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How to Support First-Time Advanced Placement Students

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This week we are hearing from the Multnomah County Partnership for Education Research (MCPER). Today's post is the practitioner perspective on Monday's post: Working Toward Equitable Advanced Placement Programming.

This post is by Teresa Ketelsen, Deputy Superintendent of Teaching & Learning at the Gresham-Barlow Public School District (@greshamschools).  

The partnership between the Gresham-Barlow School District (GBSD) and the Multnomah County Partnership for Educational Research (MCPER) has provided an avenue for literature reviews and program evaluations to inform practice within the school district over the past three years. The capacity to conduct needed research within the district has diminished due to reduced financial resources. MCPER allows the district to submit district-initiated research proposals based on needs identified by staff. 

One such proposal submitted by GBSD was a request to analyze student enrollment in Advanced Placement (AP) courses for the previous three years. The district wanted to know the trends in which students were choosing to enroll in these courses, which students were being successful, and identify if there were other students that should enroll in advanced courses. As specified in our previous post, the research findings showed there were opportunity gaps for AP participation and achievement gaps within AP courses for students from low socioeconomic (SES) families compared to other levels of SES, and between Latino and White students.

District Use of Research Findings

The research was shared with district and high school administrators to determine next steps. In an effort to align the enrollment in the AP program with the student population of the school, we put an initiative into action to identify and recruit students who had been successful in other classes but were not choosing to enroll in AP classes. We invited identified students and their families to attend multiple informational sessions explaining the AP program and its benefits. These efforts resulted in 156 first-time AP students enrolled during the 2015-2016 school year.

We then conducted further research to examine the perceptions of these first-year AP students; specifically the perceptions of traditionally underrepresented AP students. A study was completed focusing on student perspectives about supports, challenges, and their perceived changes that occurred in their academic identity while enrolled in the AP class. The research analyzed the grades students earned in their AP classes, scores from their AP exams, and survey data to identify student perceptions of supports and challenges in their AP classes. Changes in their perceived academic identity were analyzed from student responses on pre- and post-surveys. Interviews of selected students were also conducted to gain a deeper understanding of the findings.  

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The analysis of first-time AP student viewpoints of their experiences, both in their AP class and in their other classes, showed various interesting findings. What most helped first-year AP students succeed was their AP teacher's belief that they could be successful in the class.

Also, over half of the first-year AP students identified the need to prove themselves to their AP teacher compared to a third who felt the pressure to prove themselves to teachers in other classes. A statistically significant difference (p <.05) existed between the need to prove themselves to their peers in their AP class and students in their other classes. It is unclear if the perceived pressure to prove themselves motivated them to be successful or was an obstacle for them to overcome.

There also were statistically significant decreases in their perception of their grit, their academic self, and their academic strategies.

Broader Implications for Practice

The implications for practice that emerged from this research are not quick fixes.

First, there is a need to increase the enrollment of traditionally underrepresented students in AP classes.

Second, increasing success of first-year AP students through intentional supports is necessary. The most frequently identified support was the AP teachers' beliefs that each student has the ability to succeed in these AP teachers' classes. This was not only communicated verbally but also through feedback on student work and maintaining high expectations. Another way to increase students' success is to create a learning environment where each student feels engaged and welcomed in the AP class by establishing and maintaining a tone that promotes participation, learning, and growth for all students.

A third implication from this research is to increase the accessibility of extra study sessions and homework help for first-year AP students. On the post-AP survey, the top reason students identified that would make them want to take another AP class was if extra study/homework support were available.

A final implication to help first-time AP students overcome the challenges they experience in AP classes is to begin developing time management, note taking, and study skills earlier in students' educational years. It is difficult for first-year AP students both to develop the needed study skills and to apply these skills to rigorous content simultaneously. Helping all students learn how to take high-quality notes to be used effectively as a tool when studying should happen prior to entering high school.

With these implications in mind, the work towards equitable AP programming in GBSD continues.  

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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