Low pass rates on AP exams raise questions about teaching

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According to the College Board, Chicago Public Schools has done more than any other urban district in the country to expand its Advanced Placement course offerings over the past several years.

But while the number of AP courses has increased, pass rates on AP exams remain substantially below the national average. Pass rates are the number of exams—students may take more than one—that earned scores of 3 and above, considered the threshold for college credit.

In 2003, Chicago’s pass rate was 42 percent, compared to a nationwide rate of 60 percent, the College Board reports. And pass rates in CPS showed wide racial gaps: 60 percent of exams taken by white students had scores of 3 or higher, compared to 40 percent of exams taken by Latinos and 22 percent of exams taken by African Americans.

Overall, Chicago’s pass rate has not reached 50 percent since 1973, the year after the system began tracking the data.

A recent report from the highly regarded Education Trust states, “A huge variability in the proportion of [exams] that earn a 3 or greater should raise questions about the quality of instruction or educational resources provided in courses labeled Advanced Placement.”

Teacher training needed

Chuck Powell, central division director of AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination), a college-prep program that encourages students to take AP and honors courses, agrees. “A focus on the scores can be a detriment to access, but ignoring the scores altogether can be a detriment to quality.”

Teachers who are new to AP instruction often see their students earn mostly 1’s and 2’s for the first four or even five years, Powell notes.

“The common wisdom has been it takes about three years for things to get to a steady state,” says Mike Johanek, executive director of K-12 professional development for Advanced Placement. He adds that this may take longer in schools with high mobility and high teacher turnover, often the case in CPS.

CPS officials say they plan to provide more training to improve instruction. But, says Academic Enhancement Officer Jack Harnedy, “[If] a kid scores 1 or 2, it doesn’t mean they didn’t get anything out of the course. Just taking the course is the first step.”

CPS now offers a handful of workshops over the summer and during the school year. But training is not mandatory. And neither the College Board nor CPS formally monitors instruction in AP courses.

Not every course is covered by CPS training, either, teachers say. “AP government [and politics] is one of the newer entrants into Chicago,” says Jason Bujak of Brooks College Prep in Pullman. “There has never been a Chicago [workshop] for AP government.” Bujak says he was interested in a workshop held last summer in Michigan “but it was seven hours away and you had to pay for your own housing,” though CPS would have paid the workshop fee.

The experience of students like Hyde Park Academy graduate Alea Huggins illustrates the problem. “I definitely did not feel prepared for those [AP] exams at all,” says Huggins, now a senior at Northwestern University. “They were a lot more difficult than I expected.”

She describes her AP biology class as “a joke,” with unchallenging assignments, too little lab work and too much socializing among students. Her AP calculus class had a strong teacher, she says, but college calculus was still frustrating. “A lot of the kids here [went] to private schools or they went to very good public schools,” Huggins says. “There were people in my class who had taken AP calculus in high school and they seemed a lot more prepared than I was.”

Heriberto Acevedo, a junior at Kelvyn Park High, says his class did not adequately prepare him for the AP English language and composition exam because it focused primarily on vocabulary building, even though the exam also requires writing extensive essays.

Some veteran teachers note that it can be more difficult to bring today’s students up to AP standards.

Barbara Galvin of Kennedy High, a 36-year veteran and AP English literature teacher, says, “I work harder now and I think I’m a better teacher. The students who are enrolling are the best we have, yet they can’t compare with the students of 20 years ago.” Many of her students, she notes, speak English as their second language and do not always pick up on nuances of language in readings.

Still, Galvin requires all her students to take the exams and says the scores provide important feedback. “It lets you know how you’re doing. It keeps you on your toes.”

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