Monday, January 04, 2010

Inequities found in area Advanced Placement course choices

This article highlights why Texas should utilize an Opportunity to Learn (OTL) index to measure schools rather than basing their performance on standardized test score (whether they be cut scores or growth in scores). What an OTL index would do is make the inequities mentioned in this article transparent and help us to see how we should be expanding the capacities of schools and in what ways. It also removes the onus of low HS completion rates, college eligibility and enrollment from the student and places it on schools' levels of capacity to afford them opportunities that will facilitate them meeting their academic goals.

There is a body of research on OTL, and areas where this approach is used. Check out the UC-ACCORD / IDEA consortium as well as the Forum for Education and Democracy. These are the kinds of efforts that put equity at the forefront and distance us from the punitive approaches that simply don't work for students; especially poor, minority students.


BY DIANE RADO / The Dallas Morning News
December 7, 2009

Second of two parts

By the time she graduates, senior Cindy Santillan will have taken 21 college-level Advanced Placement courses at the School of Science and Engineering at Townview – a feat made possible by the extraordinary menu of courses offered at her high school.

From Latin, to microeconomics, to art history, to an array of rigorous math and science courses, the 400 students at the magnet school can pick from 30 AP subjects – more than any other high school in Dallas. In the North Texas region, only the much-larger Plano Senior and Plano West Senior high schools offer as many AP choices.

The AP courses are key in building impressive transcripts and giving students an advantage in the competitive college admissions process. Students who pass AP exams can also earn college credit and save themselves thousands in tuition dollars.

But the world of AP is not an equal one, with some students exposed to a wide breadth of offerings and others to a meager slate. The affluence of a school's student body is a key factor related to the number of AP subjects offered, a Dallas Morning News review has found.

Exacerbating the inequities, many schools are finding other options for students to earn college credit in high school without having to take AP courses or exams. And incentive programs that attracted disadvantaged students to AP are drying up.

At Dallas' Adamson High School, low-income Hispanic students are often striving to become the first generation in their families to go to college, according to AP coordinator Tammy McLean. But the school offers only eight AP subjects – and nothing too fancy like Latin, economics or high-level science.

"I'd love to have more offerings," said McLean. Students have asked about taking higher-level science AP courses such as physics or chemistry, but the school offers only AP biology. They've also asked about taking AP psychology, she said, but the answer is always the same: Adamson doesn't offer that.

The College Board's 2009-10 database of schools and their AP offerings was made public in November, but schools can update the information through January.

A Dallas Morning News analysis of the subjects offered at 150 public and private schools in Dallas and the North Texas region shows the following:

•The vaunted Highland Park High School, and top suburban high schools in Plano, Richardson, Frisco and Coppell school districts have 25 or more AP courses to offer their students. In contrast, many of Dallas' lowest-performing high schools have just a handful of AP course offerings.

•On average, 18 AP subjects are offered at the 140 public schools reviewed in the College Board database. The average is the same for 10 of the largest private high schools in the Dallas region.

•At the 20 public schools with the most AP offerings in the Dallas region, 19 percent of students are low-income, compared with 62 percent of students at schools with the lowest number of subjects offered.

Attracting teachers

The uneven distribution doesn't surprise Trevor Packer, the vice president who oversees Advanced Placement at the College Board.

"I can't imagine you wouldn't find that same trend around the country," Packer said. "That is exactly the sort of information that needs to be on the front page ... that traditionally underserved schools have fewer resources and less of a college-going culture, and historically are not providing the same level of access [to AP courses] as other schools."

Educators say it's tough to attract teachers to teach AP at low-performing schools filled with disadvantaged kids.

McLean, the AP coordinator at Adamson, said the school lost its AP biology class for a few years because a teacher left to go to a school where he could exclusively teach students in honors classes. That would be a luxury for teachers in high-poverty urban schools.

Stacey McMullen, a veteran AP calculus teacher in the Dallas district who teaches in high-poverty schools, said: "No one remembers these kids, and these kids are just as important in the life of the country."

She gets teary talking about the end of a privately funded AP incentive program at eight Dallas high schools, where students could get $500 for passing an AP exam. The program ended in 2009.

McMullen recalls one boy who passed his 2009 English AP exam and was elated to get the $500 – for himself and his whole family. "We're going to make the house payment," he told McMullen.

Other incentive programs are coming to a close in 2010, as the Dallas Independent School District works on reshaping its AP course offerings.

Liliana Valadez, executive director of DISD's college readiness department, said the district's strategy will be to ensure that schools offer at least a core set of AP classes. Some high schools will specialize in certain AP courses.

Across the region, some high schools are dropping AP courses, in a pragmatic and philosophical shift in thinking about whether AP courses are the best alternative for some students. The Dallas Morning News reported Sunday that 54 percent of AP exams taken by Texas public high school students this year received failing scores – even higher than the national failure rate.

At South Garland High School, almost half the students are low-income and only 11 percent of its AP exam takers for the Class of 2008 got passing marks.

Dual-credit program

Counselor and former AP coordinator Carmen Clark said the school has eliminated some AP courses, including German, due to lack of student interest. At the same time, it has pumped up a dual-credit program that allows students to enroll in college classes and get both high school and college credit if they pass.

Not all educators are fans of the dual-credit program, saying the courses are less rigorous than AP classes. But Clark said the it is giving students a broader opportunity to earn college credit and many students are choosing the option instead of AP.

"They can leave high school with 20 to 30 college credit hours," Clark said. "In this economy, that is really a plus for these kids."

Across Texas, dual credit has begun to spread after a new state law that required districts to offer programs that allow students to earn college credit, whether that be dual credit, AP or other avenues. Those programs were required to be in place by the fall of 2008.

Advanced Placement courses are rigorous college-level courses that aren't right for everyone. Parents should consider a number of factors in deciding whether to enroll their child.

Here's some advice gleaned from interviews from AP teachers Charles Tuttle and Kevin Carter, who teach at the School of Science and Engineering at Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center:

It's always best if the student is interested in a subject. So if your son loves history, put him in a history AP class. If your daughter has always hated English, it's probably not a good idea to put her in an AP English class.

Be realistic about your child's study habits. Is he or she ready to put in the effort that is required in rigorous AP classes? Does he or she usually complete homework on time and study for tests? If they don't have good study habits now, they will find themselves in trouble in an AP class.

If your student really wants to try AP, let him give it a try. Be aware of your school's requirements, though. If a student starts to falter, they may not be able to drop the course immediately. Don't pile up too many classes at once if your child is only in the stage of "I want to try AP."

Your child may not get straight A's in AP. Be prepared for a lower than perfect grade, especially if your child is just trying out AP. Weigh whether you'd rather have your child get an A in a regular-level high school course than a C in an AP course. College admissions officials do pay attention to AP classes on a student's transcript.

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