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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
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The New Advanced Placement Push
Emphasis on the popular college-level courses increases

By Pamela Burdman


  Despite a 4.13 grade point average, Gustin (CA) High School senior Sara Shaw was not admitted to her first-choice colleges, apparently because she had taken no Advanced Placement Courses.
THIS TINY TOWN of 4,288 has its share of dairies, antique stores and taquerias—not to mention a yearly oxen and cart parade. But the youth of Gustine have yet to see something that state leaders increasingly say they’re entitled to have: Their high school is one of dozens around the state that currently offers no Advanced Placement courses.

Gustine senior Sara Shaw is graduating with a 4.13 average and will attend the University of California at Santa Barbara in the fall, but she believes AP courses might have helped her get admitted to the three UC campuses that turned her down: Berkeley, UCLA and San Diego.

“AP gives people graduating a fighting chance,” she said. “I had the highest grades I could have. I’m involved in everything. Without any college courses or AP test scores, it hurt me,” she said.

Just 90 miles away at Palo Alto High School, in the shadow of Stanford University, students can choose from an array of 18 different AP courses in everything from calculus and English to environmental science and music theory.

Palo Alto junior Greg Schwartz has taken two AP courses so far, and plans to take three during his senior year. “That’s not as many as I’d meant to,” he said. “The courses are very good, and it looks good on your transcript.”

Indeed, Advanced Placement courses, once the province of a handful of elite private schools, are so widely recognized as important components of high school curriculum that California Governor Gray Davis is calling upon every school in the state to offer at least one of the courses by this fall and a total of four by September 2001, even if that means providing the courses online.

Davis clearly is being pushed by California’s educational exigencies: lagging admissions of minorities to the state’s most competitive university campuses as well as a civil rights rights lawsuit challenging the AP gap. Already California students take one-sixth of all AP exams given nationally, partly because the University of California gives extra weight to AP courses when calculating students’ grade point averages.

Though those forces are specific to California, Davis’ move is right in step with a national trend. In his book Class Struggle, journalist Jay Mathews ranks the nation’s top high schools according to how many AP courses students take.

No one expects that every student will enroll in the AP program, but the new educational policies envision a future in which every student at least has a chance to do so. That thinking is a far cry from what the founders of Advanced Placement— three East Coast prep schools and three Ivy League universities—had in mind when the program began in 1955.

Once an avenue to keep privileged students from getting bored in high school, AP has grown into a nationwide program overseen by the College Board, the coalition of colleges that also coordinates the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). The AP course curricula are standardized, and culminate each May with exams administered by the Educational Testing Service. In 45 years, the ranks of AP students have swelled to more than 700,000, at more than half of the nation’s high schools. Last year, more than a million exams were administered in 32 fields. At thousands of colleges and universities, students with passing grades (3, 4 or 5, out of 5 points) can earn course credit and/or advance to higher level courses.

With that expansion, a new philosophy is taking hold: that no qualified student should be shut out of the option of taking Advanced Placement courses. Ensuring that, however, often begins in elementary and middle school.

At the Alief Independent School District in southwest Houston, for example, administrators have changed their criteria for entrance to the pre-AP mathematics program, which starts in seventh grade.

“It used to be an exclusive program. We tended to screen students in and out. You had to be ‘gifted’ or ‘precocious,’” said Marsha Lilly, coordinator of secondary mathematics for the district. “This year, our philosophy has been open enrollment. If a student chooses to be there, they have every right to be there.”

Similar thinking on the part of teacher Jaime Escalante, in a story popularized by the film, Stand and Deliver, inspired poor minority students at Los Angeles’ Garfield High School to rise to the occasion of taking the AP Calculus exam. So many of the students passed (more than two-thirds) that ETS officials suspected cheating.

The new AP push is backed by more than philosophy. The federal government recently increased funding for its Advanced Placement Incentive Program from $4 million to $15 million in the current year. U.S. Department of Education officials are seeking $20 million for next year.

