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Home > Features > AP As the "Common Curriculum"

AP As the "Common Curriculum"

by Michael Riley
Superintendent, Bellevue School District
Bellevue, Washington

High Expectations for All Kids
The Advanced Placement Program does more than test kids. It tests adults, those responsible for deciding which kids are right for AP. In addition to policy makers, this group includes those who teach kids in all the grades leading to AP; who create curriculum, develop schedules, and determine prerequisites; and who monitor student progress and provide support programs. The Advanced Placement Program tests all of us, our educational philosophy, our beliefs about human potential, and what we mean when we say we have high expectations for all kids.

Participating in tough high school courses is generally accepted as the best way to prepare for the challenges of college, and having an AP course on a transcript is likely to increase the chances for admission to a student's college of choice. Since most school systems are quick to agree that AP classes are right for the college-bound, we might broaden the discussion about who's right for AP by asking who's right for college.

Seventy percent of the nation's high school graduates attempt college, and that figure will continue to grow as long as students receive advice like this:
In today's global, technology-centered economy, individuals need to be well educated and possess higher-level thinking skills to compete professionally. The college degree has replaced the high school diploma as the pass to economic freedom.1

The debate about whether schools should provide students with training for work or preparation for college is now obsolete. In the information age, nothing is more valuable to a job seeker than a college degree. Brainpower is the manpower of the new millennium. Utility and knowledge have become one and the same.2
With higher education now the common aspiration of American young people, some educators have found it necessary to create distinctions within this burgeoning population and have taken the corresponding position that only some students are right for AP classes. This insistence on creating a "better class" of college-bound students results in far too many students entering college without the background they need to be successful. Indeed, only half of those who start earn a degree.

The research of Clifford Adelman3 should weigh heavily on those who prevent students from taking AP courses. He found that students who took just one AP class nearly doubled their chances of earning a college degree. Who is most likely to reap long-term benefits from AP classes? Those most likely to struggle in college, the very ones often relegated to second-class status in their high schools. Fortunately, the anachronistic, uninformed notion that only some students are capable or worthy of taking AP classes is falling out of favor rapidly as evidence builds each year that an ever-widening swath of our students do quite well in these challenging courses.

A Comprehensive Approach to School Reform
I believe all but a very few students are right for AP because I believe all students deserve a college preparatory curriculum. The exceptions to the rule are those with serious disabilities, a group equivalent to roughly two percent of the K-12 population in my district, Bellevue School District in Washington State. We haven't yet achieved this goal in our school district, but we are getting close. In the class of 2002, 70 percent of our students completed one or more AP classes, and the class of 2003 will best this record. In one of our high schools, 80 percent of the current seniors will complete at least one AP class, and over 20 percent will have completed four or more.

Making the AP curriculum the "common" curriculum for our high schools requires a great deal more than allowing -- or pushing -- students into AP classes. For students to succeed at this level, we need to take a comprehensive approach to school reform, one that requires at a minimum the following components.

College Begins in Kindergarten
The motto of the Education Trust serves us well as we consider how to give all our students an education based on AP standards. A nation without a curriculum will deliver an education marked by both inefficient repetitions and significant gaps in knowledge and skills, and that has always been the case in America. There should be little surprise that many students reach the upper grades unprepared for the demands of college preparatory work. In our district, we have aligned our curriculum in every discipline to AP goals and standards. Our math curriculum developer likes to say, "We are establishing two math tracks in Bellevue: one leads to AP Calculus, the other to AP Statistics."

Support for Students When They Need It
We cannot afford to discover that a student is not qualified for college when his SAT scores arrive. Early intervention is essential. Our teachers begin assessing their students in the first weeks of kindergarten and use what they learn to guide their instruction. A combination of classroom assessments and state and national tests administered throughout the students' 13 years in our district helps us make decisions about who needs support and when. We do our best to deliver assistance both in the classroom and through a variety of special programs. Extended learning time, for example, includes summer programs available as early as kindergarten and daily after-school tutorials across all the secondary grades.

