The Public Eye

Should schools still offer AP classes if most students struggle on exams?

Bob Baker talks to his Advanced Placement physics students on the first day of class at El Camino High School on Thursday, August 16, 2012.
Bob Baker talks to his Advanced Placement physics students on the first day of class at El Camino High School on Thursday, August 16, 2012.

High school students are flocking to Advanced Placement classes in an attempt to earn credits for college, boost their grade-point average and look good on university applications.

But are all students ready for the college-level coursework?

Students at the eight schools in the Sacramento region that fared worst on AP tests failed to score high enough to earn college credit on at least 75 percent of exams in 2015-16. That includes 3,375 tests taken at Florin, Valley, Highlands, Foothill, Natomas, Rosemont, Inderkum and Grant high schools.

Almost half of the scores at those schools were 1s – the lowest score possible.

Officials speaking for the lowest-performing schools said test results shouldn’t be the only measure of AP success. They said the classes expose students to college-level material and show them what is expected after they graduate.

“You want kids taking advanced classes,” said Jim Sanders, spokesman for Natomas Unified School District, which includes Natomas and Inderkum high schools. “It helps better prepare them for college and career.”

Even if passage rates are low at some campuses, AP courses still allow a handful of high-achievers to obtain college credit, said Lori Grace, an assistant superintendent at Twin Rivers Unified, where three of its four high schools – Highlands, Foothill and Grant – had passage rates of 25 percent or lower. Grace said that schools are enrolling more students in AP courses each year.

“For us it means more kids getting college credit and that is the important thing for us,” Grace said. “More kids having the opportunity.”


Most failed AP tests

Students at these eight Sacramento region high schools fared the worst on AP tests in 2015-16. A score of three or higher (out of five) generally receives college credit.
Chart of high schools with low percentage of AP exams passed 
Excludes schools with fewer than 150 AP scores in 2015-16
Source: California Department of Education
The Sacramento Bee

The College Board, which runs AP exams, uses a five-point scale to grade students. Colleges typically give students course credit for scoring a 3 or higher, though some schools require a 4 or 5. The College Board says that a 3 is “qualified” and the equivalent of earning a B-minus or C in a college course.

Falling short of earning college credit does not mean students fail, Grace said. A score of 2 on an Advanced Placement test is still an indication of college readiness, she said.

The effort to get more students into Advanced Placement classes seems to be a national trend. Data from the College Board show that 2.6 million students took at least one AP Exam in 2016, compared to 1.3 million in 2006.

At the lowest scoring schools, there often are no prerequisites or tests in order to sign up for an Advanced Placement course. In fact, most are encouraging more students to sign up for them.

But the El Dorado Union High School District, whose four high schools had among the highest passage rates in the region in 2015-16, places restrictions on who can take AP classes.

Students who enroll in AP English literature and composition, for example, have to first earn at least a B in English 3 or a C in AP English language and composition. Students who want to take the first level of AP calculus must earn at least a B in advanced algebra 2 or a C in pre-calculus plus a teacher recommendation.

Davis High School, which had the highest AP passage rate in the region at 91 percent of tests taken, has similar requirements.

“The philosophy is that they (students) can handle the class and don’t have to transfer out in another month,” said Laura Juanitas, director of student support services at Davis Joint Unified School District.

Despite Davis’ high passage rate, district officials have discussed eliminating the prerequisites for AP classes. “We’ve talked about whether we are putting barriers up for kids,” Juanitas said. “It’s something we are looking at.”

She said the downside to eliminating enrollment requirements is the emotional toll the class can take on students who struggle. “It makes it very hard for the teacher and student,” she said.

Research on whether Advanced Placement classes should have open access is mixed, said Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University and expert on the topic.

“Some will say it actually shows them the level they have to get to to take a college level class and others say you are throwing students out there without a lifeboat,” she said.

Although Pope likes the idea of open access, she said students in low-income schools are often unprepared for college level work. “Basically, they aren’t teaching an AP level course because most of the kids don’t read at that level yet,” she said.

Teaching expertise in AP classes varies from school to school, and the College Board doesn’t mandate professional development.

“There is a different AP U.S. history taught at low-income and suburban elite schools,” Pope said.

Nationwide, in the 10 years between 2006 and 2016, the percentage of tests with scores 3 or higher went from 59.5 percent to 57.9 percent, according to data supplied by the College Board.

Sacramento-area students fared better overall, with students scoring a 3 or higher on about 61 percent of AP tests in 2015-16, according to a Bee review of new data from the California Department of Education.

San Juan and Encina high schools had the lowest passage rates in the region in 2015-16 at 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively. The schools were not included in The Bee’s report because so few students there took AP exams. San Juan Unified School District has prerequisites for some AP classes but not for others, according to district spokesman Trent Allen.

Low passage rates have spurred many local districts to ramp up support, such as offering AP prep classes on weekends and additional help from teachers. Districts also are providing more training to AP teachers.

Local districts say scores have slightly improved for the 2016-17 school year as a result.

“We expect that our more recent upward trend in AP pass rates will continue as a number of efforts have now been in process in the district, and specifically at Valley and Florin,” said Xanthi Pinkerton, Elk Grove Unified School District spokeswoman.

PICO member Danielle Prince talks about the importance of parental involvement in education and how gauging that participation can be done better.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

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