I recently read an interesting article in our cities’ newspaper about how some local school districts earned advanced placement honors. As everyone knows by now I am a huge supporter of advanced placement (AP) and increasing the AP offerings and opportunities but at the same time I have some major concerns with what we have been doing in Attleboro for the past three years, so I of course took special notice of this article.
I was getting ready to wrap up my series on Attleboro's Advanced Placement, having previously written an introduction article, and one for all subject areas (Math, Science, ELA, Social Studies), when I had received word back from Chairman Mike Tyler that he wanted me to serve on the Superintendent Search Committee, which I of course readily agreed to. Because I was serving on that Committee I felt that I should hold off on finishing my AP article series. Now that my responsibility of serving on that Steering Committee has been met I’ve been looking to get back to the series when I saw this article, so I thought today that I would take a harder look at this article and how it applies to this whole AP discussion.
So according to the article ‘five area school districts were named to College Board’s AP District Honor Roll for increasing access to advanced placement courses and improving scores in Advanced Placement tests’. When I first saw the title of the article I assumed that Attleboro was going to be one of the recipients, but the article pointed out that it was North Attleboro, Dighton-Rehoboth Regional, King Philip Regional, Mansfield and Seekonk that ‘were among 539 districts throughout the United States and Canada selected for the third annual honor roll’ (I believe that Norton is named as well).
Attleboro was notably not listed. And knowing how much the increase in student participation has been over the past couple of years I found this surprising. This got me curious as to what the criteria is to receive this honor. So I went to the College Board website to try to find some information. For those who may not know College Board (from their website) ‘promotes excellence and equity in education through programs for K-12 and higher education institutions, and by providing students a path to college opportunities, including financial support and scholarships’. But really, as it relates to this article, they are the organization that defines the AP programs and writes and administers the AP exam for each course. Actually, from their website, they define the AP program as this:
“(AP®) enables willing and academically prepared students to pursue college-level studies — with the opportunity to earn college credit, advanced placement or both — while still in high school.”
Please note my emphasis on their use of “academically prepared students”, which will become important later and in the coming weeks…
So when I looked on their website I found the criteria needed to be awarded this honor. Here is a list of what a district must do in order to meet the requirements:
“Inclusion on the 3rd Annual AP District Honor Roll is based on the examination of three years of AP data, from 2010 to 2012 for the following criteria:”
#1) “Increase participation/access to AP by at least 4 percent in large districts, at least 6 percent in medium districts and at least 11 percent in small districts;”
#2) “Ensure that the percentage of African American, Hispanic/Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native students taking AP Exams did not decrease by more than 5 percent for large and medium districts or by more than 10 percent for small districts;”
#3) “Improve performance levels when comparing the percentage of students in 2012 scoring a 3 or higher to those in 2010, unless the district has already attained a performance level in which more than 70 percent of the AP students are scoring a 3 or higher.”
So let’s look at #1. The first question is whether Attleboro is considered a large or a medium district due to our almost 6000 students. I wasn’t actually able to find this answer, but knowing the amount of increased participation over the years I don’t think this is going to matter. Back in 2010 Attleboro had 177 students taking 288 courses. The way I interpret this requirement College Board considers a 4% (for large districts) or a 6% (for medium districts), increase since 2010 to be outstanding. A 6% increase for us would be 11 additional students for a total of 188. So how much has Attleboro increased participation since 2010? Well, last year Attleboro had 301 students taking 451 courses. That actually equates to a 70% increase! So College Board is looking for a 4% or 6% increase over the past 2 years and we have had a 70% increase! I think it’s safe to say that we met this requirement!
Requirement #2 is much more difficult to research since the break down of student ethnicity is not provided readily. But I think it is more than safe to say that the percentage of these student groups did not decrease by more than 5% when we increased participation by 70%! I think it’s safe to say that we met this requirement!
