Using AP, IB to change schools

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“I’ve always been a guinea pig,” says honors student Tamanika Hardy. This year, she’s the only African American in the brand new Advanced Placement physics class at Prosser Career Academy.

Last year, Hardy helped pioneer Prosser’s first AP courses in recent memory, one in biology and the other in U.S. history.

Though her scores on last year’s AP tests fell short of what she will need for credit next fall at the University of Illinois at Urbana, she’s not sorry she took the courses. “I got a lot more out of my AP classes,” she observes. “I had honors, but AP was more challenging.”

Hardy and her classmates—in physics, mostly Latino boys, she says—are benefitting from one of the school system’s few promising initiatives to improve high schools. Taking up the national call to boost Advanced Placement participation, the School Board is adding AP courses and expanding teacher training to offer greater academic challenge in long-neglected neighborhood schools.

In another effort toward the same goal, the board has tapped 14 schools to apply to join the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO), a Swiss-based foundation that works with schools to offer a rigorous set of courses and examinations leading to an internationally recognized diploma.

While the School Board was motivated by the “brain drain” of top-scoring 8th-graders to private and parochial high schools, a new survey of CPS’ own valedictorians shows that even they found their course work wanting: Only 30 percent described their high school classes as “very challenging,” and they tended to come from the system’s higher-scoring high schools. (See Inequities persists even at the top)

Widespread support

The AP and IB push appears to have widespread support. However, debate continues about the programs’ contribution to schoolwide change and how equitably their benefits are distributed. For example, at Lincoln Park High School, which has had a citywide IB program for two decades, only 8 percent of IB students enrolled this year are African American, and 9 percent are Latino. Without a CPS investment as far back as the upper elementary grades, say those familiar with the programs, some capable students will continue to lose out.

Together, the new IB and AP programs cost the system about $5 million.”They’re not budget busters, and they really help move schools along much faster,” says Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas.

Chicago has “taken a very positive first step in doing some things to strengthen opportunities for the students,” observes Paula Herron, Midwest executive director of the College Board, which administers the AP program.

The number of AP test takers in Chicago’s public schools has grown significantly in the past two years, from 1,780 in 1998 to 3,080 last year. However, at 3 percent, the CPS participation rate still lags behind the national average of 6 percent.

In CPS, the participation of Latino students now is comparable to their proportion of high school enrollment, roughly a third. However, African-American students still are under represented; last year, they made up 27 percent of AP test takers but 53 percent of the high school student body. Currently, two dozen high schools don’t offer any AP courses.

Last year, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley called for every high school to offer at least one AP course by September 2001 and to add one new course every year for 10 years. Vallas was quick to take up the gauntlet. In December, he told the Chicago Sun-Times that every Chicago public high school would offer at least one AP course next fall. The district is working with the state and the College Board to subsidize exam fees for low-income students, boost teacher training and even offer virtual AP courses on line.

However, in March, principals in schools contemplating new courses were uncertain about whether they could pull it off.

The experience of Austin High School, which is struggling to resurrect its honors-track classes, suggests that simply starting a course may not be enough for students who haven’t been challenged to this level. Austin students began taking AP exams in 1999, but none has yet scored high enough to earn college credit, which typically requires a score of 3 on a 5-point scale. Other schools in similar circumstances tell similar stories.

To the College Board’s Herron, scores on the AP test aren’t the central issue. “Let’s not talk about the grade the kid gets on the exam; let’s talk about the skills,” she says. “Let’s think about the foundation that he has going into college, because it is stronger than he would have had if he hadn’t taken the AP course at all. Intellectually, the children grow. They learn to have opinions that are respected by adults. They begin to think for themselves, learn for themselves.”

According to a recent study of CPS’ lower-scoring high schools, students rarely are asked to analyze or engage in other forms of so-called higher-order thinking. In 58 percent of classrooms observed—mainly regular-level, core courses—no questions requiring more than factual knowledge were asked, according to the study by G. Alfred Hess Jr. of Northwestern University.

Any spillover?

Teachers newly involved in AP and IB are enthusiastic about the professional development that comes with the programs and say that it has improved their teaching of all students, not just the cream of the crop.

“I think I’m better at challenging students,” says Andrew Pascarella, a social studies teacher at Robeson High. “I’ve set the bar higher for this class. It’s helped me set the bar higher for other classes as well. I’ve gotten better at tricking students into doing hard work.”

“Working with the IB, I was revitalized,” says Sharon Butman of Senn High, who teaches English to freshmen and sophomores headed for formal IB enrollment their junior year—she also teaches three classes of students who are not IB bound.

