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Looking to Grow Your AP Program?

I recall reading a post by Eric Sheninger (@NMHS_Principal) last summer about how he had been concerned about his school’s overall performance on their AP exams. What I admired most was how he and his staff were troubled by their results and instead of blaming the students for their poor performance, they took action.

As we know, most high schools across the country work with the College Board to offer some sort of advanced placement opportunities for their students.  I am not proposing that AP is the end all and be all, but there is no denying that over the last 15 years, AP has secured prominence as a gold standard for measuring academic excellence (rigor) as well as a way for students to gain an advantage in college admissions.  Just recently, a couple of my district colleagues attended the national conference for gifted and talented and shared with me that they were promoting advanced placement for high school age students as a way to promote and extend student learning.  I also recognize that with the AP label, comes some naysayers who question whether or not this is the right direction to go. As principal of a large comprehensive high school, I encourage and promote a variety of programming opportunities for our students in order to maintain a balance of course offerings.  Is AP rigorous? If taught correctly, I would say it is. Is it important? For some families and students who want the experience of a college course while still in high school, I believe it is.  Having experienced my oldest son going off to college last year, I recognize that college can be a competitive and unforgiving place for some students. So, given the opportunity to simulate that curriculum while they are still in a more secure and caring high school environment I feel like for us, it was the right thing to do and has been a positive thing for our students and families.
During my second year as Principal, I was charged by my Superintendent to work with my staff to grow a successful Advanced Placement Program (AP).  I coordinated site visits to several Iowa high schools that had demonstrated outstanding success in their Advanced Placement program.  A team of teachers, parents, and students traveled to several schools to learn about others’ implementation of, and sustainment of a successful AP program.  Since 2004-05, the number of AP course offerings at our school has increased from nine (9) to seventeen (17) and the number of AP courses completed by students has grown from 359 in 2004-2005 to a high of 577 in 2009-2010. Furthermore, we have been recognized by the state of Iowa as a Top 25 AP ranked school every year since 2005, reaching Top 10 status in 2010 with a total of 363 exams taken in the 2009-2010 school year.  Although many students take one AP class, numerous students take several AP classes and exams throughout their high school career. This is evidenced by the fact that in 2012, fifty-six (56) students earned AP Scholar designation for their exceptional achievement on the Advanced Placement Exams, the most BHS scholars ever recognized for their accomplishments.
Here are my suggestions on how to help grow an AP program:
1.       Be transparent with your AP data and share out trend data to all of your school community.  A successful AP program should be celebrated by your district K-12.  All teachers play a part in a student’s success and a successful high school program.
2.       Hold goal meetings – schedule individual goal meetings and review the instructional planning reports with your teachers and ask these four questions: 
a.       How will you get more students to take the exam?
b.      How will you get more students to score higher on this year’s exam than last year?
c.       What is one new strategy you plan to implement this year that will promote success for all students?
d.      What can I do as principal to support you?
3.       Attend regional AP conference with your entire team every three years and provide ongoing training to those who need more support through AP workshops or site visits.
4.       Host your own AP conference – support vertical articulation, collaboration, and help other schools grow their programs in order to help your own school’s program strive to be greater. We recently hosted our 5th annual conference with over 100 attendees.
5.       Present data to the board of education – see item #1.
6.       Visit individual classrooms and thank your students and your teachers and explain why it is important that they commit to excellence ( I have been doing this the last two weeks).
7.       Recognize student success – recognize scholars through recognition boards, assemblies, graduation, and local media.
8.       Posters – provide each AP scholar student and family a poster and use it to promote the AP experience for all students.
9.       Work with your teachers to provide scheduled study sessions before and after school for all students in order review important concepts.
10.   During registration, communicate, promote, and encourage all students to challenge themselves by taking an AP course – no grade level stipulations, no tracking.
11.   On-line AP programming – for schools that struggle to provide staffing due to limited numbers, consider allowing students to take an AP on-line course.
12.   Expect your teachers to get connected to College Boards AP Central in order to utilize available resources and connect with other AP teachers.  Use AP Central to review on-line reports of data with your team on score summaries, longitudinal data, equity and excellence and the instructional planning report just to name a few.
13.   Require your teachers to simulate the testing environment by providing rigorous timed practice exams and meaningful feedback (including peer) in order to challenge your students at the highest level.
14.   Work with your teachers to create a common AP grading scale required by all AP teachers as an alternative to weighted grading.
Over the last five years my staff has worked tremendously hard to ensure our students have a successful AP experience.  This is evidenced by the College Board data that shows over the last five years (77%, 73%, 75%, 76%, and 83%) our students have performed at a consistently high level on the AP exams with scores  of 3 or higher.  What the future means for AP and how it will connect with common core standards will be interesting to watch as we move forward.  Currently, the College Board is working to make adjustments to their exams (as are most standardized tests) to include more writing, less multiple choice, and a greater emphasis on depth vs. breadth.  I know one thing, I am confident my staff and students will rise to the challenge.
Have an opinion? I would like to hear your thoughts on your AP experience.

“Make it a challenging experience, but make it an enjoyable experience at the same time.”  – BHS AP Teacher
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