That year 202 passed. Last year 314 Bakersfield High students took the AP exam; 217 scored 3 or above. AP classes enroll 373 students this year.

Reese questions whether the program is truly reaching more kids "or just giving the same kids more opportunity. That's not a good use of the money." He is determined that in five years the enrollment in Bakersfield High's AP classes will more closely mirror the ethnic makeup of the student body, which is 35 percent Hispanic and 13 percent African American.

When the challenge grant program began, about 80 percent of the students in Bakersfield High's AP classes were white. That figure is down to 69 percent now with more minorities signing up. "The students who have not been in AP courses, no matter their ethnicity or socioeconomic group, are intelligent," Reese said. "They just don't have the support system." The principal insists that "there should be an equitable distribution of knowledge in kids regardless of their skin color."

Statewide, there are signs that more minority students are at least taking the AP exams, an indicator of increasing enrollments in the advanced classes that prepare students for these tests. A report prepared last fall for the state by the WestEd research firm found that among the AP challenge grant schools, "there was an increase in African American students of 20 percent and in Hispanic students of 23 percent" taking the exam. However, a June 2001 report by the Institute for Education Reform, affiliated with the California State University system, found that African Americans and Hispanics are still "considerably disproportionately underrepresented" in AP classes. "If they were to be enrolled in AP classes in proportion to their enrollment in the schools, their participation in AP classes would have to increase, on average, by about 100 percent," according to the report.

Sal Frias, Mojave's principal, says that even with all the training in the world, his school cannot offer many AP courses in typical face-to-face classroom situations. When the challenge grant program began, Mojave had only AP calculus. Frias used some of the grant money-his school has received $52,500 so far-for four teachers and himself to attend training institutes. Last year Mojave added AP English literature and language, history, calculus, economics and civics. Its students took 105 AP tests, compared to 14 the year before. Two years ago three Mojave students scored 3 or above on the tests. Last year 17, or 16.2 percent, passed the tests with scores of 3 or above.

With only 27 teachers, there could only be one section of each AP course last year. If students had a schedule conflict, they were out of luck. Frias wanted to expand access to AP courses to more of his students (54 percent of whom are white, 24 percent Latino, ten percent African American, and 12 percent Native American and others). So he switched to online courses.

This year students are taking eight AP courses over the Internet through the University of California College Preparatory Initiative, which acquires online courses developed by commercial firms, educational institutions, UC faculty or high school faculty consulting with UC faculty. These courses are certified as meeting UC entrance requirements.

Although results are mixed, Frias says he is leaning toward continuing the online instruction-with the possible exception of AP calculus. "Math seems to require hands-on instruction" because of the complex concepts involved, he said, but there must be at least ten students to justify offering the class face-to-face. Frias hopes to add AP Spanish and perhaps physics next year. "I'm very competitive," he said. "I want my school to be the best." Much will depend on how the students fare in the AP tests this spring; last year the average overall AP test score for Mojave students was a low 1.75.

Seventy-one out of 90 Mojave students who signed up last fall stuck with AP courses during the first semester; 63 were still enrolled in the second semester. "Most of those who have dropped out of AP classes blame it on 'I need a teacher in front of me,'" Frias said. "I tell them, 'You go to college, you get a syllabus, you get books, you get the due dates for assignments and you go to work. If you think you are going to pal around with your professor and talk about what's happening, it's not going to happen." Taking courses online, he believes, helps prepare students for the impersonality of many large campuses like UC Berkeley and UCLA.

There is support for the students who have trouble with the material. Mojave has established an AP lab in a classroom with 26 computers. Students use them for their advanced courses during whatever period of the day that they leave free for that purpose, thus avoiding last year's scheduling problems. A teacher is assigned to the lab each period and there is a technical support person as well.

Missy Losey, the computer specialist at Mojave, says that if one student has received an answer to a question through e-mail, he'll share it with others taking the same class. In any class, "there's always one kid who raises his hand," she said. "There's a lack of that in a setting like this when they are doing individual work, so e-mail is like raising your hand. That's my analogy."

Veronica Gomez, 18, sits quietly in the back of the room, reading "Jane Eyre" in paperback and checking her computer screen for background about what she's reading. She e-mails her assignments to her instructor, a veteran high school teacher who works for Apex Learning, which provides the course for the UC college prep program.

At the end of each unit Gomez takes a test consisting of 20 multiple choice questions and an essay. These tests follow the format of the AP exam, so students become accustomed to it by the time they take the exam in May. Frias said that the UCCP program offered him the option of assigning proctors for these in-course online tests or using the honor system. He has opted for the latter. "There's a lot of trust involved."

