Barriers to AP Success

Tennessee Department of Education

Tennessee Department of Education

At the Tennessee Department of Education, we believe that data and research should inform every aspect of our work. Our Office of Research and Policy  provides us with the internal capacity to carry out in-depth analysis that looks at the impacts of department policies on students and teachers. Our hope is that these findings can influence practices across the state to help Tennessee students achieve at new levels. Here two department staffers break down what a recently released report on Advanced Placement (AP) scores means for Tennessee students and schools.

Mary Batiwalla, a policy analyst in the department’s office of research and policy, and Emily Carter, the department’s executive director of post-secondary coordination and alignment, collaborated on this post.

By Mary Batiwalla and Emily Carter

In 2009, approximately 7,000 Tennessee students with the academic preparation necessary to pass Advanced Placement (AP) exams entered high school. Four years later, only half of those students had succeeded on an AP exam, and the rates were even lower for economically disadvantaged students. Why?

AP courses are one of several early postsecondary opportunities through which students can experience college-level curriculum and potentially earn college credits while still in high school. These types of opportunities include dual enrollment and dual credit courses, as well as the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. By studying the AP pipeline in the state, we hope to identify the existing barriers and potential solutions that would expand student access to all of these types of rigorous courses.

When we first set out to understand the state of Advanced Placement in Tennessee, we knew that our high school students graduate having taken and passed fewer AP exams than their peers across the nation. What we didn’t know was why and how to begin thinking about solutions. The first step in the process was to identify the students who are likely to be successful on an AP exam. We found that high-achieving eighth graders have a very high potential to earn a three or higher on an AP exam. Following this group of students, we then examined whether they had access to AP courses in their school, whether they enrolled in these courses, and whether they actually sat for the AP test.

We also looked at how these problems differed for economically disadvantaged students compared to their non-economically disadvantaged peers. At the state level we saw issues at every step along the pathway. Which led us to ask, do all schools struggle with all of these issues? Not surprisingly, the answer is “no”. Schools, like students, experience different problems that require differentiated interventions. The TDOE Office of Research and Policy’s latest research report, Advanced Placement Strategy: A Framework for Identifying School-Level Barriers to AP Success, details issues schools encounter when moving academically prepared students along the AP pipeline, from access to success. Student-level data are used to highlight specific issues that schools face: (1) low preparation, (2) low access, (3) low enrollment, (4) differential enrollment, (5) low test-taking, and (6) differential test-taking.  The paper lays out a framework to identify where schools are experiencing difficulty moving students predicted to succeed on AP courses through the pipeline to AP success.

We know that these problems are solvable and are encouraged that many schools are succeeding at moving students through the pipeline at various points. But we still have work to do. The Tennessee Department of Education is committed to ensuring that students have access to a diverse portfolio of early postsecondary opportunities, so they can enroll in rigorous courses that best meet their educational needs. In order to increase student access and participation in AP courses, the department of education is using the former analyses to develop a multipronged approach. Based on the findings, the initial work focuses on (1) executing a statewide pilot that waives the AP exam fee for participating schools and students, and (2) increasing AP opportunities for students attending districts where they have no to minimal access to Advanced Placement courses.

You can read more details on the findings of this AP study in the department’s report Advanced Placement Strategy: A Framework for Identifying School-Level Barriers to AP Success.