“It’s made teaching much more worthwhile and more interesting,” she says. “I can spend an entire Sunday creating my lesson and my plans, where before I could knock it off on Friday afternoon. Although it’s time consuming and disrupts your private life, it does make your day more exciting, more professional.”

Butman credits IB’s required subject-specific training with raising her expectations of students and renewing her interest in the intellectual challenge of teaching. “It offered me an opportunity to realize I can still analyze language and literature, as opposed to teaching skills all the time.”

Of the two programs, IB appears to have greater potential for changing a school because it requires faculty to work together to develop an integrated set of courses across grade levels.

IB programs also benefit from an extensive network of regional offices that ensure participating schools maintain IB standards. Once schools begin offering IB examinations, they are regularly monitored, and their authority to give IB exams can be revoked.

“People are used to writing things on paper and not making it into a living, working reality,” says Debra Fenwick-Scully, IB coordinator at Steinmetz High.

“This program requires you have a commitment to internationalism, accelerated scholarship. It’s more than just lip service; you really must buy into the focus of the program.”

In contrast, the requirements for starting an AP course are the same as those for any other course—a teacher, students and materials.

“It doesn’t take any special anything really,” acknowledges Edward Klunk, deputy high school development officer. Students can even take AP exams without having taken AP courses, though they tend to get lower scores.

For years, individual teachers have run strong AP courses in schools whose overall performance is low. For example, in 1999 Robeson High earned a school AP pass rate of 100 percent: Two students took and passed exams, one in German and one in physics. Meanwhile, the school’s graduation rate that year was less than 50 percent, and its attendance rate was below 80 percent.

Build a pipeline

To get broader participation in AP, especially from low-income and minority students, schools must create a pipeline, says Jeannie Oakes, a professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education. Simply starting AP courses is “a pretty hollow effort unless students are also provided with academically rich curriculum, teaching and support in the pipeline courses.” To be effective, teachers need specific training in how to teach AP to “diverse groups of students who may not come with the middle-class backgrounds that the AP curriculum may assume.”

The College Board, which administers the program, has just begun to address this issue. It now offers pre-AP workshops to help schools build “vertical teams” of teachers in grades 7-12; the teams are to work together to build an appropriate curriculum and set the necessary expectations. This school year, 89 CPS elementary and high schools have sent teachers to these workshops, according to Mamon Gibson, director of CPS gifted programs.

Today, CPS is paying for feeder schools to apply to participate in IB’s Middle Years Programme, which prepares students in grades six through ten to spend their last years of high school striving for an IB diploma. (See story on page 12.)

In the meantime, some new IB high schools are sending students to summer school to help make up for the lack of foreign language and algebra in their feeder elementary schools. Joan Smith, associate director of IB’s North American regional office, says that’s only a stop gap. “[It] will kill kids after a while to do summer school every summer,” she says.

While IB and AP are raising the academic ceiling for schools’ top students, they also reinforce a system—tracking—that critics say has concentrated resources at the top and depressed opportunities for other students.

“Nationally, whether they are in segregated or racially diverse schools, African-American, Latino, immigrant, and low-income students get less and learn less,” says Oakes, who has studied tracking extensively. “They have fewer well-qualified teachers, less exposure to intellectually engaging curricula, and less access to technology and laboratories for investigation and problem-solving.”

Best Practice High School, a small CPS school founded by progressive educators, currently is offering an AP English course but plans to drop it next year. Students who want to pursue advanced work will be encouraged to take on independent projects, instead.

AP is “very contrary” to the philosophy of the school, which says co-lead teacher Kathy Daniels.

“At Best Practice, we’ve really tried to avoid tracking, to offer honors options within classes that exist, to find more ways to challenge kids without separating them into groups,” says co-founder Steve Zemelman of National-Louis University. “We brain stormed a lot about it at winter retreat: whether to have more challenging projects and assignments for the honors kids or additional assignments, or simply a higher grading standard. The teachers were debating that.”

Though Zemelman is no fan of AP, he sees the district’s push as a plus for equity. “I don’t want to see Chicago kids miss out on the advantages suburban kids get,” he says. “It’s a contradiction here. If not having AP classes means Chicago kids don’t get college credit that suburban kids get, then that doesn’t seem right either.”

Conversely, some wonder whether Chicago’s new programs are meeting standards. “Is this truth in advertising? Is it truly an IB program?” asks Harrigan. “I don’t think we have the students or the teachers to have a true IB program” at so many new schools. “All of these will be good experiences for the students, but to call it IB …?”

“Some people think we must be lowering their standards,” acknowledges Senn Principal Judith Hernandez. “We’re not. We’re raising ours to meet theirs. But it’s new for us, and it’s going to take time.”