In this AP program, it pays to study
It's just after lunch, and the students in Nick Hademenos's advanced-placement (AP) physics class are throwing things - a shoe, a soda bottle, and a calculator, to be precise.Skip to next paragraph
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But they're not being rowdy. Instead, these students at Dallas's Science and Engineering Magnet School are videotaping their tosses and replaying them frame by frame to plot the curve.
It may look simple. But the experiment represents years of fine-tuning by David Castro. The visiting teacher is part of a program that's dramatically increasing the number of students - particularly minorities - who take AP courses and exams.
As a "lead teacher," Mr. Castro has a reduced courseload so he'll have time to mentor newer AP teachers and help develop curriculum.
The Advanced Placement Incentives Program funds extra teacher-training and student-tutoring sessions in 10 Dallas public high schools. And it adds an unusual sweetener: For each passing score on AP exams in math, science, and English, a student gets $100, and teachers and schools get bonus money as well.
Participants say the results speak for themselves. In 1995-96, the program's first year, the number of students who earned passing scores in the targeted subjects more than doubled to 320, from 139. By last spring, the number had climbed to 754, thrusting the schools above both the Texas and the United States average - and into the public eye.
A routine offering in wealthy schools, AP classes have become a powerful symbol of educational equity in recent years. Low-income students and minorities have long had limited access to the classes, either because they aren't academically prepared or their schools don't offer them. Rural schools, too, often lack the funds and expertise to include AP courses.
A jump-start to college
But the rigorous curriculum can influence college acceptances and allow students to receive as much as a year of undergraduate college credit. And as the program gains stature as a nationally recognized standard, pressure has grown to widen access for all students.
"AP courses more and more are becoming factors in [college] admissions decisions, so if the student does not have access to an AP course, there's an equity issue there," says Kay Wilson, a Dallas-based associate director for the southwest region of The College Board, which oversees more than 30 advanced-placement courses nationwide.
The concerns have surfaced everywhere from legislatures to courts. Last year, students from a largely minority community in California filed a lawsuit against the state because of a dearth of AP courses compared with other districts.
US Secretary of Education Richard Riley has set a goal to make some AP courses available in every high school by 2002. That means adding about 9,000 schools to the 13,000 that already participate. Federal grants offer subsidies for the $76 AP exam fee and teacher training.
No large school district has yet copied Dallas's comprehensive approach. But at the state level, Utah already requires each high school to offer at least two AP courses, and New York allows AP English scores to satisfy Regents requirements. Last year, Texas appropriated $21 million for AP incentives.
The Dallas program was born when the local O'Donnell Foundation decided its mission to strengthen graduate-level science and engineering would falter without improvements earlier in the pipeline. Now that O'Donnell's five-year commitment has expired, the Texas Instruments Foundation has committed $8.2 million to fund the next five years.
"There are so many donors who want to give to education, and this program is attractive to them because it has measurable results," says Gregg Fleisher, president of Advanced Placement Strategies Inc., a nonprofit group set up to manage the Dallas initiative. Since the exams are administered by The College Board, there is less room for cash incentives to lead to corruption, he adds. AP teachers certainly appreciate the extra cash, which includes an $1,150 stipend for training, $20 an hour for extra tutoring, and $150 for each student who passes an AP exam.
Raising the bar