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Raising the Bar

Posted January 30, 2008 by Elise Young

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Your kid is bright, your school district is aggressive, and you’re hoping for a little help with college tuition. Do Advanced Placement classes help all of the above?

Wrap your brain around this little gem: “If a segment of DNA is 5’-TAC GAT TAG-3’, the RNA that results from the transcription of this segment will be …”

Stumped? You could run it by a geneticist or a biochemist. Or you could ask a New Jersey teenager enrolled in an Advanced Placement biology course. Many of them ace this kind of stuff.

These are good times for the state’s 36,000 high school students taking university-level exams offered by the nonprofit College Board, the same folks who oversee the SAT. AP kids, amid peers whose major contribution to society is warp-speed text messaging, relish the finer points of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and dipole moments of molecules.

“Without AP, I probably would have learned far less,” says Andrew Schlafly, a 17-year-old 2006 Delbarton School graduate who skipped his sophomore year and still managed to rack up 21 AP classes and exams in the hope that his efforts would better prepare him for college —and exempt him from freshman requirements at Harvard University this fall.

“The students in the classes were selected—teachers knew they could expect a lot more from us,” Schlafly says. “It raised the level of achievement and interest, and they were far better experiences than regular classes.”

Scary-smart Veena Venkatachalam aced the AP statistics test as a ninth-grader—after skipping the class itself. She performed so phenomenally on her AP exams at Governor Livingston High School in Berkeley Heights that she was one of only two students in the nation to earn an $8,000 Siemens Foundation AP award in 2005. For fun this summer at MIT, where she is starting her sophomore year, she worked on a genetics project that involved, she says, “bad smells and bacteria. When you’re given a decent public high school with AP classes, if you want to learn, you have the avenues to pursue what you want to do.”

Those “decent public schools”—like private, parochial, and prep schools across the Garden State—love Advanced Placement. Parents and educators stress the AP, and stress out about it as they search for new ways to help high schoolers achieve in the classroom and get into the “right” colleges.

But this hypercompetitive crop of achievement-driven baby boomer parents can get nutty. In some cases, children are being told not to tell their peers where they’re applying to college: parents fear that if their kid’s friend applies to the same school, he may attract the admissions committee with better grades and more extracurricular activities and snatch a coveted spot in the school from their child. And school officials have to answer to these aggressive parents, who want to know if their tax dollars are going to translate into college acceptance letters and, better yet, academic scholarships. Surveys and school rankings (like the ones on page 71) contribute to the hysteria, since the number of AP tests and classes, as well as students’ success rates, factor into the state-sponsored school report card and New Jersey Monthly’s biennial ranking.

But where do the students factor in? High-achieving and motivated students with supportive families, nurturing academic institutions, and access to tutors and study programs can rock in their AP worlds.

“The validity of the program is the kids are committed to it,” says Ken Rota, principal of Glen Ridge High School, where one-fifth of the 470 students are enrolled in AP courses. “Our teachers are committed to it.”

The Advanced Placement advantage goes well beyond high school. Children with high exam scores often receive college credit, saving time and money. Have you looked at a year’s tuition and fees at Prince­ton lately? It’s reached $42,400. Down the road in Ewing Township, the College of New Jersey—the “public Ivy”—is closing in on $20,000. Most highly regarded colleges, however, will take nothing lower than a score of four (with five as a perfect grade) to grant a student what is known as “advanced standing,” which exempts them from certain entry-level courses.

The AP movement began in 1952, when teachers from Andover, Exeter, and Lawrenceville (the country’s most prestigious prep schools) and representatives from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton published a report urging high schools and college to encourage high school seniors to study at the college level. With a similar recommendation from another group of 24 high schools and colleges and a grant from the Ford Foundation, a pilot program was launched in eleven subjects to challenge bright high school students and give them an edge in college admissions and preparation. Today the AP’s curricula for 37 courses, from chemistry to drawing to Japanese culture and language, are the same all over the country, meaning a kid from LEAP Academy Charter High School in Camden is digesting the same material as one from $22,500-a-year Delbarton in Morristown.

The national newsweeklies and state departments of education routinely factor in AP statistics when ranking the country’s finest high schools, and for administrators, a mention on any of those lists shines brightly on the curriculum vitae. Teachers, some of whom attend summer AP workshops, feel personally rewarded by their students’ high achievements. Also, come contract bargaining time, it’s hard to argue that educators who deliver results don’t deserve a raise.

And those teachers work for it. The College Board coordinates the material and scores the exams, but it doesn’t pay for the books and computer programs necessary to explain wave-particle duality or walk through the marine biology case study. Where local districts’ budgets fall short, teachers sometimes improvise.
“I actually have to go to the Rutgers University library and take out books for them to read on my card,” says Elaine Sala, an AP English literature teacher for the fledgling LEAP (Leadership, Education, and Partnership) Academy, which opened in 1997. “The money to pay for these books just isn’t there.”

Finding money for course materials is just one of the stumbling blocks that teachers face when they strive to challenge high school students to hit the books. While some districts aim for the highest test scores, others—particularly those that aren’t largely white, suburban, and wealthy—have another goal: drawing kids to AP classes in the first place. It sounds pretty good, for instance, that 96 percent of New Jersey’s public high schools offer AP courses. Nationally, just 60 percent of schools participate. But, in a state where blacks and Latinos make up one-third of the population, minorities are under-enrolled in AP classes and scarce at exam time.