In February a National Forum to Expand Advanced Placement Opportunities was co-hosted by the Department of Education and the College Board, the organization that coordinates the AP program. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have already begun initiatives to promote AP, and many more have applied for the new money.

The federal program is intended to provide low-income students access to AP. About $3 to $4 million is reserved to pay test fees for poor students. The rest of the $15 million can be used for teacher training, classroom equipment, distance learning and other initiatives to expand access to AP or the International Baccalaureate, another advanced studies program.

Both Texas and Florida now are spending about $11 million annually on AP programs, and California has allotted more than $30 million in next year’s budget.

Though the furor over competitive college admissions has contributed to the new focus on AP courses, it is not clear how much students with no such courses on their records actually suffer when they apply to college.

UC is one of the few universities known to assign extra weight to the courses, allowing students to boost their grade point averages above 4.0. But officials at UC Berkeley and UCLA, the two most selective campuses, insist they look at each school’s course offerings and do not penalize applicants for not taking courses that are not available to them. Students also can earn the extra points by taking honors classes or enrolling at a community college, the admissions officials point out.

Besides the admissions controversies, part of the steam for the AP movement also comes from research suggesting that the courses contribute to students’ success once they get to college. The most oftcited report is a longitudinal study of 1982 high school graduates conducted by the U.S. Department of Education.

  Greg Schwartz, a junior at Palo Alto (CA) High School, has his pick of 18 different Advanced Placement classes, from calculus and English to environmental science and music theory.

While the report concluded that AP courses didn’t increase students’ access to college in general, it did find that a challenging high school curriculum, including AP courses, contributed more to a student’s chances of finishing college than did high grades or test scores.

“Lots of people go to college without AP, but the people who go to college with AP are more likely to finish,” said senior research analyst Clifford Adelman, author of the longitudinal study. “Why? Because it’s not merely AP, it’s the road to AP. You can’t merely plunk down AP calculus on a school that doesn’t offer pre-calculus or trigonometry.”

Other studies, primarily by the College Board, have shown that in many disciplines, students placed directly into upper-level college courses after passing an AP exam score better than classmates with no AP courses in high school.

AThe AP push also has gathered momentum as the rollback of affirmative action in California and other states casts a spotlight on stark discrepancies in educational opportunities along income and racial lines.

Though no national figures are available, the state of Florida gives an indication of how AP participation rates are skewed: In Florida, 59.1 percent of white students take AP courses, compared to 6.2 percent of African Americans, 14.8 percent of Hispanics, and 7.6 percent of Asians.

In California, similar discrepancies exist. According to a study by California State University’s Institute for Education Reform, “African Americans and Hispanics do not participate in the AP program, even when it is highly available, at rates that reflect their proportionality in the school student enrollment figures. Conversely, Asians participate heavily, often at more than double their rate of school enrollment.”

AP director Lee Jones points out that the phenomenon is not unique to AP. “That would be the case no matter what measure of educational quality you looked at,” he noted. “Black and Latino students are underrepresented in the distribution of resources.” Nevertheless, AP has been singled out, and even became the focus of a lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union, making California the focal point of the national movement to expand access to the rigorous college-level courses. The issue has particular salience in California, where minority admissions have fallen off at UC’s most selective campuses and professional schools.

ACLU officials say they are prepared to settle the suit, now that the Legislature has approved the $30.4 million proposed by state Senator Martha Escutia and backed by Governor Davis, including grants of up to $75,000 for schools that have few or no AP courses.

The list of such schools is hard to nail down, because AP courses have not been well tracked until recently. Though the state lists 129 schools without AP courses, the Public Policy Institute of California found 138, and Cal State researchers found only 64. Whatever list is used, rural schools dominate, because they are typically small schools with a dearth of both qualified AP teachers and AP-ready students.

Related information  
Sample AP Questions
Advanced Placement Online

Gustine High School, for example, has just 30 teachers and 400 students. Each year, about 40 or 45 students head off to college, mostly to area junior colleges. Typically, only a handful applies to UC and other selective schools.