Teacher Development and Leadership
Without expert teachers, no curriculum -- no matter how coordinated and powerful -- will reach its full potential. We provide a four-day AP Institute that includes a special session for elementary-level teachers; we sponsor a variety of training programs and curriculum development opportunities; we offer teachers an additional eight days of compensation to pay for their professional development work; we use lesson study5 to encourage collaboration within and across grades; and we have an early-release every Wednesday to give teachers time during the workday to work with each other and improve their skills. In the vast majority of cases, our own teachers, several of whom are now Exam Readers and presenters for the College Board, lead staff development.

Maintaining Standards and Creating Meaning out of Statistics
In an attempt to maintain AP standards while dramatically increasing enrollments, we insist that all AP students take an AP Exam when they're enrolled in an AP course. We offer two choices: the exam administered by the College Board for that year or a previously administered AP Exam given under the same testing conditions and graded on the same standards. The vast majority of students -- over 90 percent of students who take AP classes -- take the College Board-administered exam. The results of our students' AP Exams are meant first and foremost to inform our work -- our curriculum development, our staff development, and our provisions for student support. While test results are important to us, high scores are not the primary goal. It's a standard practice in Bellevue to praise participation rates over test results, even to expect test results to drop below the national average when enrollments go well beyond the national average. If high scores were the goal, they could be guaranteed by restricting access -- not a game we choose to play. Does this approach work? We administered over 2,800 AP Exams last year with a total population in grades 9 through 12 of fewer than 5,000 students, placing us among the top one percent of school districts in the country on the Challenge Index6. Our percentage of exam grades at 3 or above was identical to the nation's.

Beyond Open Access, Next Steps
When we started our drive to make all students AP students, enrollment increased quickly and significantly. We learned, however, that many of those who failed to take advantage of open access had something in common: they were second-language learners, they were special education students, and/or their families were struggling financially. As "Choosing Tracks, Freedom of Choice in Detracking Schools"7 explains, simply opening the door to higher-level programs is not enough to attract students traditionally excluded from these programs. We are now much more aggressive in recruiting these students, and we are even considering requiring advanced courses for graduation in an effort to finally break the hold these unwanted traditions have on all of us. Will we push more kids out of school if we increase our standards even further? That's not what our track record shows. During the time our AP program has been growing, our dropout rate has been cut in half, from 18 to 9 percent.

The Advanced Placement Program was launched in the middle of the last century to enable some of America's elite, its finest students, to study at a level that would keep them intellectually engaged and prepare them for the challenges of the country's top universities. The exciting promise and test of this century is to act on the belief that our finest students sit at every desk in the schoolhouse and that all of them are right for AP.


Footnotes
1. "Building a Highway to Higher Ed: How Collaborative Efforts are Changing Education in America," Center for Urban Future, 2000.
2. "Dispelling the Culture of Mediocrity," U.S. Department of Education and the College Board, 2000.
3. Clifford Adelman, "Answers in the Tool Box, Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor's Degree Attainment," Economic Policy Institute, 1996.
4. See http://www.edtrust.org.
5. James Stigler and James Heibert, The Teaching Gap, Free Press, 1999.
6. Jay Mathews, "Class Struggle," a Washington Post column.
7. Susan Yonezawa, Amy Stuart Wells, and Irene Serna, American Educational Research Journal, 2002.


Michael Riley holds a master's degree in English from DePaul University and a Ph.D. in Educational Administration with a secondary concentration in Educational Research from Loyola University of Chicago. Dr. Riley taught English for 12 years at St. Rita High School in Chicago. In 1984 he became principal of Middletown High School in Frederick, Maryland, where he stayed for four years before becoming principal of Governor Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick County, where he served five years. In 1993 he became an area superintendent for Baltimore County Public Schools, a system of 100,000 students. After serving in that post for two years, he was named associate and then deputy superintendent for the same school system. He is currently in his seventh year as superintendent of the Bellevue School District in Washington State. Since his arrival in Bellevue, Dr. Riley has focused his efforts to increase expectations for all students through the use of AP and IB programs.



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