Students taking test

Opinion

Advancing Advanced Placement: Better Measuring for College Readiness

LIZ GLASER

When we consider readiness, we must understand the importance of students feeling adequately prepared – and supported – to feel confident in their post-graduate plans. 

In a recently released Pew study, researchers found that “61 percent of teens say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades.” About the same number -- 59 percent of young people -- plan on attending a four-year university, and “these teens are more likely than those who have other plans to say they face a lot of pressure to get good grades.” 

The GradNation campaign has supported graduation rate improvement efforts for years, but high school graduation is just the first step to a successful adult life. We view readiness as a set of academic and life skills young people develop over time that supports their growth and can help them succeed in school, in their post-grad career(s), and life. It is critically important for high schools to offer courses and assessment tools that reflect and ensure young people’s readiness to move forward. 
 
The GradNation team at America’s Promise examined each state plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Through our analysis and as others have reported, we saw that many states are including an indicator or set of indicators that will measure college and career readiness (CCR), using measures such as:

  • The number of students who enroll in college,
  • The number of students who complete a career or technical education course, or 
  • The number of students who earn an industry credential. 

We also found that 32 states are using Advanced Placement (AP) course enrollment, completion or exam scores as one of the CCR indicators. In these 32 states, state and district education leaders believe that taking an AP exam prepares high school students for the rigors of college courses. As one of many factors in a state’s ESSA plan, AP course taking and test taking are useful CCR measures to capture one of the many pathways students take to prepare for life after graduation. But, as a standalone measure, an AP exam score or course grade may not tell us the whole story.

What are states doing with AP indicators?

Each of the 32 states utilizing an AP measure are implementing it differently. The savviest states are including AP as one of multiple CCR measures and measuring both course completion and exam taking.

Maryland, for example, will include the percent of students enrolled in an AP course as a measure of school quality, and will use the number of students who earn a 3 or higher on an AP exam as a CCR indicator, which is the most productive use of an AP measure; By measuring how many students take AP, and how many then pass the AP test, Maryland can get closer to understanding both the quality of instruction and the level of preparedness among its graduates in addition to how widespread AP course and test taking are in the state. 

Massachusetts will include an indicator that counts students who have “completed a broad course of study or achieve a passing score in AP.” This is helpful to include in plans but could be made stronger by counting the number of students who enroll – especially in Massachusetts, where only 36 percent of juniors and seniors in 2016 enrolled at least one AP course.

The benefits of AP for young people and teachers

Accessing college-level rigor within the walls of their familiar high school may allow students to gain skills and confidence as they prepare to graduate. The benefits of AP courses exams extend beyond a college credit or a test of preparedness. For example, because students have exposure to rigorous coursework, they have the opportunity learn perseverance, time management, and effective study strategies. These assets can be difficult to measure or assess, but many districts have found that course or exam completion can demonstrate mastery of these skills, which indicates preparedness. For low-income students or students of color, or those who will be first-generation college students, access to rigorous courses while in high school allows them to preview the type of course they’ll take in college without the pressure of being on a college campus. 

The most important factor in the success of an AP course is the quality of instruction.  As with all teaching, delivery of the curriculum and coursework varies by teacher — and this variance can impact a student’s ability to complete the course or pass the exam. Teaching an AP course is demanding: instructors must follow a specific curriculum, and they need time to plan, teach, tutor, and grade. Some teachers can make themselves available during lunch, before and after school, and can provide significant support to each student in their AP courses. In other school environments, teachers are not enabled to be available in the same way. Sometimes, teachers who lack experience and training are asked to take on an AP class, and are not fully equipped for the demands that a rigorous course requires. In some of these schools, there are not enough resources to fund adequate teacher training or even afford the right AP course materials, which in turn reduces the quality of instruction. There is no guarantee that every district can provide teachers with the right supports to ensure quality instruction across the board – which is a detriment to all students, particularly those taking rigorous AP courses. Schools should be investing in ongoing professional development related to AP instruction, but that isn’t always the case. For students who already face barriers to succeeding in high school, low-quality instruction could prevent them from accessing the benefits offered by AP courses that other students gain.

When state accountability systems emphasize AP course taking, districts and schools are incentivized to look at the courses they are offering and work to increase or diversify options for all students. As the expansion continues, focusing on instructional quality for students to be better prepared for AP courses will be important – this is the equity mandate. We are glad to see that states are including a measure of AP at all, but we would encourage them to build out stronger indicators than a simple participation count. Increased participation numbers have to lead to increased pass rates at a level that indicates college readiness, which would be a score of 3 or above– tracking both will be the best way to describe success.