Dave Bowerman of Apex Learning said that online instructors become familiar with students' writing styles and performance, so they can spot marked differences that might lead them to suspect cheating. "Like Mr. Frias," he said, "we have actually had very few reported instances of students suspected of cheating."

Gomez works at McDonalds on weekends and is taking a night course to become a certified medical assistant to help put herself through college. She has been accepted by three University of California campuses-Berkeley, Irvine and Santa Barbara-and by two in the California State University system-Cal State Long Beach and San Francisco State-but has not yet decided where to go. She says that her parents moved to the United States in 1986 to give her more opportunity, and she hopes to study medical laboratory technology.

Elsewhere in the computer room, Kyna Cunningham, a junior, is working on her AP American history material. She is in the lab two periods in a row because she is also taking AP literature. "Third period gets pretty rowdy," she said. "It gets a little hard. Sometimes I have to speak up" and ask lab mates to be quiet.

Amanda Warren, a junior taking AP literature, likes the independence of an online course. In the usual classes, she says, "there are kids who don't want to do the work and they hold everybody back. In this, you go at your own pace." The flip side is that if you need help, it is harder to get it when you need it. With interaction over the Internet, she said, "you may get an answer but it may not be what you want and you have to e-mail again."

AP classes online are not for everyone. Erik Hoffman, a junior, took AP English last term and dropped it after one semester. He says he started off okay but then the work became harder and he fell behind. He had other interests-sports among them-and he just couldn't spend the time on it. "It would have been easier if there was an actual teacher. I could get a response rather than having to e-mail. I could have gotten it cleared up and moved on." The responsibility was good for him, he added, but he wasn't used to it.

Not every faculty member has been converted to Mojave's push for more AP courses. Mark Hartsock teaches chemistry and helps the one AP chemistry student with lab work, before or after school or on Saturdays. "Honestly," he says, "I think there's only a select few high school students able to do the AP work. I think we're promoting AP beyond what it was initially intended to be. I'm not a college professor. I can't teach a college course." But "today, if a kid doesn't take an AP class, he's at a disadvantage. So we're forced to give our students AP classes to keep competitive even though it may be more than they can handle. We're pushing the envelope beyond where it was meant to be."

The principals at both Mojave and Bakersfield High Schools know that they can't just throw many of their students into the AP pool and hope they can swim. They need preparation, and some of them are receiving it through the AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination). An international non-profit program, AVID is underway at 471 California high schools and 393 middle schools as well as in other states and countries. California's governor and legislature support the program, and the state budget covers some of the schools' AVID costs; they often use other grants to pay the rest.

 
Pauline Steward is one of 12 students in an Advanced Placement studio art class at Bakersfield High School. The program was started three years ago for students who may not be scientifically oriented.  
Bakersfield has been an AVID school for two years and targets students who have high test scores but who may not have much of a support system at home. Their parents may not have gone to college and may not be familiar with what their children need to know to gain university admission.

Thirty Bakersfield High freshmen and thirty sophomores have made the commitment that they want to go to college and are willing to give up other electives to take the AVID course each year they are in high school. They learn to take notes effectively, how to manage their time, how to write more coherently, how to think more analytically and ask intelligent questions, and how to work collaboratively-all skills that teachers know their students will need to get into college and stay there to graduate.

Michelle Nixon, who teaches both a sophomore AVID class and a senior AP English class, finds that her seniors don't have the same background that her AVID sophomores now have. "For example, they are not as well versed in literary terms," she said. The seniors "are not as strong writers." AVID will help her students form a strong foundation, especially with their writing, she added. "For the AP exam, writing is important so that they can respond quickly and fluently to a piece of literature."

Students in AP English read myths, Dante, Shakespeare and more modern texts-none of it easy material. "It would be irresponsible of us to encourage them to do something that we haven't prepared them for," Nixon said.

Several of Nixon's AVID program sophomores took AP European history last fall. Dalila Vargas, who wants to go to UCLA, said that AVID helped her manage her time. "Since European history takes so much time, I know that I have to get my other homework done first." AVID has taught her to see how much time each subject will take and to set priorities. Her classmate, Stacey Abidayo, who also wants to go to UCLA, said that in AVID, they learn "higher order thinking." That means, "you don't just read the lines. You read between the lines." For example, "if you are reading John Locke, you consider how his environment affected his ideas."

With the AP challenge grant, Bakersfield Principal David Reese says, "you either lower the bar for the AP classes or you raise the preparation for the kids so that they can do the work. There's a push for more kids to go to college and that's good, but you can't just say it and make it happen." The school is like a surrogate parent through the AVID program, he added.

