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Attleboro's AP: Equity or Excellence (Part 2)

The conclusion to the discussion on the continuation of dropping more Honors level courses and replacing them with Advanced Placement courses. Is this trend in the best interest of our children?

So last time I discussed the recent presentation at the January 9th School Committee meeting about dropping more Honors courses and increasing the Advanced Placement courses at the High School. 

I provided a summary as to what the difference is between our current three tiers of instruction (College Prep., Honors and Advanced Placement) and explained how, from the various studies I have read and Attleboro’s own results; it is beneficial to have all three of these levels.  Since the trend in Attleboro has been and continues to be the loss of the Honors level in order to make room for more Advanced Placement (college level) I am concerned about the detrimental effects this will have to our students.  At the end of Part 1 I argued that the Honors level of course offerings are extremely important for our children and that the idea of continuing to lose Honors for more Advanced Placement is a slippery slope, but I don’t normally like making statements of that nature without backing them up with qualitative and quantitative information.

So, let’s look at some data to back up my concerns. First we need to define “success” in regard to Advanced Placement.  In my opinion the College Board (the national organization that performs the AP testing and tracks the data) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has already defined “success” as they present the data in two columns, students failing (scoring a 1 or a 2) and students passing (getting a 3, 4 or 5) on the final exam.

Now, is it reasonable to expect ALL students taking AP to obtain a passing score? Probably not, and that is why again there is some value in a score of 2 out of 5, as discussed last time. Even one of the English teachers at that January 9th meeting explained, with what I would call some level of pride, how none of the ELA AP students get a score of 1. That statement alone shows the value in these test scores. So what would most agree to as a percentage of passing scores that would be a success for the district? Would you want 90% of students passing, maybe minimally 80% of students passing? Is 75% the minimum you would want to see?

So here’s a graph from the 2009-2010 school year showing the results overall and broken down by class offering:

Subject

Tests Taken

% Score 1-2

% Score 3-5

All Subjects

348

35.1

64.9

<English Language Arts>

88

21.6

78.4

English Lang/Comp

68

23.5

76.5

English Lit/Comp

20

15

85

<History and Social Science>

45

13.3

86.7

Govt & Pol: U.S.

3

 

 

History: U.S.

41

7.3

92.7

Psychology

1

 

 

<Math and Computer Science>

115

47

53

Calculus AB

64

56.3

43.8

Calculus BC

26

38.5

61.5

Statistics

25

32

68

<Science and Technology>

100

43

57

Biology

29

37.9

62.1

Chemistry

49

59.2

40.8

Environmental Sci

1

 

 

Physics B

21

14.3

85.7

 

I’m using the 2009-10 school year data because last year’s district data, broken down by class/exam, is not yet available.

What I found from these results is very telling. First that the ELA and History/Social Science students (and these were the teachers in attendance on January 9th) are doing pretty good.  And personally I believe that these teachers should be praised for what they are accomplishing. With 85% getting passing grades in English Literature and 76.5% in English Language I would say that that is a success!  But I would not want to see that percentage diluted. History and Social Science students are doing amazing with 92.7% getting passing grades of 3 or higher.

But, as often seems to be the case in Attleboro, it’s the Math/Computer Science and Science and Technology students who seem to be struggling overall. With only 43.8% of the students getting passing grades in Calculus AB and a dismal 40.8% in Chemistry I would say this is a major area of concern. It seems obvious that we have too many students, who are obviously not ready for this level of rigor, taking these classes.

In the opinion section of the part 1 discussion someone had mentioned the national AP distribution, or the percentages of students who received a passing score of 3, 4 or 5 out of 5, broken down by class, for the entire nation.  Now although I do agree that national data is usually a good reference, being that we live in New England, and New England is known for having one of the highest (if not the highest) standards for public education in the nation, I would expect to see Attleboro’s students receiving passing score percentages well beyond that of the national average.

