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Andy Matarrese/MEDILL

Data: Chicago Public Schools

As enrollment in Advanced Placement classes in Chicago has grown, so has the the number of students earning a 3 or better on the exam, the score required at most colleges for credit.

Chicago’s Advanced Placement scores good, but can be better: ‘Sit and get’ instruction won’t cut it

by Andy Matarrese
May 25, 2011


Andy Matarrese/MEDILL

Data: Chicago Public Schools 

The number of students enrolling in AP courses has risen in the past five years, as have the number of tests taken. The raw number of tests earning a score of 3 or better over that time has increased, and that percentage of the total pool of tests has stayed fairly constant. CLICK for a larger image of the graph.

It’s easy to feel good about Chicago Public Schools’ progress in encouraging students to take Advanced Placement courses. They’ve brought in more than 8,000 new students in the past five years, a more than 60 percent increase.

Still, the rate of students earning scores of 3 or higher, the score many colleges consider adequate to earn college credit, has hovered between 30 percent to 35 percent over that time, well behind the national 3-or-better rate of 58 percent.

That Chicago’s schools have maintained that percentage at all is somewhat remarkable, said Trevor Packer, the vice president for the Advanced Placement Program for the College Board.

He explained it in sports terms:

“If you have more runners run a marathon, the average time for the marathon will go down,” he said. The same is often true when enrollment in Advanced Placement programs swells: As more kids take the test, he said, the average grade drops.

“There’s no district of that size that’s been able to do that,” Packer said. Every other urban district that has expanded Advanced Placement class enrollment, he said, has seen their percentage of high scores go down.

“It’s not what was expected,” he said.

That Chicago’s share of passing Advanced placement scores is so low is “pretty sad,” said Paul Zavitkovsky, who helps train doctoral students bound for leadership positions at troubled schools at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Still, he said, enrolling more students is a good place to start when it comes to furthering student success.

But what of making that share of good scores greater?

Most teacher training and professional development, Zavitovsky said, is not very well oriented toward teaching the kind of skills that translate to success on Advanced Placement tests.

“There’s a pretty strong bias in the front end to think about curriculum as passing on a particular body of content,” he said.

For difficult questions on Advanced Placement exams – or even the SAT and ACT – he explained, the difference between just-passing scores and high scores is whether the test taker can think critically and synthesize different information, not just recite data.

“It’s added complexity that really marks the difference between lower and higher scale scores,” he said. “You have to be able to do some stuff with that information that’s novel.”

People teach the way they were taught, and that amounts to what he called the “sit and get” method in many cases. Changing that mentality, he said, will go a long way to help students with these kinds of tests.

Jeffrey Cass, dean of College of Arts and Science University of Louisiana at Monroe, spent time in Texas helping school districts there improve the quality of their Advanced Placement instruction. Cass said there is value in the courses whatever a student might score on the test.

“When students get through an AP course, they have much greater likelihood of getting a college degree,” he said. “So even if they don’t pass the exam, there’s still a great deal of benefit to be had from simply taking that course.”