Ideally, he said, the kind of college prep skills that AVID offers should begin before high school. "The best marriage you could have," Reese said, "would be feeder schools with the AVID program so that [students] are prepared when they get to high school." But among the 15 middle schools that send students to Bakersfield High, only one has AVID.

Mojave has five AVID classes, two for freshmen, two for sophomores, one for juniors, all taught by Aimee Hamby. This semester, for example, her class of juniors is concentrating on financial aid. Hamby also does regular notebook checks to make sure the students are taking good notes and staying organized. "In here, I make them pretty accountable," she said. AVID students also have tutorials several times a week from local college students or other high school students especially knowledgeable in a field.

AVID and the online courses at Mojave are an example of how other programs mesh with the AP challenge grants. Mojave relies heavily on the UC College Preparatory Initiative. A division of the UC president's office and located physically at UC Santa Cruz, UCCP works primarily with remote rural high schools, said its director, Elaine Wheeler. It offers 12 AP subjects online.

Three elements contribute to any school's success with these advanced online courses, Wheeler said. Obviously, students need good access to computers-not computers in someone's office or some other location with distractions. The program needs a strong supporter in a school's administration. And there has to be a strong coach or mentor for the students. "They may be young adults but they are not independently acting yet," she said. "They are not used to working on their own as much as older people might be. If a faculty member has a lot of energy, it clicks."

 
  Mojave High School chemistry teacher Mark Hartsock believes "there's only a select few high school students able to do the AP work," but others are pushed into taking the classes to get into college.
UCCP holds summer AP teacher training institutes in conjunction with the College Board, which produces the AP tests. These workshops "focus on the art of teaching-how to take students to a different level of preparation," according to Gail Chapman, the College Board's project director for the California AP initiative. The people leading the training have been readers of the Advanced Placement exams in the past, so they can talk to the teachers about that process.

Nancy Putney, who chairs Bakersfield High's art department, has attended three of these training sessions to prepare herself to teach AP studio art. "I couldn't do it without the helpful hints of experts," she said. The training has also helped her to see what students are capable of. "I can expect more independent and creative work, and not hold their hands and be a mother any longer."

David Reese and Putney didn't want Bakersfield High's Advanced Placement courses to neglect students who were not scientifically oriented, and so they launched the AP studio art program three years ago. Twelve students are enrolled this year. Rather than taking a paper-and-pencil (or online) test as other AP students do, the artists prepare a portfolio of their work that is judged for its quality, breadth and concentration.

Within California and nationally, not everyone is enamored of AP courses. Michael Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University, cites those who believe the AP exams "are not all that good." What's been done typically is a survey of the average college courses in a field, and the test is geared to measure students' mastery of that material, Kirst said. Thus, the tests are not based on the best courses.

"They've done what is, not what ought to be," Kirst said, adding that it is hard to do what ought to be. Because there is a certain amount of territory that an AP teacher must cover, the students also cannot veer off at length on what could be interesting tangents, like the impact of the events of September 11 on U.S. history, or events leading to women winning the right to vote.

Advanced math and science classes often make students memorize too much at the expense of a deeper understanding of the concepts involved, according to a report published last February by the National Research Council of the National Academies. The report also echoed the call for increasing access to these courses to minorities and students from low-income families.

California launched its AP challenge grant program when its economy was booming. That is not the case anymore. But Ron Fox of the California Department of Education says the governor's current budget proposal does not cut the challenge grant program. However, the state legislature has not yet passed its appropriations, and California schools face other budget cuts that could affect their programs.

So far, analysis of the California effort has been limited. Eileen Warren of the California Institute on Human Services at Sonoma State University did a survey last August to provide, among other things, a data base for the state secretary of education on AP courses at California high schools. She found that in 1999- 2000 there were 90 schools offering three or fewer or no AP courses. Thirty-five of these schools increased their rigorous course offerings to four or more in 2000-2001. Twenty-five of these schools were AP challenge grant recipients, and their AP course offerings increased eightfold in that time.

When the challenge grants were created, no money was included for administration or assessment, Fox said. His office is working with Jeannie Oakes at UCLA and others to find funds to conduct a study on the effect of the challenge grants. Because California is the largest user of AP for college admissions and credit, and because of the challenge grant program, the state "provides a useful case for the nation," Oakes wrote in her study proposal.

"The state needs to know what it really takes to make these courses and tests more universally available and whether these efforts "actually enhance college preparation and college going," Oakes added. If all the program does is raise the bar for students to be competitive for admission to Berkeley and UCLA, she wrote, then students at schools with fewer AP courses available will be further disadvantaged.


Former Los Angeles Times editorial writer Kay Mills is the author of four books, including one on the federal Head Start program.

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