So again, the district data from last year is not yet available broken down by class/exam, so what I did do was compare the national distribution data from the 2009/2010 school year to Attleboro’s data from the same year.  In some cases Attleboro is doing well, while in others Attleboro is doing very poorly.  For example, nationally students who took English Language and English Literature received passing scores 60.8% and 57.4% of the time, while Attleboro’s students surpassed that with 76.5% and 85%.  I believe that this is very positive results and as explained above, these teachers should be commended, but again I would not want to see this diminished by taking away more honors level while encouraging more students, who are not ready for college level instruction, to give AP a try.  At the same time, looking at Calculus AB, Calculus BC and Chemistry nationally students are passing these 55.7%, 82.8% and 55% of the time, while Attleboro’s students received passing scores for these classes 43.8%, 61.5% and 40.8% of the time.  This data seems to substantiate the conclusions that I have presented. 

But this is from over a year ago, back from the 2009-2010 school year. I also have some general numbers from last year, 2010-2011. The percentage of Attleboro’s students receiving passing scores dropped from 64.9% to 55.9%. So why the almost double-digit drop? Well last year the administration did the same thing as the previous year, dropped some Honors and “encouraged” more students to try Advanced Placement.

Back in the 2009-2010 school year there were 348 tests/classes taken. This increased to 417 tests/classes last year in 2010-2011. That’s a 69 test/class increase, which seems like a great thing and is, of course, presented as such. But how many more passing scores did this increase result in? Well in 2009-2010 there were 226 passing scores of 3-5 and after the 69 test/class increase in 2010-2011 there were 233. Think about that for a moment…

We had to increase the quantity of AP classes/tests by 69 in order to increase the quantity of passing scores by 7. That’s about 10% passing, or nine out of ten new students/classes failing! Seems obvious that we have gone too far already as the increase in participation isn’t resulting in an acceptible level of success…

But why is Attleboro doing this? Well two and a half years ago Attleboro was awarded a new four year grant. This was from the Massachusetts Math and Science Initiative (MMSI). From their website, their mission is drive a school culture of high expectations and dramatically increase participation and performance in Advanced Placement courses, particularly among underserved populations, to prepare students for college and career success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It is also indicated that the program’s success is evaluated in three measureable ways.

1.  Increased participation: Greater student enrollment in Math, Science and English AP courses. (Attleboro is a “shining star” in this category)

2.  Increased Performance: More qualifying scores (scores of 3, 4 or 5) on AP examinations. (Depends on how you measure this. By straight numbers we’re up, but by percentage not so much)

3.  Increased College Success: More students matriculating to and graduating from college. (No data has been presented on this category – so who knows?)

In many ways MMSI seems to measure success the same way that I do and I want to note how even they point to the passing scores of 3, 4 or 5. And the initial results noted by MMSI throughout the Commonwealth are impressive.

The problem is that at some point you need to realize that you’ve reached your goal and that going further will start to hurt the students. In our first year Attleboro made some significant gains in some areas, but I would definitely argue that having less than 41% of the students receiving a passing score in AP Chemistry, or 43.8% in Calculus AB is very poor. There should have been immediate revamping to fix this.

The various research papers that I have read have much to say on this topic, and as with any philosophical debate there is much on both sides. Here are some quotes from various discussions, articles and research that I have seen:

“It is a false sense of “opportunity for all” that diminishes what the AP Program should be about. While some might argue that the democratization allows students exposure to these subjects at a higher level, the reality is how many of these students are actually achieving real success or just the benefit of an inflated floor grade.”

This next statement was from a reader for the national scoring session of the exam for a number of years

“Over a week’s time I read and scored many papers without knowing the schools or school districts represented, and I grew more appalled each year at the overall quality of the exams. The only way to describe it is to say that many of these students taking the exam had such an obviously poor command of written language they needed remedial writing instruction, not AP. While it is noble to encourage all who are capable and want to work hard to take accelerated classes, it is a sham for school districts to have classes labeled as AP and then have to water down the material to the degree that makes the label pointless. During my last year as a reader of the AP exam I came to think of the exam for many thousands as simply an exercise in futility—not to mention an absolute waste of time and money for ETS/College Board which spends huge sums to house and fee and pay readers each year.”

