Wednesday, January 2, 2019

On AP, "advanced coursework," and how budget and policy can't be separated

While I tweeted out some of this yesterday, I wanted to talk some more about this article from Scott O'Connell on Worcester's "advanced coursework" numbers.

Let's first acknowledge that much of the point of having items included in the state accountability system is to have districts have just this discussion ('though it would be useful for the discussion to take place at actual school committee meetings, not only the pages of the local paper). The addition of access to advanced coursework recognizes the long history of access to such coursework being inequitable, with students of color, those whose first language is one other than English, those who are poor, being much less likely to have access to such courses and to take such courses in high school. This is part of the report for a reason: subgroup data is what needs to be focused on here.

It's also important to note that while both international baccalaureate and advanced placement courses are included in these numbers, that isn't all. The state's glossary defines it as:
This indicator is reported as the percentage of all students enrolled in 11th and 12th grade that achieve a passing score in at least one advanced course, including but not limited to Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), dual enrollment for credit, and other selected rigorous mathematics and science courses.
The "rigorous mathematics and science courses" (a limit which makes this humanities person bristle: figure out how to include humanities on that one, DESE!) naturally includes a significant number of courses that are neither AP or IB (it basically includes all math after algebra II, for example; the full list, downloaded from DESE, is here). Such courses "largely fall[ing]" within AP and IB is too sweeping a statement.

It is absolutely the case, though, that Worcester has made a major push in recent years not only to expand AP courses, but to push more kids into them, and I use that verb advisedly. There have been and continue to be open questions around the actual benefits to students of advanced placement courses, and this is something Worcester--and most districts--haven't addressed in any way.

In terms of access, the story is in the subgroups, and the article calls that out:
Worcester’s advanced course-completion numbers were not equal across student subgroups and schools. White (62 percent) and black (61 percent) students, for instance, had higher rates then [sic] Latino (49 percent) students. Economically disadvantaged students (52 percent), high needs students (51 percent), and English language learners (40 percent) also completed advanced classes at a lower rate than the district average.
You can find that data here (scroll down). You can also compare it to the prior year (which makes it look like something weird was going on last year with the students with disabilities subgroup), though a single year change may not be much to go on. This does show, however, what is improving, what is not, and by how much; you don't, as with economically disadvantaged students, want to see numbers getting smaller.

The category including courses beyond AP, however, does make the numbers that much more sobering: only 58% of the entire student body received a passing grade in ANY advanced coursework last year? That's troubling.

The article misses one important piece of information around AP access in Worcester, however; it's this, from the Advanced Placement policy in the student handbook (p. 68 in the PDF):
Students are responsible for costs for Advanced Placement Exams. The cost for one Advanced Placement Exam is $90.00. Scholarships and reduced fees are available for eligible students. School guidance counselors can provide additional information. Students must take the Advanced Placement Examination in their course in order to receive Advanced Placement credit for the course. Students who do not take the Advanced Placement Examination, but pass the course, shall receive honors credit for the course
Students are responsible for the costs of the exams; each exam costs $90. The fee has only been waived for some of the math and science courses in recent years; students have to pay $90 for each exam. Those eligible for free and reduced lunch--a form that is no longer filled out in Worcester under community eligiblity--are assessed half price.
Maybe $50 doesn't sound like a lot to you. Maybe you're not among the majority of WPS students living in poverty, who somehow have to come up with $50 for every single advanced placement course they take in high school.
Because Worcester doesn't fund the test, and because the policy incentivizes taking the test, the policy creates an inequity the budget doesn't fix. The inequity of one only furthers the inequity of the other.

And why does the AP/honors distinction matter? Because an A in an AP course counts as a 5 in a GPA, while an A in an honors course counts as a 4.
I'd suggest that asking our valedictorians how much they've had to pay in exam fees would be a good question around equity in access. Only those who can afford the fee can afford to have particularly high GPAs in Worcester.
And only those who can afford to pay can take AP courses at all in Worcester.

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