An Advanced (Placement) debate — A closed gate, or an open door?
At many high schools, Jensun Yonjan, who speaks limited English, would have been diverted away from taking college-level Advanced Placement courses.
But luckily for Jensun he goes to Conard High School in West Hartford, where officials have adopted an “every student takes an AP course” mantra.
“I am trying my best,” Jensun said during a break from class. “I like being challenged.”
Jensun first met Steve Bassi, his AP Government teacher, in his English-language learning classes when he moved from Nepal to West Hartford two years ago. Bassi says Jensun is pulling off a low B in the class.
“He’s struggling in both of his [AP] courses,” Bassi said. “He’s working so hard for that B in my class. I’m proud of him.”
Bassi’s faith in these nontraditional AP students has become somewhat of a culture in West Hartford. It even caught the eye of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, who visited last week during his inaugural tour of high-achieving schools and programs across the state.
“This ethos permeating throughout the building is an enormous accomplishment,” Pryor told a room of about 20 teachers and other state officials.
With almost half of Conard graduates leaving with some college credit from an AP course they completed, and 60 percent of students having taken at least one AP course in the 2009-10 school year, the most recent year with data available, they are far outpacing other schools throughout the state and country.
Statewide, 27 percent of students have taken at least one AP course and just 20 percent leave high school with college credit, reports the State Department of Education. Nationwide, 17 percent of high school graduates earn AP college credit.
West Hartford: where every student is ‘AP material’
It’s the first day of school for the incoming freshman class at Conard, and Principal Peter Cummings has a message for them.
“You will take an AP course by the time you graduate,” he replayed his spiel for the new education chief. “Our core belief is that every student here can achieve at a high level.”
But participation numbers available from the state board of education show that other districts have struggled to follow that model.
“In other districts some students don’t even have a chance to take an AP course. They tell them, ‘You’re not AP material.’ There’s no such thing in West Hartford,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, and co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee.
AP participation is increasing both state- and nationwide, which has caused some consternation from those concerned that the caliber of the course is being compromised by opening enrollment.
A national survey of 1,024 Advanced Placement teachers in 2009 said more gatekeeping is needed to keep the quality of the course from diminishing.
“Teachers told us that, even though they believe that the program’s quality is holding up in the face of tremendous expansion, they also see troubling signs in their classrooms,” the report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education advocacy think tank, said. Most of the respondents said they believed that high schools are expanding their programs in an effort to improve their rankings.
West Hartford’s efforts — which has the average graduate leaving with two college courses under his or her belt at its two public high schools — are routinely listed as one of the best in Newsweek magazine’s annual rankings.
Deborah Gavis, a spokeswoman for the College Board, which runs AP curriculum and testing, said during an interview that they encourage schools to increase access to “willing and academically prepared students. … Everyone should have equal access, but everyone should also be prepared.”
But several West Hartford teachers told Pryor they disagree with the strategy of judging before a student takes a class how they will do.
For students like Jensun, his teacher said his exclusion from AP courses would have likely been sealed at another school. Instead, he’s on track to take a computer science and at least one other AP course next semester.
“Every kid can succeed if we give them the chance,” Bassi tells the education commissioner.
Jensun is glad they took that chance on him.
“I won’t have to take so many courses when I go to college,” the future computer engineer said.
And even when these students earn a 2 on the final exam — which is not a high enough score to earn college credit — they still celebrate.
“It’s like getting a five,” Cindy Vranich, an AP English literature teacher, said of the highest score possible.
Because some students are behind, she said, “We’ve had to change how we teach.” But that doesn’t mean the rigor is lost. Only 13 percent of the AP test takers at her school don’t score high enough to earn credit, according to State Department of Education data.
Connecticut has had modest growth overall in students taking AP courses — 7 percent in the past five years. And it doesn’t seem to be hindering performance, as Connecticut has one of the fastest increases in the number of students earning college credit in the nation and is behind only Maryland, New York and Virginia with the percent of graduates leaving high school with some credit, according to the College Board’s most recent annual report.
But much work remains. Despite black and Hispanic students having the fastest increases in participation in AP courses, their performance lags far behind their white peers, following suit with the achievement gap that is plaguing the state’s education system as a whole. For example, while 12 percent of Connecticut 2010 graduating class was black, only 2.4 percent earned college credit in an AP course — one of the worst rates in the nation. The results are similar for Hispanic students.
Struggling to expand
Simsbury High School officials made the decision years ago that they needed to increase participation in their advanced placement courses.
“It was only for an elite level of students,” said Principal Neil Sullivan. “I was sure more could succeed in these courses. … I think we were just in opening that door to more students.”
Test scores show Simsbury officials were right, with almost half of their students taking an AP course and 42 percent leaving with some college credit.
But not all districts are as fortunate in being able to expand as Simsbury, one of the wealthier districts in the state.
“It’s not an inexpensive venture,” said Lydia Tedone, Simsbury’s school board chairwoman and president of the state’s school boards association. She estimates it costs her district an added $40,000 a year for each additional course they offer for supplies, training and a teacher.
“It’s a costly budget item, and some districts may be forgoing it because of this, or because they want other programs like a full-day kindergarten.”
In low-income districts, Project Opening Doors is helping with about half the start-up and first year expenses. They have helped Waterbury, Hartford and New Haven schools open numerous math, science and English AP courses.
“It may be that the district didn’t have the resources or the qualified staff to teach these courses. We’re trying to change that,” said Cam Vantour, who runs the nonprofit agency funded by Exxon Mobil Corp., the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Connecticut Business and Industry Association and Northeast Utilities. “Districts recognize they need to do more.”
The end-of-course exams alone cost $87, and in many districts like West Hartford they ask parents to pick up that cost. The College Board does waive some of the cost for students from low-income families, but the price still falls at $57 per exam.
Plans for future expansion?
Pryor, who has been on the job for just a few months, told state board members last week he is planning in the next couple of months to release a sweeping education reform legislative package to coincide with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s intention to make the coming General Assembly session focused on education.
Pryor’s stop at Conard was part of a tour he says is helping him figure out what to include. He was mum on his plans for advanced placement, but did say there are “several best practices” taking place at the school he wants to see spill over into other schools across the state.
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