Here’s another one that touches on a concern that many have indicated as an issue throughout the commonwealth and maybe even in Attleboro with regard to MCAS:

“Frankly, the only way to address those students was to teach to the test and endlessly drill them on past AP questions. Often they passed the exam, but I wondered whether they had actually learned.”

So what are the concerns of continuing down this path?

I would imagine that most would agree that we don’t want to see Attleboro’s AP courses watered down, but that is what has happened in some other districts. If students who are not truly ready for AP are encouraged to “challenge” themselves then there could be a tendency to slow down the course in order to keep those struggling students in the mix. This would hurt the advanced students who are not struggling and who are truly ready for AP. Or those struggling students might be left in the dust while the teacher and the students who are ready for the rigors of college continue at the appropriate pace in order to cover all of the material by the exam.

Another concern might be how hard these struggling students would have to work for even the slightest chance at keeping up. Would that affect their extra curricula activities? Would that hurt their other required studies?

And although college admissions officers want to see students challenging themselves they also want to see the students succeeding. And if only around 40% of students are receiving a passing grade in an AP class I would say that in the eyes of the colleges the other 60% are not succeeding. The administration has explained that when a student takes an AP course and receives a failing grade on the exam that it doesn’t have to be reported to the College admissions officers, which is true from what I have read, but at the same time students who receive a passing score do provide that score to the college admissions officers. Now college admissions officers are smart people. They can figure out that a student who took an AP class, but didn’t provide their score, did not pass the test; it’s kind of an obvious thing. This actually could end up hurting some students, who may have been able to take the added challenge of an Honors level course and received a good grade, but because that level was removed they were forced to try AP instead.

In many ways what Attleboro seems to be doing by continuing to remove Honors classes and replace them with more and more AP, while continuing to encourage more and more students into giving it the old “college try” (pun intended), even though the data shows this will only lead to very few new passing scores and much more new failing scores, is similar to the concept of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. My problem with that is what usually happens to the spaghetti that fell on the floor?

So how could this be solved?

Well first, we could stop deleting Honors level courses, which will maintain a challenging level of education that is valued by college admissions.

We could bring back the Honors level for the classes where students are not passing the AP final exam at what is defined, by the School Committee, as acceptable percentages.

But probably most importantly, no matter which way this concern is alleviated, is the need for prerequisites to be able to take AP. A college level course needs to have “gate keeping”. You can’t just allow a student to take such a demanding course (again, remember, it’s supposed to be college level instruction) just because they, or their parents, or a staff member, feels that maybe they can do it. There needs to be an established prerequisite and it can’t just be a recommendation by a staff member who, due to participation in a grant and how an increase in numbers looks good for the district (because of how the data is presented), is being encouraged to encourage. This prerequisite needs to be measurable and final and for that reason I believe strongly that for each of the 12 AP classes a prerequisite exam needs to be developed and implemented.

