AP for average students

A Pittsburgh high school is “spreading the AP gospel” to average students, not just the high achievers, reports the New York Times. Brashear High, a school with “middling” performance, is collaborating with the National Math and Science Initiative, to get more students to take AP classes — and pass AP exams.

Brashear has offered A.P. classes in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, calculus and statistics, but few among the school’s 1,400 students excelled. Last year, of the 159 enrolled in those classes, nearly two-thirds did not even take the tests, which normally cost $89 each. (Because of subsidies by NMSI and the school, the fee this year is as low as $9.)

Just 10 students accounted for the 13 passing scores of 3 or higher. No Brashear student has passed the chemistry exam since 2010, or scored higher than 1 in statistics in the two years that course has been taught.

NMSI uses teacher training, student study sessions and cash incentives to raise test-taking and pass rates.

In the first year of NMSI’s help, the number of passing scores on science and math A.P. exams jumps by an average of 85 percent, according to data from the College Board, which administers the A.P. tests. By the end of the three-year effort, the number has nearly tripled, on average.

Students get $100 for a passing score of 3 or better on the AP exam. The teacher also gets $100 — plus a $1,000 bonus for reaching a target number of passing scores.

Many Brashear students are struggling in rigorous AP classes this year, reports the Times. However, Principal Kimberly Safran has turned down most requests to drop AP. “Parents are beginning to understand that the rigor of the course and having the tenacity to complete the course are important for success after high school,” she said.

Advocates say students don’t have to pass the AP exam to benefit from the challenge.

“We think 20 out of 40 passing physics is better than 10 out of 10,” NMSI’s Gregg Fleisher said. “What typically happens is our pass rate usually stays the same, but the kids that were in class that were passing at 30 percent, now they’ll pass at 50 or 60 percent. And the kids who were never given an opportunity would pass at 20 or 30 percent.”

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  1. momof4 says:

    My older kids’ HS was and is true to the original intent of APs; REAL elite-college-level work for those kids who have already completed the most rigorous HS work in the subject. All the AP sciences are double-period, every day, and open only to those who have been successful in the preceding honors class. Honors world history must precede AP Euro, honors US precedes AP US, honors pre-calc precedes AP calc BC – I forget what the AP govt, econ etc. require. Everyone is expected to take the AP test and it’s very rare to see less than a 3; most get at least 4 and many get 5s. The kids I knew did not usually repeat those classes in college – possibly would take honors section class if majoring in the subject. Many kids – including mine – often used the credits to meet distribution requirements, although one of mine used his AP econ 5s to jump to the upper-division honors sequence (for which he was very well-prepared)

    It sounds to me that this HS really needs some strong honors classes in these subjects, because these kids really don’t seem ready for APs. All kids with proper preparation should expect to take the exam and most should get at least a 3. There’s no reason honors courses can’t be challenging – my kids’ were. To me, to say that their only challenging courses are APs is an indictment of the school; every class should be challenging, but not overwhelming, if kids are appropriately assigned.

    • gahrie says:

      My district does not allow us to teach honors and AP in the same subject. If there is an AP government class, then there can be no honors government.

  2. momof4,

    Also, many colleges will no longer grant credit for scores of ‘3’ in many subjects at college, and require either a score of 4 or 5.

    The fact that most students didn’t even take the AP exam (even at a 9 dollar cost) seems to make one wonder what is the point (if I’m a college admissions officer, I look at their transcript from high school and I see a ton of AP classes and no exams, I’d seriously question the school in question, and the student themselves).


    • I’d like to the AP designation on the transcript (and for weighted grades) to be restricted to those kids who have received at least a 3 on the test. I do know that many schools don’t accept 3s, but I’m guessing that most kids with 3s are not going to selective colleges – and perhaps doing well enough for a 3 has some advantage. Lower than that, it’s not AP level work or knowledge. Ditto – double ditto – for those pernicious school rankings (no thanks to Jay Mathews) that encourage schools to push unprepared kids into APs and/or fraudulently describe courses as AP when they really are not. An English teacher from the DC suburban Prince George’s County comments in the WaPo that many kids in his “AP” class read at a 5th-grade level (and write below that) – but the county requires all students to take at least one “ap”. Idiocy

      No one expects to make the varsity basketball or swim team or play clarinet in the band unless they have the proper skills; why can’t academics be treated the same? Require mastery of each level before advancing to the next and practice, practice, practice.

      • momof4,

        In academics, if johnny or jane doesn’t measure up, they have problems with self-esteem, which doesn’t seem to apply in sports (j.v. or varsity) or the performing arts, esp. music and band.

      • Jerry Doctor says:

        I was the Science Chairman at a large urban high school with a 100+ year history of turning out students that were prepared for college work. In this district every high school student has a choice of at least two high schools and maybe as many as four. The schools literally have to recruit students.
        One of our attractions was a strong AP program. In science we offered AP Physics (calculus based), Chemistry and Biology. Students were not allowed to take an AP science class before completing the first year classes in all three areas.
        Other schools in the district were soon offering AP science classes too. They bragged about how many AP students they had. Of course they didn’t mention that virtually none of those students took the AP exams and those that did were rarely successful. Not surprising since these classes didn’t follow the AP course guides. (I talked with one “AP” teacher that didn’t even know there was a prescribed curriculum.)
        I, of course, was not allowed to bad mouth “our sister schools” by telling the parents the facts. I did, however, show parents our test results and suggest they ask other schools to show theirs.
        Point of all this is that the AP title doesn’t mean anything. Requiring test score on the transcripts would help but, unfortunately, by the time those are available the colleges have already made their selections for the fall term.

        • momof4 says:

          It would at least deal with the issue for APs taken as juniors and removing the AP weighting would hurt.

          • Jerry Doctor says:

            In my perfect world students wouldn’t be taking AP classes as juniors. They would not be able to complete the prerequisites in time. Of course, I would also not have grade weighting for AP classes, nor honors for that matter.

            Currently there are far too many students in these classes that are only there for the bonus point on their GPA. (At the school I taught in a 4.0 average wouldn’t get you in the top 10% of the class.) They aren’t interested in the subject matter and won’t put in the time required. When these “straight A” students get a B or even a C on their report cards, mommy and daddy are in the principal’s office the next day complaining about how hard the class is. Given the unwillingness of far too many administrators to support standards when confronted by the parents of “the good kids,” this often results in a watering down of AP/honors courses.

            Instead I would offer honors and AP classes and when asked “Then why take it? What will I get out of it” I’d answer “a better education. If that’s something you’re willing to work harder to get, enroll in the class. If not, better for both of us that you don’t.”

            Yeah, I know. Pure fantasy. You’d get killed in recruiting kids for the school unless you could get all the other schools in the area to agree to it and that would never happen.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Our local high school uses AP as a substitute for honors. So Freshmen take AP English, kids take AP Bio without ever taking regular bio, etc. etc.

    Their pass rate? 3%. This is not an underpriviledged district. There are plenty of kids who, if they were given the chance at a REAL AP class, could pass and earn college credit.

    Instead, these watered-down courses just destroy the one real advanced option available to gifted HS students.

    When we moved here, I thought I might put my kids into HS at least for AP Chem, Physics, and Calc. But with pass rates like that, they’re better off working on the classes themselves, at home.

  4. Brashear High: where all of the students are above average.

  5. Crimson Wife says:

    I don’t have a problem with open-enrollment AP courses BUT think that there should be an “honors AP” section for the bright students. The transcript should note whether the class taken was AP-open enrollment or AP-honors.