Now for requirement #3. This is the area that I have expressed concern with for the past three years… performance. This one is based on the final exam score that each student takes as part of taking the course. This is a standardized, national exam and again, according to the College Board website, should be indicative of the knowledge that a student has gained over the year in taking this college level course. As I have explained in my other articles, this exam is graded from a 1 to a 5 and a score of 3 or higher is considered qualifying. So for this requirement the district must simply improve performance from 2010 to 2012 when comparing the percentage of students scoring a 3 or higher. Seems simple enough… So what has Attleboro done?
Well this one is also a bit difficult to calculate. I have the results of the exams for all of the courses that were taken, but that doesn’t take into account how a large percentage of the students took more than one course. For example, back in 2010 we had 181 courses passed out of 288 courses, but the student to course ratio was 1.6. In 2011 we had 237 courses passed out of 421, and the course to student ratio remained stagnant at 1.6. And then last year we had 291 courses passed of 451, with a course to student ratio of 1.5.
Of course these ratios don’t tell the whole story. For example, the increase in courses from 2011 to last year was 30, but how many of those 301 students were taking two courses, or three courses or possibly even four? And the way I understand the College Board requirement is if one student took four courses and passed all of them they would count as one student pass for the statistic. At the same time if a student took four courses and only passed one of the four they would still count towards a pass, which would actually make reaching this goal easier.
Now if you further look at the trending of the individual courses over the past three years, which I covered extensively in my previous articles, it seems apparent that Attleboro’s performance of students receiving passing final exam scores has not increased and has likely dropped much more than we understand. In fact, one statistic that was provided in the article was that only 21.5% of Attleboro’s students received qualifying scores of 3 or higher last year. Not sure where this statistic came from but if true the fact that almost 80% of Attleboro’s AP students are not receiving a grade on the final exam that would equate to a passing course grade (College Board explains that a final exam score of 3 equates to around a C course grade knowledge, an exam grade of 4 equates to around a B course grade knowledge, and an exam score of 5 equates to around an A course grade knowledge) is, or at least should be, concerning.
Of course part of this whole AP philosophical debate is just how important that final standardized, national exam is. But over and over this is what is being used by almost everyone to define a success. There seems to be a reason why the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education tracks exam grade and defines a 1 or a 2 as “failing” and an exam grade of 3 or higher as “passing”. There seems to be a reason why colleges want to see a student receiving at least an exam score of 3 to receive college credit, and how many colleges will only accept exam scores of 4 or 5 for a student to receive credit. And since this is one of the specific requirements that College Board uses to define who is awarded the distinction of being on the AP District Honor Roll, well it seems that this is much more important than has been indicated.
Now a few weeks ago I attended an AP discussion at the High School that was really nothing more than a way for the administration to let us know that next year 11th and 12th grades will no longer have the Honors level of curriculum. In fact, this is exactly the issue that I have with what Attleboro has, and it seems will continue to do. We keep removing options for our students, which is usually never a good thing. I think I may end up writing an article about this meeting and what we were informed, and the concerns that were raised by numerous parents, before I finally get around the concluded my series on Attleboro’s AP. But I do want to indicate that I raised my concern of student performance and was told that this final exam score was not as important as I believed, but in relation to that I want to once again point out that one of the requirements from College Board to be named to their Honor Roll was to "Improve performance levels when comparing the percentage of students in 2012 scoring a 3 or higher". Seems that that exam score is pretty important to them!
In summary, I think that this article once again shows how important student performance is to this whole AP topic. Over and over we are being shown the increase in the number of students taking AP in Attleboro, but the percentage of these students succeeding, as shown by this final exam, is always missing. That’s an issue in and of itself and I think the fact that the College Board themselves, the organization that is pretty much in charge of the AP program, define this final exam as such an important criteria just shows that we should as well.
So why were North Attleboro, Seekonk and Norton given the distinction of being on the College Board AP District Honor Roll and Attleboro wasn’t? Well it’s pretty much what I’ve said all along, as we have dramatically increased the number of students taking AP courses we are not having the increased successful performance that we should expect and demand.
To me it is a shame that what could have been such an amazingly positive thing for Attleboro was not done in a way to allow it to be. Ultimately I wish that the article that I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion was about how Attleboro was recently honored with the distinction of being on the College Board AP District Honor Roll for increasing access and performance, but that is unfortunately not the case.