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Gains in city's AP exam pass rate outpaced participation growth

This slide from a Department of Education presentation compares the number of students taking AP exams to the number of students passing them.

As more city students took exams meant to earn them college credit and credentials last year, more passed.

The finding, contained in College Board data that the Department of Education released today, bucks a common trend in standardized testing: As testing pools grow and become more diverse, average scores are likely to fall.

That trend has played out nationally for years on the SAT, which most colleges require for admission: Nationally, SAT scores have inched downward each year as more students have taken the test, this year falling to a four-decade low.

In New York City, 2.3 percent more students took the SAT last year than in 2011, but the average score stayed relatively flat. (The total number of students taking the SAT last year comprised 89 percent of the year’s senior class, although not all test-takers were seniors.) The local average score fell by two points, compared to four points nationally even as the participation rate rose faster here.

And the number of city high school students taking Advanced Placement tests, which show mastery in high-level courses and can confer college credits, jumped by 9.1 percent, according to the data. But the number of students passing the exams rose by even more — 12.7 percent — meaning that students’ overall performance improved alongside participation. In total, 56 percent of students who attempted an AP exam last year passed, compared to about 54 percent in each of the previous four years.

The AP gains come as the city Department of Education is pushing schools to expand access to college-level coursework to more students. Forty more high schools administered AP exams last year than in 2009, according to the department.

“As we continue to raise academic standards, our students are rising to the challenge,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a statement. “Advanced Placement and SAT exams are important benchmarks along a student’s path to success in their college and careers, and I’m proud that every year, more New York City students are taking these exams.”

The long-term participation-to-performance ratio is more mixed. Since 2002, the number of students attempting at least one AP exam has risen by 89 percent, but the number of students passing at least one test has risen by slightly less, 86.5 percent. And the gains among new test-takers have been highest among white and Asian students. On average, only half of the increase in the number of black and Hispanic students who took AP exams since 2008 resulted in passing scores, compared to 71 percent for Asian students and 80 percent for white students.

In addition, city students’ average SAT score is well below the national average. This year, NYC students scored an average total score of 1,325, while the national average is 1,477.

Both SAT and AP exam participation and performance will be factored into high schools’ progress report grades for the first time next month. Last year, they were displayed on the progress reports but did not affect their final scores.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.