Black students make up 14.7 percent of New Jersey’s total high school population, but represented only 5 percent of all students who took an AP exam in 2005, according to a College Board report. Latino students fared somewhat better: They make up 13.6 percent of high school enrollment and represented 9.5 percent of the exam takers.

Jennifer Topiel, executive director of public affairs for the College Board, takes one look at those figures and comes to a quick conclusion. “New Jersey is not doing very well on access,” she says.

The College Board calls these racial imbalances “equity gaps,” and identifies them as a major area of concern nearly everywhere in its own “Report to the Nation 2006.” African-American and Native American students “remain significantly underrepresented nationwide,” the report concludes, and Latinos “remain underrepresented in AP programs in many states.”

At the same time, Florida, Maryland, and the District of Columbia have actually enrolled more Latinos in AP classes than in regular classes, and California and Texas are heading in that direction. Twelve states—but not New Jersey—have eliminated the gap for Latinos by bettering their elementary and middle school curricula, expanding AP offerings and underwriting test fees, which will reach $83 per test in 2007. Only two states, Hawaii and South Dakota, have closed the gap for African-Americans.

In Camden, whose population is 53.3 percent black and 38.8 percent Latino, the LEAP Academy finds itself with an awful lot of catching up to do. “It’s a brand-new school,” says Sala, the AP English lit teacher. “Our graduating class was 38 and 100 percent of them went on to college. My AP class was 10. They worked hard, studied hard, and did everything that an AP student needs to do.”

Those students succeed despite their early years in Camden’s schools, Sala says, where a decades-long culture of failure landed the school district under state supervision in 1999, a step from a full takeover.

“The problem is these programs should start earlier,” Sala says. “They’ve not been introduced to World Literature or classics at any level. The department chairman who was there before me taught a lot of black literature, helping them become aware and valuing their background. But that’s not everything the world has. Students need to have a grasp of literature that’s other than the Harlem Renaissance writers. By the time I get them in senior year, it’s too late.”

In January, Craig A. Stanley, an assemblyman from Essex County, introduced legislation that would give local school boards $300,000 to buy AP materials, train teachers, and pay exam fees for low-income students. But with the state looking at a $4.3 billion shortfall, the legislation never reached the floor for a vote. It expired in committee as lawmakers left the Statehouse for summer vacation.

AP programs may be churning out achievers, but the College Board finds itself defending its programs to academics and journalists who question whether every AP class truly pays dividends at the college level. A 2000 study by the Educational Testing Service, the Princeton-based College Board contractor, found that students who took AP math and science classes were more likely to major in those fields than those who first took comparable classes as college freshmen. Studies by other researchers, in 2004 and 2005, concluded that AP enrollees who scored high on their exams tend to do well in college and get a degree.

But in 2006, researchers from Harvard and the University of Virginia found that AP classes didn’t contribute to overwhelming success for 18,000 college students in intro-level biology, chemistry, and physics. They recommended freshman attend the classes even if they felt well-prepared by AP. The recommendation seems to run counter to the hope that incoming freshmen will get a break in their college course loads.

In fact, a recent study showed that the average New Jersey college student is taking six years to graduate. Part of the explanation lies with students’ lack of preparation: high school graduates are beginning their college careers with more rudimentary course work to catch up on. But while high-achieving AP students might not need remedial work, most students and their parents are fighting to manage rising university tuition. At Rutgers, an 8 percent hike for in-state students and 10 percent bump for out-of-state kids means more and more students have to study part-time while working or take a semester off to pay bills or save for the next tuition bill.

And there are other, far more basic problems with the AP. It’s one thing to have high numbers of students in the classrooms, and quite another to see them take the year-end test. The College Board leaves individual school districts to decide whether students must go through with exams. “We don’t have any right to require all students to take AP courses, let alone the AP exams,” says Trevor Packer, executive director of the College Board Advanced Placement program. “Also, we know that students would be deterred from the rigors of an AP course if they had to risk the exam fee right up front.”

In some circles, parents and educators whisper about the potential for schools to take advantage of that choice. They claim that if a school can discourage an underperforming faction of AP kids from taking the test, it can artificially inflate its students’ achievements by hawking only the scores of the elite—and ultimately shortchanging others’ education. Do these claims amount to sour grapes? Perhaps. But any time a loophole exists, so too does it raise the temptation for impropriety.
“We require testing with no exceptions and no pretending,” says Deborah Jennings, academic dean for the upper school of Montclair Kimberley Academy, a pre-K–12 private school. “It really does not legitimize the choice to use the AP program and to use the AP curriculum if you’re not then willing to follow that up with the AP exam. On our tests we would have a 5—perfect—if we took only the scores of the top performers. (The school’s average scores for 2006 were 4.7 for the English and Calculus exams and 4.4 on the Spanish exam.)

Glen Ridge, which routinely ranks in New Jersey Monthly’s top 10 public high schools, has a no-weasel policy on the exams too. “Every school is a little different on that,” says Rota, the principal. “But if a kid doesn’t take the test, where’s the challenge? That’s what gives AP its strength.”

And if you want to test it yourself, see if you can find an AP kid who can answer the equation at the beginning of this story.

Elise Young is a writer for The Record of Hackensack.


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