Advanced Placement Program Under Scrutiny

Melissa Bailey PhotoMore students than ever are taking Advanced Placement courses. Most of them are failing the tests. Is that progress? Should more New Haven kids get the chance to join the college-going track?

At the invitation of New Haven’s schools superintendent, high school kids on the citywide student council are trying to answer those questions.
NHI Graphic

They are taking a broad look at Advanced Placement (AP) courses, courses for which students can earn college credit if they score at least a 3 out of 5 on a standardized end-of-year exam.

Students first came to Superintendent Garth Harries with a concern that the district would stop paying for the AP tests. Harries (pictured) challenged them to examine bigger questions, including: How are kids identified for AP classes? Do all students have an equal opportunity to take them? And what is the role of AP courses in putting kids on a successful college-going track?

Harries said he is also meeting with teachers and other staff to discuss how the school district distributes resources between AP and non-AP courses, including the class size and the quality and seniority of the teachers. The review takes place as some educators are rethinking the role of AP programs in high schools.

School district staff shared some early findings in a meeting last Thursday with the citywide student council at Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School on College Street.

Test-Takers On The Rise

More and more city kids are taking AP tests. The number of New Haven public school kids who took AP tests rose from 415 in 2006 to 724 in 2013, according to the district. The number of exams taken has nearly doubled, to 1,208, during that same time period.  In New Haven, every student who takes an AP class has to sign a contract agreeing to take the exam.

The expansion follows a national trend. Nationally, the number of students taking AP exams more than doubled, to nearly 1 million, from 2002 to 2012, according to the College Board, the not-for-profit organization oversees the AP curriculum and tests. College Board took over the AP program a half-century ago as a way to help a few ambitious students prepare for college. Now the program has become a go-to route for any college-aspiring kid.

Course Offerings Vary

Schools vary widely in how many AP classes they offer, depending in part on the size of the school.


Career High, which has about 675 kids, offers 10 AP classes.

Co-op High, which has about 630 total kids, has the most robust AP program: 182 students are enrolled to take 343 exams this year. Students can choose from 15 AP classes taught by 14 AP teachers.

At the other end of the spectrum, Metropolitan Business Academy, which serves just shy of 400 kids, offers only three AP classes. Fifty kids are currently signed up. Hyde Leadership Academy, which is half the size of Metro, offers two AP classes: English Language and English Literature. Twenty-six kids are signed up, according to district data.

To teach an AP course, teachers have to go through a one-week training with the College Board. And they have to submit their course syllabus to the College Board for approval, or else the course won’t qualify as an AP course that can earn kids college credit.

Students Fail 67.1 Percent Of Tests

Rates of completion vary from school to school. Citywide, students passed 32.9 percent of AP tests in 2013. That’s far below the state average: Connecticut students passed 70.9 percent of tests in 2012, according to the College Board.

The city’s completion rate has basically stayed even, hovering around 32 percent, as it has vastly expanded the number of test-takers since 2006.

The low completion rate prompted discussion among student council members. Is it good to give everyone a shot at the college-focused curriculum an AP test provides? Or is it a bad idea to have so many kids fail?

Students were asked to produce headlines based on their discussions of the data.

Nina Filippone (pictured), a sophomore at the Engineering and Science University Magnet School, offered this headline: “70 Percent Fail. Is It Worth It?”

Her group discussed whether it’s worth the district’s investment in paying for the tests, she later explained.

Each AP test costs $81 to take. The state and College Board foot the bill for students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a standard measure of poverty. Of the 1,336 tests kids are signed up for this year, 950 are for kids who meet that measure.

The school district is paying the rest of the bill: $81 per test for 386 tests, or $31,266.

NHI GraphicCompletion rates vary from school to school. At Wilbur Cross, the city’s largest comprehensive high school, students passed about half of their tests, producing 150 successful passing exams. At Hillhouse High, the pass rate is much lower but has been steadily climbing, from 3 percent in 2008 to 26.5 percent in 2013.

At High School in the Community, students passed a total of three exams, a completion rate of 6.9 percent. At Hyde Leadership Academy, a magnet school currently housed in a North Haven swing space, no student has passed an AP exam since 2008.

