On Target April/May 2016
  • Advanced Placement:
    Increasing Participation Without Compromising Student Performance

    Like many other school districts in New Jersey, the Jackson School District has become keenly aware of the metrics of school performance that are outlined in the annual school performance report.  As analyzed our own scores, we found ourselves diving in to a close examination of our advanced placement program.

    Undoubtedly, there exists a delicate balance between increasing participation in advanced placement coursework without compromising student performance on advanced placement exams (after all, we all want to be able to post that AP Honor Roll banner up on our website and in our schools). Here in the Jackson School District we set out on a mission to find that balance.

    Our work began by engaging all of our advanced placement stakeholders in a thorough program review, which sought to identify the strengths and weaknesses of our existing program, as well as address the unique needs of our advanced placement students and teachers.  The results of this review revealed several actionable measures that included:

    • A revision of our process for identifying eligible AP students;
    • An alteration to our existing master schedule to make more accessible to all students;
    • An analysis of historical AP performance to best match our highest potential students with our most effective AP teachers, and
    • A rethinking of how we could best support our AP teachers to be successful.

    Identifying Students with the Potential To Be Successful in Advanced Placement coursework

    One of our first steps was to chart a new vision for how we identified potential advanced placement students.  Historically, each of our AP courses had established their own unique criteria based on the course, with criteria for certain AP courses being exceptionally rigorous and other courses that amounted to essentially be open enrollment.  This had created an imbalance in AP participation directly related to the rigor of the entrance criteria and allowed certain courses (and certain AP teachers) to control the participation in their AP courses.

    Based on the feedback from AP teachers and key staff members within each academic department, the challenge for our school district was to provide a more balanced approach across the academic departments while still maintaining a high level of autonomy with regard to selectivity within each academic department. Therefore, we implemented a district-defined, rigorous AP entrance criteria that established certain non-negotiable minimum grade requirements in prerequisite coursework and provided multiple pathways to AP coursework via both Honors and College Prep level pre-requisites, which helped cast a wider net for potential AP students. 

    • Students who are currently in Honors level courses, who maintain a grade of 90 or better, may enroll in an Advanced Placement Course.
    • Students who are currently in Honors level courses, who achieve a grade of 80 or better, may enroll in an Advanced Placement Course with teacher recommendation.
    • Students who are currently in a College Prep course who achieve a grade of 95 or better may be eligible to enroll in an Advanced Placement Course with teacher recommendation and a review of standardized test scores.

    A key component of this district criteria was the ability for each academic department to establish their own departmentally-defined appeal process for students who did not meet the minimum grade criteria. 

    The departmentally-defined appeal process essentially provided the “local control” that many AP teachers and department leaders had wanted to ensure that AP performance did not lag as a result of increased participation. 

    Make AP Coursework More Accessible

    A common theme among the feedback that we received from our stakeholders was the value in providing all of our students with the opportunity to experience the rigor and expectations of true college-level coursework.  To do that we needed to find ways to make the AP experience more accessible to all of our students. We identified two significant obstacles that were within our control. 

    First, we needed to help change students’ perceptions of themselves as potential AP students and we needed to equip our guidance staff with help in breaking these perceptions.  In October 2014, our district administered the PSAT to all 10th and 11th grade students for the first time.  By moving from the optional administration on a Saturday to a required administration during the school day, we were able to gather an important data point on a large portion of our high school students.  In doing so, we were also able to unlock the power of “AP Potential” through the Collegeboard.

    Using this data, our guidance department was now able identify students who may not have considered themselves as AP students in the past.  Furthermore, we were able to reach out directly to those students’ parents to engage them in considering the benefits of the AP experience and how it could potentially improve post-secondary outcomes. 

    The second significant obstacle was a barrier that was essentially self-imposed: the master schedule.  With both of our high schools on a semester block schedule, the challenge of balancing full-year AP courses within the many semester-based requirements had created a master schedule that was wrought with conflicts and competing interests.  In many cases, the decision to take AP coursework was dictated by when certain courses were offered and frequently left high potential students with choices of one AP course over another one just because they had to be offered at the same exact time.

    With a great deal of effort from the guidance department and compromises among departmental leaders, our district systematically eliminated scheduling conflicts to maximize student participation.  Along the way, our district also identified that the use of AP Potential had a residual benefit among our departmental leaders who were able to use the results to identify new AP course offerings, such as AP Environmental Science and AP Macroeconomics, which had not been previously been offered to students.  Although not perfect, the outcome was a master schedule that provided maximum opportunities for highly capable students with minimum conflicts.

    Support AP Teachers and Students

    With AP participation rapidly increasing, it was imperative that our school district provide the necessary supports to both our students and our teachers to provide them with the opportunity to also increase their performance.  One of our first key steps to address overall AP performance was the acknowledgement that AP students and AP teachers have unique needs and that our traditional paths to support instruction and provide professional development are not necessarily the most effective approach for them.  In recognizing this, our school district identified the need for establishing a staff member within each of our high schools, who devoted a portion of their time to directly supporting all of the AP programs, teachers, and students.  These staff members, who we termed “AP Coordinators” moved well beyond the coordination of AP testing in the Spring.  These AP Coordinators became the lead data analysts for historical AP performance, the facilitators of professional learning opportunities for AP teachers, the managers of AP supply budgets, and the gatekeepers for AP entrance fairness and equality. 

    Together these local advocates worked closely with building and district administrators to provide the most effective, current resources for both AP teachers and students, including the expanded use of innovative instructional technology and a shift toward more student-centered instruction.  With such a responsive, high level of support, our AP teachers and students can focus more on what matters most: improving student performance.

    Takeaways for District Leaders

    Being able to simultaneously expand participation and increase Jackson School District students’ performance in AP coursework is difficult work, but it work worth doing. As we prepare all of our students for college and career readiness, there is no greater feeling of accomplishment than having our students graduate with the skills and confidence to be successful in college and beyond.