September 30, 2019

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GUEST POST: Advanced Placement: A low-key engine of school renewal

With Congress in recess we are giving you a break from our usual Hill-related content and sharing a great read from our friends Chester E. Finn, Jr. & Andrew E. Scanlan at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. 

The glum news that average SAT scores dropped again this year finds the College Board again trying to explain that the fall is due to more and more diverse students taking these tests. That may be partly true but it doesn’t solve the problem of under preparedness for what follow high school. Nor is SAT necessarily the best gauge to use. While its scores signal that a student is (or isn’t) ready to enter college, the Advanced Placement (AP) program, also run by the College Board, helps students master college-level courses before they even get there. 

Six decades old and now engaging nearly three million students who sit for some five million exams every year, AP has quietly worked its way into the offerings of most U.S. public and private high schools, the policies of many states and districts, the admissions and placement decisions of hundreds of universities, the educational aspirations of countless families, and the academic programs of innumerable college students. As we explore in our new book, Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present and Future of Advanced Placement, preparing these young people to succeed on the tests (scored from 1 to 5, with 3 or better deemed “qualifying”) is a major objective for teachers, students, and families, as well as education leaders who view a robust AP program as a key component of a topflight school system.

District and school leaders have plenty of reasons to offer AP and encourage more young people to take its courses. But what makes AP stand out from all the other reforms, interventions, and silver bullets, including such competitors as dual credit? We count four big advantages in embracing AP.

First, its successful completion yields tangible benefits for the young people who participate, particularly those who also score at least a 3 on the exams. Achieving such a “qualifying score” gives youngsters a good shot at arriving in college with credit already established and/or waiving out of boring freshmen courses—possibly earning their degrees faster and cheaper. Participants gain valuable study skills and may get a welcome boost in their admissions odds, perhaps including better colleges than they would otherwise have applied to. Its courses are also an antidote to senior-year boredom, a source of stimulation and rigor for high-achieving students, and a source of confidence that yes, one is indeed “college material.”

Second, many teachers find valuable colleagueship, professional development, and intellectual stimulation from a nationwide AP network that includes peers in thousands of schools as well as university professors. They get together in June to score the exams; they take part in week-long summer workshops; and their participation in lively virtual networks offers myriad ways to compare notes, pick up tips, borrow lesson plans, and get suggestions for additional research by students who want to dig deeper. It’s not unusual to hear teachers say that an AP workshop rejuvenated and enhanced their work as educators and some go back again and again.

Third, Advanced Placement is private, run by the non-profit, non-partisan College Board and thus largely immune to political infighting. It’s not imposed by the federal or state government, and many superintendents and principals have come to view it as an effective tool for improving education at the system and building levels—a toning up effect on entire high schools that, if well-orchestrated, may trigger improvements in “feeder” middle schools as well. Besides better serving smart kids and conferring additional curricular choices, it contributes to raising academic standards and rigor; attracting and retaining eager, knowledgeable teachers; and developing curricula and assessments that can be compared across districts and states. Above all, AP has become a serious player in the national effort to enhance educational opportunities—and a real booster rocket for disadvantaged youngsters.

Fourth, Advanced Placement has always included an external exam that’s anonymously scored and it has successfully maintained a “gold standard” of rigor even as it comes closer than anything else to a high-quality national curriculum at the high-school level. Its expectations are the same in rural Kansas as in the suburbs of Boston. Indeed, the most oft-heard response of politicians is, “We want more of it in more schools and we want more kids to participate in it.” Yet politicians have essentially no role in what it teaches, how it tests, or who scores what.

 We heard time and time again from superintendents and principals that a well-functioning AP program can be an engine of high-school improvement that raises expectations among staff, students, and families. But that doesn’t make it easy to maintain a robust AP program in one’s school or district. Much else needs to be aligned, perhaps above all a culture of inclusion, rigor, and academic seriousness, plus stable, committed leadership and eager, well-prepared teachers. Even then, it’s far easier to offer the courses than to help kids prepare to ace the May exams—a challenge that’s intensified if middle schools are lacking and youngsters’ outside lives are fraught.

 Going big on AP also poses resource trade-offs and priority issues for schools and districts. Should they instead do more for low achievers? Upgrade their CTE offerings rather than trying to boost more kids into college? Focus on dual credit instead? Can they muster the human resources to do AP well, including teacher buy-in and committed school leadership? Mandates from the superintendent set the wheels in motion but it takes plenty more to ensure swift and responsive movement on the ground.

 Fortunately, experienced outside organizations can help implant a successful AP program, particularly in high schools serving poor and minority youngsters. Groups such as the National Math and Science Initiative, Equal Opportunity Schools, and MassInsight Education have excellent track records working with school leaders, developing teachers, raising expectations, encouraging more kids to join in, and helping them to succeed. Often supported by a mix of private philanthropy and district resources, they can be great allies—as evidenced in several case studies of AP expansion efforts that we describe in the book.

Advanced Placement is more than college-level courses during high school: It can equalize opportunities and narrow the “excellence gap”; strengthen the country’s human capital and future competitiveness; and create upward mobility for able young people from disadvantaged circumstances while challenging high-ability youngsters from every sort of background. That’s a rare success story in the annals of education reform—and we need all of those we can get. 

Finn is a distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Scanlan is a research and policy associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.


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