More and more Alabama high school students are taking Advanced Placement courses and doing well on the exams, and as a result, the state will receive $1.3 million over three years from the U.S. Department of Education. 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 Advance Placement Incentives Program (APIP) grant, $528,992, will be spread among 14 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.
"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 Mary Boehm, president of A+ College Ready, a nonprofit that works to improve student achievement in math, science, and English.
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?Students who score a 3 or higher get a $100 stipend, and teachers get a $100 stipend for each student who "passes" with a 3.
By basically all 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 a 3.
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."This program will help give more low-income students the opportunity to take advanced courses and prepare them to succeed in college and careers." -Arne Duncan
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. State education policy analysts generally consider the program to be one of the successes of Morton's tenure.
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 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 AP courses. The total awarded to Alabama - $528,992 this year, $516,429 in 2012, and $305,951 in 2013 - will be $1,351,372.
The 14 high schools set to implement A+ College Ready through the APIP grant are: Calera and Shelby County High Schools in Shelby County; Greenville High School in Butler County; Hillcrest High School in Conecuh County; Asbury, Douglas, and Kate Duncan Smith High Schools in Marshall County; Monroe County High School; Saraland High School in Saraland City; Tallassee High School in Tallassee City; Paul W. Bryant, Central, and Northridge High Schools in Tuscaloosa City; and Tuscaloosa County High School.