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10 Strategies States & Districts Can Use to Boost AP Completion Rates

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High-quality online high school courses have now been around long enough that every student in America should have access to well-taught college prep courses. Every student should have the opportunity to earn college credit while in high school.

Advanced Placement courses offer a great opportunity for rigorous college preparation. Successful completion (usually with a score of 3 or better on a 5 point scale) yields college credit in all of the most selective colleges. However, AP courses can be difficult to staff and expensive to offer.

States and districts can dramatically boost the number of students that take and pass advanced courses with an AP for All initiative including a mix of these 10 strategies:

1. Subsidize participation. States could fund/subsidized MyRoad guidance system, PSAT/SAT, and low income scholarships for AP test fees.

2. Course choice. States should implement a course choice system that made every AP course available to every high school student in the state in partnership with several statewide providers. Louisiana students gained online options with a course choice system that includes access to online counselors that provide guidance on course selection. Texas also passed a course choice legislation (HB 1926) which specifically makes reference to AP courses. Ohio Learns has a catalog of courses including AP courses.

Miami Dade Public Schools and Morongo Schools (CA) have district partnerships with K12 to expand access AP courses--with a mix of district-taught and provider-taught courses. The Morongo partnership was launched several years ago with support from a DOD grant to expand AP offerings.

3. Statewide teachers. Public Impact's Opportunity Culture describes strategies for extending the reach of excellent teachers. One way a state can do that is to encourage them to become statewide AP teachers as individuals (like the individual teachers approved as providers in Louisiana) or as part of teacher coops or through district online schools (as described in this post on distributed workforce strategies.)

4. Funding models. To provide course choice, states need to facilitate portable funding where money follows the student. (Read this DLN SmartSeries paper for more, Funding Options, Students, and Achievements.) Statewide outreach to principals that shows how they can offer all 32 AP courses in a blended setting and save enough money to reinvest in the pre-AP pipeline would help.

5. Flex grants. A small grant program (e.g. $1.5 million with 50 grants of $25,000) for high schools that launch a blended AP lab which could be a full or part time upper division flex academy. (See 10 Reasons Every District Should Open a Flex School.)

6. Ensure college credit. Statewide policies that guarantee AP credit gives students and teachers confidence that their hard work will be rewarded (14 states do this). College Board research shows that the primary initial decision a student makes to put in all of the extra time and work required in an AP course is based directly on whether they believe they will be rewarded for that additional effort by colleges and universities. The credit guarentee can save families money, allow students to the opportunity to move into deeper courses more quickly, to double major or study abroad, all without having to incur tuition for extra years of college.

7. Incorporate AP participation and performance in the state's accountability system for schools and districts . When states lump AP in with honors or dual enrollment programs, school leaders often simply move minority students into the less rigorous dual enrollment courses. While there are benefit of dual enrollment (particularly on a college campus), there is research favorably compares the relative rigor and college outcomes of AP versus dual enrollment programs. State examples include:

  • Missouri provides schools with equal points for participation in AP and Dual Enrollment courses, but recognizes that students who then also achieve 3+ on an AP Exam are attaining a higher level of rigor than simply taking a course, so additional points are given to the schools for AP scores of 3+. This model recognizes that both AP and Dual Enrollment courses can provide rigor, but that attaining a qualifying AP score is an even higher attestation of rigor and quality in a school.
  • Florida goes a step beyond policy by also connecting financial incentives to schools that achieve increased diversity among AP scores of 3+. This encourages school leaders and teachers to work extra hard to ensure students of all backgrounds are prepared for AP, since each student who earns a 3+ contributes to the school's success, whereas students who score 1 and 2 have no impact positive or negative on the school's qualification. This shifts the conversation away from the pressure teachers feel to keep AP courses exclusive in order to maintain an arbitrary "pass rate," and instead encourages teachers and administrators to take risks on students who may very well succeed if given the opportunity.

8. Subsides for schools to replace retiring and train new AP teachers by sending them to an AP Summer Institute on a college campus. About 60% of AP teachers will retire this decade, creating a massive need to prepare the next generation of AP teachers to fill the retirees very large shoes. In addition to the online models, we need more teachers in schools ready to engage students in these rigorous courses. The cost of summer institutes is typically $1000 per teacher.

9. Full court press. NMSI's AP Program is a comprehensive approach that increases teacher effectiveness and student achievement in rigorous math and science courses through training, teacher and student support, vertical teaming, open enrollment, and incentives.

10. Partnerships. If a state is interested in an AP for All campaign, they are likely to be able to locate partners to support outreach, data tracking, and professional development. It's worth supporting programmatic elements with outreach to 8th, 9th and 10th graders to encourage them to pick a college path and take pre-AP courses.

Still think AP is all drill and kill? College Board is rolling out new tests that encourage deeper learning. "In AP's immersive courses, you don't just read about things, you get to learn how things really work," notes College Board.

One exemplary school that have consciously implemented "AP for All" is Washington and Lee in Virginia. It was profiled by Jay Mathews for their groundbreaking efforts to ensure that all of their students do really have AP access and success.

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