How Illinois educators are getting more students to take — and pass — AP tests

Five years ago, only 16 students from United Township High School District took Advanced Placement exams. Now thanks to efforts that make the rigorous courses more accessible, 92 students from the one-high-school district are signed up to take a total of 172 exams in May.  

A decade ago, Coal City 1 Community School District students had access to just one AP class: calculus. Now they can choose from 10. And Reavis Township High School District has added AP subjects based on student feedback and offers extra study time to AP students.

The districts are three of 11 in Illinois on the College Board’s 10th annual AP District Honor Roll. Nationally, 250 school districts were recognized for expanding access to AP courses while maintaining or improving the number of students who earned passing scores of 3 or higher on the exams.

The College Board also singled out Illinois in a February report for leading states nationally last year on the percentage growth of students who passed AP exams. The report appeared just before Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced his latest budget proposal — a plan that included subsidies to help pay for more AP tests but was overall more austere than some educators had hoped for. 

AP was designed to give students a shot at college-level work while in high school and to give those who earned at least a 3 out of 5 on a final exam a leg up with college credit. By subsidizing the tests, which cost $94 per student per subject, districts have seen booms in AP enrollment and test taking. 

Since 2016, the United Township district has paid exam fees for all students. 

Shannon Miller, director of curriculum and instruction for the district, said removing that financial barrier has made a significant difference, as 60% of the student body qualifies as low-income. 

“They could maybe take one exam, but for a family to pay for four exams is super costly so we just took that away and said, ‘No, we’re going to pay for it and you take as many as you’re prepared for,’” Miller said.  

But district leaders across the state say that picking up the cost of the tests isn’t enough. To recruit more students to take AP classes and pass the exams, schools need a larger selection of courses, fewer academic prerequisites, and more support from faculty. 

Since 2016, both the number of students taking exams and the number of exams passed have increased, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. 

But despite an increase in the number of students taking the tests, researchers have said, too few black and brown students are included. The available data does not provide analysis of the percentage of students of color taking exams. (To read about Chicago Public Schools’ efforts to enroll more black and Latino students in Advanced Placement courses, click here.)

Miller said the 1,750-student United Township district, in East Moline, Illinois, is trying to accomodate a rapidly changing student body. In four years, the school’s English learner population has more than doubled. Students speak about 26 different languages, mostly Spanish and French, she said.

In response, the district offers the Seal of Biliteracy program. Students can take AP Spanish or AP French exams to demonstrate proficiency in either language, and if they pass the tests with a 3 or higher, can earn up to two years of foreign language credit at Illinois colleges, Miller said. The district has also added courses popular with students, such as AP Psychology, and removed a testing requirement for admission into AP courses that had limited participation.

United Township District also offers a three-year critical thinking program that is not an AP course but that it argues gives students a stronger foundation for taking and passing literature, language or government AP exams at the end of senior year. The average AP scores of students who enroll in the critical thinking program are above a 3, which is higher than the state average on the exams, according to district leaders. 

Last year, a few students graduated with AP passing scores of a five, entering college with 15 to 18 college credits, Miller said. 

Coal City 1 Community School District Superintendent Kent Bugg is excited about the increase in offerings. 

“We’re very proud of it, especially considering we’re a little different school district than some of the others on the list,” Bugg said. “We’re a small rural school district. A lot of the schools you see on the list that are traditional AP school districts are more of your suburban area school districts.”

He credits word of mouth among students and the successes of college-bound former students with the district’s significant growth in AP course enrollment.

“We don’t actively try to recruit and push our kids into courses if we feel like they don’t belong there or it wouldn’t be beneficial to them,” Bugg said. “We promote career readiness but we also want to make sure we have those AP courses available for those college-bound students.”

Changing school culture can be critical, said Reavis Township High School Principal Julie Schultz. 

“The belief of the faculty and staff is that all students can learn,” Schultz said. “All students should have equal access to guaranteed viable curriculum, that curriculum being vigorous and challenging. It’s a mindset. It’s a culture of how we view our students.”

The school added courses such as AP Environmental Science based on student feedback. Though the district doesn’t pay all exam fees, students can apply for a fee waiver. Reavis High is more than half Latino and also offers the Seal of Biliteracy program. 

“We’re always looking for opportunities to recognize and acknowledge and not just celebrate but emphasize multi-language, multi-skilled students,” Schultz said. 

 AP students receive extra academic support, such as an intense review period before the exams in May and homeroom periods that give students an extra 30 minutes with their AP teachers to work on homework or get help, that has proved successful, she added. 

“The kids already have what it takes. It’s coaching them and building that confidence that they can do it,” Schultz said.