Achievement Gap

More blacks, Latinos took AP exams, but more failed them, too

Both the mayor and the chancellor have now issued statements boasting about gains on Advanced Placement exams, the rigorous tests that are considered a good indicator of whether students are prepared for college. But the picture is more complex than they suggest, and if anything the evidence adds to concerns raised yesterday about college preparedness, particularly among black and Hispanic students.

More students are definitely taking the exams than were in 2002, whether you look at the sheer numbers — a total of 23,600 students took the tests in 2008, up from less than 17,000 in 2002 — or at proportions — in 2008, about 23% of eleventh- and twelfth-graders took AP exams, up from 21% in 2002.*

But, as I suggested yesterday, the increased participation has led to a lower pass rate:


A falling pass rate is not necessarily bad. If more students are taking exams, it’s likely that some of those new additions would have done worse in past years, too — they just didn’t take the exams in past years. But remember that students are not joining the AP pool at random. Those who take AP exams are usually students who are already enrolled in rigorous classes. If adding a group of relatively high-level students to the pool pushes the AP pass rate down, that’s not too promising. And I’m not even getting into the fact that “passing” is defined as getting a 3, 4, or a 5 on a 1-to-5 scale‚ when some colleges only accept a 4 or 5 score as actually passing.

Black and Hispanic students appear to struggle most on the exams. More students took the exams from every racial group last year, but only black and Hispanic students’ pass rates declined:


Meanwhile, though it’s impossible to calculate the exact percentage of students that took AP exams, a rough estimate* suggests that participation rates are still very low. Only 12% of black eleventh- and twelfth-graders and only 16% of Hispanics took at least one of the exams in 2008, by the rough estimate, up from 9% and 14% respectively in 2002.

Not everyone has to take AP exams, to be sure, and many city high schools do not even offer the high-level classes that prepare for the exams. But doing well on them is a good predictor of success in college, and students who want to apply to competitive colleges often do take them.

*The best way to measure the proportion of students who took AP exams would be to divide apples into apples: For instance, to divide the number of 12th-graders taking an exam into the total number of twelfth graders. A Department of Education spokesman, Andrew Jacob, told me that these figures aren’t available this year. The College Board did not break down New York City test-takers by grade level. Therefore, to calculate proportions, I had to assume that the test-takers were eleventh- and twelfth-graders, and I divided that number into the total number of eleventh- and twelfth-graders in the city.

Upon further review

McQueen defends graduation statistic, acknowledges missteps in communication

Candice McQueen is commissioner of education in Tennessee.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that more Tennessee high school graduates are fulfilling the state’s requirements than originally thought by her department.

In a memo to school superintendents, she said only 22 percent of recent graduates received their diplomas without completing the requirements. Last month, a state report put that number at 33 percent.

But she defended the original statistic, saying it reflected data available at the time.

“We know many of you have received questions from your local community about your graduates, and we understand the graduation requirement statistic has led to misunderstandings and wrong conclusions,” she wrote. “We recognize the report did not do enough to convey the extent to which districts and schools have been and are working to meet state policy on graduation requirements.”

The memo was signed by both McQueen and Wayne Miller, executive director of the Tennessee Organization for School Superintendents. Local district superintendents had asked the State Department of Education to review the startling statistic, initially released in a department report on the state’s high schools.

McQueen emphasized that no wrongdoing led to so many students missing credits. Instead, they came about from districts using state-sanctioned waivers or allowing students to substitute courses for some requirements, she said.

The commissioner also released guidance related to course data entry in an effort to minimize errors in the future.

“I know your concern on this statistic is rooted in your deep desire to ensure that every student is equipped to be successful after they leave our K-12 system, and we want to do everything we can to both support you in that mission and to provide you with data that will help you further understand how students are doing,” she wrote.

Read the full memo here:

Looking closer

That stunning statistic about a third of Tennessee graduates not meeting requirements? It’s not true

When Chad Moorehead saw that Tennessee’s education department had concluded that a third of graduates received a diploma without meeting the state’s requirements, his first instinct was to find out how many of his own students had fallen through the cracks.

“We’re so small,” said Moorehead, superintendent of Moore County Schools in Middle Tennessee. “We usually have a pretty good handle on what our kids are doing. If we’re missing something in our one high school, I want to know what it is and how to fix it.”

He quickly got an answer from the state: Only 62 percent of recent graduates in Moore County had actually met requirements.

That didn’t seem accurate to Moorehead, so he went through all of his students’ transcripts by hand. He couldn’t find a single one who had gotten an undeserved diploma.

Department officials said he was right. They had counted students who took math and English at a local community college as not having taken those courses at all.

Moorehead wasn’t the only superintendent with questions. State officials quickly started examining graduation data — and reached a new conclusion.

While state officials continue to check districts’ data, it appears that about a third of what looked like missing requirements were in fact data errors. For the remainder, students had actually been allowed to graduate without taking required courses.

That means that only 22 percent of Tennessee graduates had not met requirements, not the 33 percent originally identified by the state.

“It’s better than we thought,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat on Wednesday. “It’s helping us move forward with more clarity.”

McQueen said the state is taking several steps. At the top of the list, she said, is working with the companies that manage student information to improve data entry.

But she said officials also would work with districts to make sure all students fulfill requirements. Sometimes, graduates had been improperly allowed to substitute courses for requirements. In other cases, waivers that were originally designed for students pursuing career training instead went to students who should not have been eligible, she said.

“Waivers are not meant to be used all of the time,” McQueen said.

She said she believes confusion, not wrongdoing, led to some districts overdoing course substitutions and waivers.

“These are misunderstandings that add up,” she said.

The revised report is likely to restore damaged confidence in Tennessee’s much-touted graduation rate gains. But they raise new questions about how the department is managing crucial information about the success of its schools.

“The state department did this research, they got this alarming statistic,” Moorehead said. “Why didn’t they reach out to districts to check the data and start to solve the problem before announcing it to the world?”

Correction, February 16, 2017: This version corrects that, based on current information, only 22 percent of Tennessee graduates did not meet requirements. In a previous version, Commissioner McQueen misspoke regarding the percentage of missing requirements attributed to data errors.