Expanding access to advanced placement

The New York Times reports on an interesting program in the urban, high-poverty Newark, NJ school district: a summer institute to prepare students for challenging advanced placement (AP) courses. Expanding the access to AP is part of a larger conversation on increasing rigor for all students; at the CUBE Summer Issues forum I attended several weeks ago it was a major topic. The Times reports:

While high-performing suburban schools have long pushed A.P. courses, even struggling districts like Newark are seeking to enroll more students in courses that have virtually become a prerequisite for admission to the most selective colleges and are routinely used to determine rankings of the best public schools. As A.P. has spread to more schools in recent years, a growing number have developed a full menu of support activities, like summer readings and boot camps, to prepare students for the fast-paced curriculum.

In San Francisco we have restructured the honors curriculum in our middle schools to make the honors track available to any student who wants to challenge themselves,  and I supported that move. I do, however, remain troubled that we have two “tracks” at all — shouldn’t we expect rigor for everyone?  Procedures for enrolling in Advanced Placement courses at SFUSD high schools differ according to the course and the high school, but we know that in general, not enough students in San Francisco have access to the rigorous curriculum and expectations AP courses represent.

At the CUBE forum, a member of the Austin, TX school board described her frustration when being told by a teacher that her students could not handle the rigor of AP courses. The board member said that in her view, it was most important for students to get in the habit of taking challenging courses, and that the expectations for students should be uniformly high. The consensus for a smaller breakout discussion after the panel was that taking challenging courses benefits students– even if  they ultimately do not get a passing score on the AP test. In Austin they have seen a significant increase in the number of students taking AP courses since beginning an initiative to expand access several years ago.

Austin’s initiatives have focused on three areas:  “laying the ground” in middle schools to prepare students for rigor in high school; expanding teacher preparation by sending teachers to AP institutes over the summer; and expanding outreach to families through targeted district communications and volunteer “AP coordinators” (usually teachers who are enthusiastic about the program) at high schools and middle schools who act as evangelists for AP courses and support/encourage students to enroll.

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