Gustine math teacher Larry Frago says he has been wanting to offer an AP course since coming to the school 23 years ago, but was turned down by principal after principal. At one point, the school tried offering an AP class in U.S. History, but it was cancelled after two years because of low enrollment. And last year, an English teacher encouraged a handful of students to try the AP English Literature exam, but without the accompanying course, none of them passed.

Now, schools like Gustine will be eligible for $75,000 four-year grants to meet the governor’s goals. Frago finally will get an opportunity to teach AP calculus in the fall. He already has enlisted 12 students, including junior Dana Cozzitorto, an outdoorsy 16-year-old who hopes to study landscape architecture in college.

“It’s a big decision,” said Cozzitorto, daughter of a rancher and a meat locker employee. “This will look good for me. I know I need strength of schedule for the universities. I’m not bad in math, but it’s going to be a hard class.”

Gustine principal Charlene Silva said she also would consider offering students online AP courses, but it will be another year before the school’s classrooms gain Internet connections.

Nearby Dos Palos High School is already networked, and Principal Michael Rivard plans to take advantage of grants available through the University of California to provide six online classes beginning this fall: Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, Government, U.S. History, Physics and Statistics.

“I don’t have the students or the staff to be able to offer those courses live,” said Rivard. Dos Palos students can take honors classes or enroll at nearby Merced College, a community college, but Rivard felt the absence of AP was hurting his students when they applied, for example, to a scholarship program at Cal State Fresno.

For inner city schools, however, the obstacles to offering AP tend to be more complex. Though urban schools are larger, and most have some AP courses, there are often few seats available relative to the size of the school, and sometimes the courses are hampered by quality problems.

For example, the ACLU has alleged in another lawsuit that students enrolled in AP physics and AP English at John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond, in the San Francisco Bay area, did not have a formal, long-term teacher for the entire school year. As a result, several students decided against taking the AP test this spring. And Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, California, the suit charges, hasn’t updated its AP literature text since the 1960s.

According to a study conducted by Cal State, “More than 90 percent of California public high schools offer some Advanced Placement classes, but many students are left with limited or no access.”

At the same time, blacks and Latinos who do take AP courses at urban schools don’t always perform well on the AP exams. At the predominantly African American Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, for example, principal Nancy Rene notes, “They’ve got high-level teaching, but they cannot pass at the level of students from other schools.”

Last year, for example, though Dorsey offered seven AP courses, and more than 200 students took them, only 85 students took AP exams, and only 11 of them passed.

As always, such problems are easier to identify than solutions.

In some places, incentives have been tried. For more than 15 years, the state of Florida has offered school districts roughly $600 for each student who passes an AP course.

State officials credit the policy for an expansion in the number of students taking AP courses. However, that expansion also coincided with a national trend, acknowledged Tom Baird, educational policy consultant for the state, so it is hard to tell how much of that was influenced by the incentive policy.

Teachers will begin to see that incentive money under a recently approved policy of Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Under the system, AP teachers can receive up to $2,000: $50 for each student passing an AP exam, and, at low-performing schools, an additional $500 simply for teaching the class. Florida has budgeted about $11 million for various AP programs.

The incentive approach also has gained popularity in Texas with the work of the O’Donnell Foundation. The foundation began working with small school districts south of Dallas about ten years ago, offering $100 to students for each AP exam they passed, as well as $100 to the student’s teacher and $100 to the school.

The program was transported to ten Dallas city schools in 1995. In that time, according to Paul Williamson, O’Donnell’s outgoing director of AP programs, the schools witnessed a sharp increase in the number of AP exams taken—from 140 exams a year to more than 2,000 exams this spring.

When it recently increased annual spending on AP from $1.3 million to $11 million, Texas’ legislature allotted $2 to $3 million in “reward” money for schools where students pass AP exams.

It is a strategy that some educators question, however. “It’s sort of a slippery slope,” said David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. “This is basic curriculum. Are we going to start offering people $50 for teaching kids algebra in the seventh grade?”

