AP pass rate declines sharply in 2 years

Aug 14, 2014 by

An increasing number of Des Moines high school students are taking Advanced Placement classes, but success on the program’s corresponding national exams is elusive for many, a Des Moines Register review of district data shows.

Des Moines’ AP exam pass rate has dropped by 10 percentage points over the past two years, from 49 percent in 2012 to 39 percent in 2014. Nationally, the AP exam pass rate is 59 percent; among all Iowa students, it’s 63 percent.

While Des Moines’ decline was expected, it shouldn’t be allowed to persist, district officials say. Efforts to boost academic standards in Iowa’s largest school district has more than quadrupled the number of Des Moines students enrolled in AP classes over the past four years.

“I think we’ve reached the point where we’re pretty good with access,” said Amber Graeber, coordinator of the district’s AP program, which served nearly 2,700 students in 2013-14. “The question now is: How do we get equality of outcomes?”

The stakes for children in Des Moines — where more than two-thirds of all district students live in poverty — are high and go far beyond resume padding.

Minority children and children from low-income families are less likely to graduate from high school than their white, middle-class peers, state and national data show. They also have lower rates of college enrollment and completion.

By exposing more Des Moines students to rigorous curriculum, district officials hope to chip away at the achievement gap and increase the number of district graduates who are successful in college.

But for those goals to be realized, students need the skills to achieve in high-level classes, educators say. The dip in the district’s pass rate shows that more work is needed.

“AP access is about more than just having the courses offered,” said Kristin Klopfenstein, founding executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado. “True access requires that kids have the supports necessary to be successful in AP courses.”

Academic counseling, more rigorous middle school curriculum and support services for students enrolled in high-level courses are among strategies district officials say they hope will increase the percentage of Des Moines teens passing AP exams.

This school year, Des Moines’ five high schools will each offer at least 12 AP courses. Five years ago, some schools only had one or two such courses.

“When you’re making that shift, you have a certain number of kids (now taking AP) that were not in the high-level math in middle school or in honors English class in 10th grade,” said Patte Barth,director of the Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Board Association based in Alexandria, Va. “You need to provide support.”

Exam scores decline

The push to expand AP access in Des Moines — and the resulting decline in exam scores — follows state and national trends.

The number of Iowa graduates taking AP exams nearly doubled over the past decade, with more than 5,700 members of the class of 2013 completing at least one exam. Students who earn a high enough score on the exams typically receive college credit.

Des Moines’ gains in AP test-takers were accompanied by a decline in overall scores. Sixty-eight percent of Iowa’s 2003 grads who took AP tests passed at least one exam, compared with 62 percent of such students in 2013.

AP participation in the U.S. also doubled during the same time period, accompanied by a similar decline in student pass rates.

Among class of 2013 test-takers nationally, 61 percent of students were successful on at least one test during their high school years. That’s a decrease of 4 percentage points from the 2003 rate.

In Des Moines, the decline has been steep, likely because of the scale and rapid pace of district efforts to expand access.

At some high schools, the percentage of students enrolled in AP courses has increased by as much as 900 percent over the past four years.

Just 83 East High School students took AP classes in 2010-11. Last year, 832 students enrolled in at least one course.

“We really did rip a Band-Aid off, knowing that some kids were better-prepared than others,” Graeber said.

Getting kids into the classes is the first step in that process, said Ralph Plagman, principal of Cedar Rapids’ Washington High School, which boasts the state’s highest AP exam participation rate.

The rest of the pieces fall into place once students and teachers adapt to the new standards, he said.

“American schools are afraid to challenge kids,” Plagman said. “The AP culture elevates academic rigor all the way down the line.”

Initially, some parents and teachers in Des Moines were concerned that expanding access would result in watered-down curriculum and lower standards in AP classes.

That hasn’t been the case, district leaders said.

The College Board, which oversees the AP program, requires district officials to submit syllabi and other materials for each new AP class added at a school.

The goal is to ensure uniform standards of quality nationwide.

The only real change in Des Moines’ AP program has involved the role teachers play in the classroom, Graeber said.

In the past, students who enrolled were implicitly told they either have what it takes to handle college-level work or they don’t, she said.

Under Des Moines’ new philosophy, teachers are trained to take on a coaching role, helping students reach the high standards demanded by AP curriculum over the course of a semester- or yearlong class.

“The answer isn’t lowering expectations or making access to those (AP) courses smaller,” Graeber said. “The answer is expanding access and then providing supports so those kids can do well.”

Goal to add support

Bernardo Hernandez, a 2013 Lincoln High School graduate, distinctly remembers the culture shift.

“My sophomore year, I didn’t take (AP classes) because I didn’t think I was smart enough or equipped to deal with an Advanced Placement course,” he said. “But in my junior year, my counselor was putting me in those classes. And my teachers were telling me: ‘You should do this.’ ”

In his final two years of high school, the first-generation Mexican immigrant completed five AP classes. He passed three of the exams.

The experience of taking the classes, however, was more valuable than the college credit, said Hernandez, 19, a Des Moines Community College student who works as a bank teller.

“I learned how to handle the stress, how to do the work,” he said. “I learned how to pay attention to details, take instructions, and I learned that doing things correctly is important.”

Lifting the district’s AP pass rate in Des Moines will take time, district officials caution.

In the interim, the district is developing new strategies to support AP students.

At North High School, teens in AP courses had the option last school year to enroll in a companion class where they practiced the high-level reading and writing skills needed for college-level coursework. Instructors also helped students break down assignments from their AP classes into manageable chunks.

School leaders plan to chart the progress of the students involved in that program. If the additional academic coaching results in better scores, the model may be expanded to other Des Moines schools.

The approach helps demystify the steps needed to be successful in high-level courses.

It also shows students that struggles early on in a course aren’t always indicative of later failure, said Jean Schwendau, who teaches AP biology at North.

“They get to practice in a more supportive environment than they would get in college,” she said. “They form study groups; they learn time management. Those are things they’ll need as college students.”

Advanced Placement courses

Advanced Placement courses are rigorous classes that require students to use critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Courses range from statistics and biology to English and economics. Students receive grades in the courses; in addition they can take a national exam, and if they score high enough they can receive college credit.

Des Moines’ AP pass rate declines sharply in 2 years.

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