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article imageAdvanced Placement scores low in many Houston ISD public schools

By Jesse Alred     Oct 28, 2009 in World
The Houston Independent School District has increased the number of students in Advanced Placement (AP) courses, but the quality of these courses at many schools appears low based on student test scores.
At 25 of HISD's 32 high schools, the majority of students taking AP exams scored beneath the minimum "qualifying" score of 3 in May of 2009. At 22 high schools, and in 170 classes, the majority of students received scores of 1, the lowest possible score on the five-point AP scale.
Six HISD schools had more than 300 tests receiving the basement AP score of 1: Chavez (446), Westside (419), Madison (377), Westbury (374), Sam Houston (339), and Lee (331).
Washington Post columnist, and apostle for including as many students in AP classes as possible, Jay Mathews describes AP scores this way: "a grade of 5 is equivalent to a college A, a 4 is equivalent to a high B, a 3 is a high C, a 2 is a D, and a 1 is an F."
During the 2004-2005 school year, the HISD school board committed itself to increasing the number of kids in AP classes, taking AP exams and earning a qualifying score of 3, 4, or 5. The board has succeeded in growing the program by nearly 5,000 tests taken between 2005 and 2009, but the additional weight has taken the form of fat rather than muscle.
As the fifth largest school system in the nation, and one committed to reforms like AP expansion, the Houston Independent School District is a great test case for what happens when you grow the Advanced Placement program rapidly.
In his plans to continue expanding AP course offerings, HISD's new superintendent Terry Grier inherits the challenging job of improving implementation of this well-intentioned effort. The previous superintendent already accomplished the easier goal of running up the numbers.
The growing size of the AP program nationally has stirred debate between teachers who fear opening the doors to more students will water down the program's quality, and education reformers who see AP courses as a way to infuse all schools with academic rigor.
Mr. Mathews has accused teachers who want students to meet certain criteria before being allowed into AP courses as having a "sorting" mentality rather than an "educational" mentality. He refers to studies showing that students who score a 2 do better in college than students who do not take AP courses. On the other hand, he notes that "Students who get 1s on the exam do not do better than non-AP students."
While Mr. Mathews seems mostly concerned about average kids being kept out of successful AP programs because some teachers want to maintain their high success rates, his concerns may not fit the circumstances of HISD schools serving minority and working-class communities which have never tasted AP success.
Surely, the amassing of huge numbers of tests at the lowest possible scores--you cannot score lower than a one--may eventually erode faith in the viability of AP in some schools, forcing standards advocates into retreat.
HISD's solution may be in more quality control: making better choices about who should teach these courses, ensuring students are committed before they enroll, and removing students mid-year if they do not walk the walk. It might be more effective for some schools to downsize, create success and build up. Dumping kids into these programs may not be enough.
The College Board provides training for AP teachers, but often the teacher-trainers themselves come from elite schools, and rarely are they teachers who have established success in working-class neighborhoods.
Mr. Mathews, who wants the AP doors thrown wide open to all comers, does acknowledge there should be "one ticket" to getting into an Advanced Placement course: 'a willingness to work hard."
More about Public Schools, Advanced placement, College board
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