But Evelyn Hiatt, senior director of advanced academic services in Texas, said the AP incentives will encourage schools to improve their pre-AP offerings. “It’s incorrect to think this is an AP incentive alone. You can’t have good results on AP unless you have a strong middle and high school program,” she said.

Two states have tried mandating that schools offer AP courses. Virginia requires high schools to offer at least two of the courses, according to the College Board. And since 1994, Indiana has expected schools to provide the full array of math and science courses.

The Indiana statute is not fully enforced, since schools can exempt themselves by claiming they have no “qualified students,” according to Bob Schweitzer, a state educational official. However, Schweitzer said, parents and students have successfully used the law to pressure their high schools to provide more AP offerings.

Under California’s proposed program, some 400 schools would be eligible for AP Challenge Grants of $75,000 over four years. The money would go first to schools with three or fewer AP classes, followed by schools with no AP math or science classes, schools with low college going rates, and schools with a majority of low income students.

Awarded schools would be expected to offer four of the courses in core curriculum areas like English, math and science by the 2001–’02 school year.

Amidst all this activity, it is generally assumed that Advanced Placement is a high quality academic program.

But questions do persist. For example, the National Research Council began an evaluation of AP math and science exams after a study revealed that U.S. AP students did not fare as well as advanced level students from other countries.

And some experts wonder whether the very emphasis on AP courses has become disproportionate.

“It’s not clear to me that saying every school needs to have AP courses is serving these students,” said Kim Reuben, an economist with the Public Policy Institute of California. “You can decide to offer calculus, but it’s not clear that’s where your teacher should go instead of teaching another algebra class.”

Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., also advises caution when it comes to AP: “If you actually look at overall data, the fastest growing part of the high school curriculum these days is AP,” she said. “At the same time, the fastest growing part of the college curriculum is remedial courses. Does this really make sense?

&“We’d be better off agreeing on where high school ends and college begins…and get that right before we get carried away. When kids are ready for college-level work, have them take college classes. Why is AP the answer?”

Evelyn Hiatt of Texas acknowledges that college courses generally can provide the same advanced-level work as AP classes. Indeed, AP was designed to substitute for college work.

“We don’t really take a stand that one is better than the other,” said Hiatt. However, she and others noted that AP and International Baccalaureate have the advantage of being standardized nationally (or internationally).

That is the very reason why Fairtest, a national organization that opposes the use of the SAT in college admissions, has not targeted AP. Though the organization agrees that minorities need better access to the courses, it has little complaint about the tests themselves.

“As courses and exams go, AP is designed in the right manner,” said Bob Schaeffer, Fairtest’s public education director. “The standards and curriculum are well-publicized. It does create a level playing field. You know that kids are being assessed on the same curriculum as everyone else in the country.”

Some teachers say they prefer not to teach AP courses, because the curriculum is so closely tied to the exam that there is little room for creativity on the part of students or teachers.

That is something that has worried Greg Schwartz’ U.S. History teacher at Palo Alto High, Meredith Warren. “Sometimes I have to shut down a good conversation in my class because we’re on a time-table. I sometimes envy the luxury of the teachers who can spend an extra day because the interest is there,” she said.

  Palo Alto (CA) High School history teacher Meredith Warren worries that Advanced Placement classes are too prescriptive, allowing teachers and students little room for creativity.

Warren makes a point of balancing out her class with oral presentations, and she insists on teaching important topics—the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, for example—even though she knows they won’t be on the exam.

A 13-year veteran of AP, she is one of Palo Alto High’s most highly regarded teachers. She clearly delights in challenging her students, and takes pride that most years about half of her students score 5 on the AP exam. And unlike some teachers, she said she doesn’t discourage class laggards from sitting for the test just to boost the class record.

Nevertheless, Warren agrees that the AP craze can be taken too far. “Sometimes kids want to take too many, or sometimes their parents have this idea that the kids have to have 20 APs on their record. That’s a fight I fight all the time,” she said.

It’s a fight that Sara Shaw and her university bound classmates at Gustine would have loved a chance to have fought.

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