More and more Alabama public high school students are doing well on Advanced Placement exams, and the scores announced by Governor Robert Bentley today show that trend is continuing:
In the 43 schools that have implemented the A+ College Ready program over the previous three school years, the average increase in passing scores after one year of the program has been 108 percent. For minority students, that number is 228 percent.
For perspective, nationally, that increase would be about eight percent.
"A+ College Ready is a proven investment that is preparing our students for college and the jobs of tomorrow," said Bentley.
"If at least 3 credit hours were awarded for each qualifying score, based on the average cost of a three-credit-hour course at the major Alabama universities, the savings to Alabama families exceeds nine million dollars," adds Mary Boehm, president of A+ College Ready, a nonprofit that works to improve student achievement in math, science, and English.
As a result of the program's success, the U.S. Department of Education recently announced Alabama will receive $1.3 million over three years. And that grant is partly the result of spreading cash elsewhere, through what some educators would call a "successful investment."
The first yearly installment of the Advanced Placement Incentives Program (APIP) grant, $528,992, will be spread among high-poverty high schools this fall. Alabama's share is one of 12 similar awards given to states and districts with the goal of increasing access to rigorous science, technology, engineering, and math courses."Offering incentives for performance and extra pay for extra work sends a message to students and teachers that expansion of and success in rigorous AP courses are important..." -A+ College Ready
"It's very exciting that the U. S. Department of Education is recognizing success in Alabama. The federal government is rewarding by investing" in programs that have "brought rigorous courses to underserved students across the state," says Boehm.
According to the College Board, another nonprofit whose mission is to expand access to higher education nationally, 7,710 seniors leaving Alabama high schools in 2010 had taken an AP exam, and 3,573 had scored the minimum required for college credit. Those are increases of 266 percent and 230 percent, respectively, over 2001, far outpacing increases in other states. Since 2007, the number of Alabama students taking AP courses has increased by more than 4,000.
So how and why did this happen?
By most accounts, the A+ College Ready program, which gets funding from corporate and public sources, has been instrumental, not to mention controversial. Program president Boehm says the organization has three goals: increasing the number of AP courses offered, increasing the number of students enrolled in those courses, and improving those students' success rates on the AP exams. To achieve those goals, the program trains teachers of AP courses and "pre-AP" ninth- and tenth-grade courses, provides new AP teachers with mentors, and offers all-day Saturday prep sessions to students several times a year. And here's the source of controversy: students who score a 3 (the minimum for college credit on a scale of 1 to 5) or higher get a $100 stipend, and teachers get a $100 stipend for each student who "passes" with that minimum score.
Regarding this practice, the A+ College Ready website says, "Offering incentives for performance and extra pay for extra work sends a message to students and teachers that expansion of and success in rigorous AP courses are important .... Financial awards are one way to effectively encourage and support teachers as they participate in the training necessary to teach more rigorous courses and spend the time required to teach a college-level course."
The program also pays for each student to take the test. Covering that $87 fee removes a hurdle for students from low-income families.
More than 40 percent of the students at all 14 of the new APIP-grant high schools are on free or reduced lunch. These schools will comprise the A+ College Ready program's fourth yearly cohort. There are now 64 Alabama schools using the program. The five-year, $13.2-million National Math and Science Initiative grant that started it was originally championed by former Governor Bob Riley and outgoing state superintendent Joe Morton. Education policy analysts generally consider the program to be one of the successes of Morton's tenure."Research shows that students who take challenging classes are more likely to earn a college degree. This program will help give more low-income students the opportunity to take advanced courses and prepare them to succeed in college and careers." -U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
The federal APIP grant will also help fund partnerships with ACCESS Distance Learning, a state program meant to equalize educational opportunities across Alabama, which has some of the nation's best and best-funded school systems, and some of the nation's most underserved and underfunded systems. The goal of that partnership will be to train AP teachers and expand enrollment though virtual AP courses.
Alabama's success with AP course enrollment and exam performance is happening against a troubling backdrop: besides budget constraints that threaten at least some of the programs responsible for the gains, a third of Alabama high school students who go to college end up taking remedial courses their freshman year because they're just not ready for college-level work.
But more access to challenging college-level courses in high school could help alleviate those deficiencies and increase college graduation rates:
"Research shows that students who take challenging classes are more likely to earn a college degree," says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "This program will help give more low-income students the opportunity to take advanced courses and prepare them to succeed in college and careers."
The USDE stipulates that school systems can use the APIP grants to support AP programs through teacher training, curriculum development, books, supplies, and on-line courses. The total awarded to Alabama - $528,992 this year, $516,429 in 2012, and $305,951 in 2013 - will be $1,351,372.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/amanda_munoz.