research shows

More students are taking AP exams, but researchers don’t know if that helps them

Juniors in an AP U.S. History class in Lafayette, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Let’s start with the good news: Over the last two decades, a rapidly increasing number of students have taken and passed Advancement Placement exams, which are often seen as helpful preparation for college.

But here’s the bad news: Many more students are also taking those courses but failing the exams. The majority of black and Hispanic test-takers don’t score a 3 or higher, which is usually needed to earn college credit.

So has the rapid expansion of AP been a net good for students and schools?

A new review of research provides a stark reminder that we simply don’t know the answer to that or a number of other important questions about AP courses, even as the program has become a more common part of the American high school experience.

Suneal Kolluri of the University of Southern California looked at over 50 studies of AP tests and classes that examine how they have expanded and whether they’ve equipped students with “college-level knowledge and skills.”

“AP is such an important element of high school for kids and teachers, and we don’t really understand how it’s impacting student experiences,” said Kolluri.

Unsurprisingly, students who score a 3 or higher on an AP exam do better in college. But, remarkably, there is virtually no research pinning down cause and effect — that is, whether taking AP courses actually helps students succeed. The association could be due to factors like a student’s high school quality or their own motivation.

The College Board, the nonprofit that oversees the AP program, points to research that shows that in four general subjects — English, math, history, and world languages — scoring a 2 is associated with boosting a student’s college grade point average in that subject. However, the effect is small, and the research can’t conclude that the GPA increase is a direct result of AP classes.

One study of Texas students in college found that the relationship between AP courses and college GPA largely disappeared once you account for a student’s overall high school academic program. The results imply that students in similar schools who took similarly hard classes do equally well in college.

Little research exists examining the trade-offs of taking an AP class rather than a community college course, a career and technical education class, or another high school class.

“The question of ‘Is that money better spent elsewhere’? We don’t have the evidence to say,” Kolluri said.

Both the College Board and individual U.S. states have prioritized increasing access to AP classes. According to the Education Commission of the States, a majority of states encourage schools to offer AP courses, some with financial incentives. Eight states specifically require districts or schools to provide access to AP classes.

Source: College Board (Graphic: Amanda Zhou/Chalkbeat)

That’s helped push participation up. Between 2001 and 2017, the total number of students taking an AP exam grew from about 820,000 to more than 2.6 million.

The success of those students varies widely. Only about 30 percent of exams taken by black students and 42 percent of exams taken by Hispanic students received a passing score in 2017, compared to 64 percent of exams taken by white students.

One explanation for that, Kolluri said, is that many students may be enrolled in low-quality AP classes. Another is that more students have not been prepared to take on the advanced material.

The existing research “is long on patterns and short on possibility,” he concludes. “While enrollment rates, AP test scores, and college attainment variables can effectively tell us where we are, more innovative investigations can better help us understand how we got here and where we might go next.”

Votes are in

Memphis educators vote to begin negotiations on new contract with district

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
A teacher training last year on Expeditionary Learning, a new curriculum for English language arts introduced in Shelby County Schools in 2017.

Shelby County Schools teachers have decided it’s time to go back to the bargaining table with district officials to hammer out a new agreement.

Sixty percent of the district’s 7,000 educators, or more than 4,300, voted to allow the two teacher groups that represent them to start negotiating with district officials about pay, insurance, and working conditions. That’s well above the 51 percent that was legally required to begin talks.

It will be the first time the groups have negotiated with the Memphis school district since 2015, and the first since the city’s teacher group split into two. Last year’s organizing efforts didn’t get enough votes to begin negotiations, known as “collaborative conferencing” in Tennessee.

The last agreement, or memorandum of understanding, expired in March. The memorandums are legally binding and can cover such things as salaries, grievance procedures, insurance, and working conditions. But under state law, the agreements can’t address evaluations or personnel decisions such as layoffs or tenure.

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, said she hopes talks with the district start by February. She says that it could take up to a year to reach an agreement, although she’s hopeful that it will be sooner.

“We’re creating a survey now to share with the teachers throughout the district so we’ll know what things teachers want to see,” Rucker said. They’ll ask teachers for input on items that can be negotiated, including wages, insurance, grievance procedures, and working conditions.

From earlier teacher feedback, Rucker said educators are concerned about rising insurance costs, and classroom conditions such as class size. They also want raises based on years of service restored, as well as extra pay for advanced degrees, she said.

Dorsey Hopson, Shelby County Schools superintendent, has tried for several years to implement a merit pay system for teachers based on evaluations that include student test scores. That would mean only teachers with high evaluation scores would be eligible for raises. But because of numerous testing problems, Hopson hasn’t yet done that. Instead, for the last three years, all educators have received 3 percent raises.

Keith Williams, executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said the salary increases that teachers have received in recent years amounted to bonuses and so-called cost-of-living increases that haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.

“We need to have continuity of pay and a way to predict our earnings,” he said in advocating for the return of step pay increases.

Additionally, he said teachers want to restore time for daily planning periods. And they want a “quality curriculum” that they’re trained to teach and is ready to go on the first day of school.

Teachers have complained that the English curriculum, Expeditionary Learning, doesn’t allow them to tailor content for their students. The new math curriculum, Eureka Math, had a bumpy rollout. Some materials arrived late, teacher training was behind schedule, and for some, the program didn’t start until 12 weeks into the school year.

Williams believes negotiations may start in January and is hopeful that a new three-year contract will be in place by April. Meanwhile, he plans regular updates with teachers to allow them to have input.

Union leaders are waiting for the official certified vote numbers that are expected to be released Tuesday. Williams said that almost 60 percent of the teachers supported his group. That means they’ll have more seats at the negotiating table.

But once negotiations begin, Rucker said, “the two associations will work as one team to advocate and collaborate on behalf of teachers.”

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.