AP no longer just for the elite

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For many years, schools, teachers and even the College Board considered Advanced Placement courses to be only for elite high-achievers. But that attitude is changing, as education policymakers point out that more high school students are heading to post-secondary institutions and need tough classes to prepare them.

“Certainly we encourage students to have taken prerequisites,” such as algebra and trigonometry courses leading to AP calculus, says Mike Barry, the College Board’s program associate for AP. “[But] we encourage anyone who is willing to take on the challenge to be included.”

In Chicago, central office allows schools to set their own AP admissions standards. Catalyst interviews with teachers, counselors and administrators at 26 schools found that, in general, less-competitive neighborhood high schools are more likely to give lower-achieving students a shot at AP, while selective-admissions schools have higher standards.

AP teachers, individually or with other members of their department, typically make the final decision and give the most weight to recommendations from previous teachers or counselors. They also consider previous grades in the same subject area and test scores. In some instances, teachers may give a placement test or ask students to write an essay.

But letting faculty make the call “allows in a lot of assumptions, biases and stereotyping of youngsters,” warns Eric Smith, a 2002 finalist for National Superintendent of the Year. In his former district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Smith sent letters to parents of all students who met a moderate test score threshold on the PSAT (Preliminary SAT), inviting them to meet with counselors and learn more about AP courses.

Smith says he successfully recruited more students to AP and is now following the same process as superintendent in Anne Arundel County, Md. The idea works, he says, by “taking the educator bias out of it and really pushing kids to do more when they might not push themselves.”

Barry supports Smith’s approach, but stresses, “We don’t want to exclude kids [who] didn’t get a certain PSAT score.”

Catalyst interviews indicate many schools do consider students’ scores on the ACT and its pre-tests; some set minimum thresholds. At Brooks College Prep in Pullman, for instance, AP U.S. history teacher Hubert Jackson only accepts students with at least an 18 on both the ACT composite and its English test. Even so, that score is modest compared to the national average, 21.

“If a student does not read well, he does not belong in the class,” says Jackson.

But Sharon Butman, English department chair at Senn, says “desire works far better than test scores” as a criteria for admission. “Sometimes you have a kid who has a really high test score but is not motivated.” At Senn, students with an ACT of 15 or higher are recruited for AP English classes.

“If they’re motivated and willing to take the course, why not offer it, especially if they are a D or C student?” asks Durrell Anderson, AP chemistry teacher and science department chair at Simeon Career Academy in Chatham. “If the goal is to send them to a post-secondary institution, why not offer them a course? If they don’t pass the exam, they are at least [somewhat] prepared for college.”

Anderson notes that some of his former students who earned 1’s and 2’s on the AP exam nevertheless passed the placement test in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, making them eligible to take introductory chemistry without first taking remedial math classes.

Others disagree. “If a kid is getting D’s in regular chemistry and wants to take AP chemistry, I don’t have to look into my crystal ball to see what’s going to happen,” counters Barry Rodgers, science department chair at Northside College Prep in West Ridge.

Aaron Davis, a junior at Morgan Park, says that for hard-working students, “to have kids in those classes who aren’t serious about it is disturbing.” His AP English language and composition course this year has been a disappointment, Davis adds, because many students “joke around, and they don’t care what grade they get.”

Sometimes, teachers hope an AP course will stimulate underperforming students.

“Some of the kids who are in regular classes aren’t challenged,” says Jason Bujak, who teaches AP government and politics at Brooks. “If there’s a student I know I can work with who may not have the test score or the GPA, I can sign them in. I’m the person who keeps fighting and saying we should let anyone who wants to take AP in.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.