Now at the January 9th meeting the new School Committee did not vote to approve this plan to drop more Honors as they should have (meaning change of this nature should be made by the School Committee). But they also need to understand that past precedence shows that the administration is taking that presentation to equal approval, even though nothing was approved. Massachusetts’ laws and regulations are very specific in that the school district curriculum, and changes to curriculum, is the responsibility of the School Committee. And the School Committee has absolute responsibility for policies and it is through policy that the governing body informs the administration and the staff as to how things are to be done. This new Committee has the opportunity to realize that this continued non gate-keeping methodology for AP is not in the best interest of Attleboro’s children.  It needs to be determined which Honors levels need to be reinstated.  And there needs to be goals related to passing exam score percentages so the administration can be held accountable. We can’t keep allowing the administration to only present the participation numbers without having to back that up with success. Without these things more and more students will be encouraged to do something that they are not ready to do. I want to see our students challenging themselves AND I want to see our students succeeding, but I don’t want to see our students being set up to fail.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jim Stors February 07, 2012 at 03:59 PM
In fact I made a point in my first article about how originally I took issue with the high percentage of students receiving a 2, but after discussions with fellow Committee members and the admin I came to realize the value in a score of 2. Some students may not be good test takers, for example. But the main point is what colleges want to see. They want to see the student challenging themselves and they want to see success. A failing score of 1 or 2 is not success, even if the student may have gotten something out of the class. Could that same student have gotten something out of an Honors class in that same subject and possibly received a grade of A? Wouldn't an Honors course help prepare a student for college while not putting undue stress on them? AMor, although I have not seen a survey of students, I personally have talked with students, over the past two years, who were and who had taken AP, and discussed many things. I talked to them about the kids getting 1's and 2's, whether the teacher has to slow down the class for these kids, or just leave them in the dust, and much more. I have also, as I explained in the article, read many different articles and studies on the subject on both sides of the debate. So my concerns are based on a lot of information. If you are interested, here is a link to an interesting article on the subject: http://www.npr.org/2011/04/25/135710864/op-ed-advanced-placement-isnt-for-every-student
Fact Checker February 07, 2012 at 08:27 PM
AMor: you raise valid points and are an excellent example that students can learn but not necessarily test well. Your case also supports what I feel the overall goal high school education should be, to prepare students for college. The fact that you went on to do well in college is supportive that you did learn in high school. Unfortunately, your situation does not support the overall goal of Mr. Stors, which is to do whatever he can to make the district look badly. His attempts are shrouded but we learned a great deal during his term in office about his true goals. Everyone has good attributes and bad, myself especially. If Mr. Stors was ever to acknowledge some of the many good accomplishments of the current administration, his argument would have far more credibility. I do not agree 100 percent with any administration and do not expect Mr. Stors to either. By the very same measure, I do believe that the district is in a better position today, with all of the problems it has, than when the current administration took over. The myopic attributes of Mr. Stors are why he lost my vote.
Jim Stors February 07, 2012 at 10:13 PM
I appreciate Fact Checker's points and agree with much of what he/she has to say. I agree that some students may be able to learn, but not test well. I agree that the overall goal of high school should be to prepare students for college. I also totally agree that the Attleboro Public School District is in a better position today than it was six or seven years ago. This is not something that I have ever questioned. In fact if you look at my track record the far majority of the time I supported the initiatives and programs of the school district, including but not limited to advanced placement. I have always tried to be fair, as could be seen by my eveluation of the administration. Areas where I felt were exceeded I gave perfect scores, while in areas where I thought there were issues I gave what I felt was an appropriate score. In my opinion that is much better than a rubber stamping member giving perfect scores across the board because she thought that she needed to compensate for other members. Even with this issue, I truly support AP, as long as it doesn't go too far. But I also support Honors, which is the main point here. My goal has never been to "make the district look badly". My goal has been and continues to be to try to ensure that things are done the right way, parents and families are properly represented, things are done transparently and fairly, and that the citizens are informed on issues that affect Attleboro's children.
Jerry Chase February 08, 2012 at 05:01 PM
As a former School Committee representative, I am very impressed with Jim Stors' presentations here, both part one and part two. Let it be noted that here is a man who remains very much concerned about public education in Attleboro. I have never heard or read anything by ANY current or former school committee representative that demonstrates so much rational thought, diligent research, and honest passion. Jim Stors also rightly points out the legal requirement for the Committee to establish policy for the administration to follow----not the other way around. He also fairly critiques the nefarious effects of mis-implementation(s) of "initiatives". I remain FAR more impressed with Jim Stors than I am with the current public school superintendent. The best way to improve Attleboro schools would be to install HIM immediately as the new schools superintendent. G. F. Chase
Fact Checker February 08, 2012 at 05:10 PM
Your honor, the defense rests.

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