Who’s Got AP “Potential?”

Linda Powell, a retired teacher who works part-time with the district to coordinate its AP program, said the district aims to expand access to the tests. Part of the quest is to figure out who has the “potential” to succeed in an AP class, and make sure those kids take them.

To help districts figure that out, College Board offers a free Web-based tool called AP Potential, which crunches sophomore and juniors’ PSAT scores, then guesses which AP classes they might do well in. For example, students who score well in the math PSAT would be recommended to take AP Calculus, physics or chemistry.

Powell unveiled a chart showing each school and the number of kids who have AP “potential,” according to the College Board tool. The tool estimated that Cross students had the potential to do well in 304 AP tests of various subjects; Hillhouse had 64 potential test-passers.

Students raised their eyebrows at the numbers. How come our school has only 18 “potential” AP scholars in English Language, while Sound School has 36 and Hyde Leadership has zero? asked Dar’Ron Brown (at left in photo), a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea that they use the PSAT” to decide who takes AP classes, said Shirley-Ann Feliciano, another senior at Metro. The PSAT scores from October of 2012 are used to select students for the following fall. She said she doesn’t believe a student has to score well on the PSAT to succeed in an AP.

Powell later clarified that the district uses those numbers as a starting point. It takes those “potential” AP kids and asks, “who else?” The district has been expanding its AP offerings far beyond the minimum recommendations of the College Board, she said: The AP recommended students take a total of 963 AP tests this year, and students are currently enrolled in 1,336.

The district has an open-door policy for AP classes, Powell said: “If a kid and a parent want in—they’re in,” she said. But there still could be some kids who have “potential” who are being overlooked, Powell acknowledged.

Barriers To Entry

Dolores Garcia-Blocker, the former Co-op principal who’s now the district’s head of college and career readiness, asked student leaders to ponder whether all of the students who have “potential” are actually taking APs.

“I know there were artificial barriers” to taking the APs when she was principal, she said.

The district’s handout outlines some potential barriers: In order to earn high-school credit for an AP class, students have to agree to take the AP exam. They also have to sign a contract, and have their parents or guardians sign it. The contract requires students to attend after-school or Saturday sessions when teachers offer them. 

Students returned to their home schools with an assignment to poll their classmates and come up with a stance on the district’s AP classes.

Superintendent Harries, who had to leave the meeting early to meet the governor, said he later heard about the students’ discussions and proclaimed himself “impressed.” He said he hopes the conversation fuels a deeper reflection on how to make sure all kids have access to high-quality courses that prepare them for college. He said the conversation also reflected another change: Empowering the student council to help create policy.


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posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on February 3, 2014  5:52pm

The College Board Advanced Placement Program is one of the nation’s great educational frauds perpetrated upon American schools and American students.
It is a multi-million dollar business enterprise even though they might be called non-profit. School systems pay the College Board for special training for AP teachers to be eligible to teach the curriculums of the AP courses. Special textbooks and teaching resources must be purchased from the College Board. School systems or the students must pay for the AP tests. Students who obtain at least a 3 out of 5 on the AP tests may receive college credit.
It sounds like a great deal. But are AP courses really the equivalent of the college course experience?
Many New Haven public high school students have taken “REAL” college courses at Yale, Southern, University of New Haven and other local colleges for decades. It would appear that the real thing would be far superior to the imitation.
New Haven has invested a lot of money in promoting AP. A lot of schools systems do because it looks good, its impressive. They have all bought into the hyperbole that The College Board has pushed on the public at the public’s expense.
If you had a choice between having your child take an AP course and a course at Yale or UNH, which would you choose?
New Haven has been pushing AP. More kids are taking AP than ever before, but look at the results: AP students are failing to pass nearly 70% of the AP tests.
It is quite impressive for the Board to say we have hundreds of students taking AP tests, but it is an extreme embarrassment to have to admit the failure rate.
Many students taking AP courses do not meet the high standards and expectations of “advanced” students. Many AP teachers struggle with the tough curriculums which many students find quite difficult. Despite following the AP methodology, drilling students to prepare for the tests and giving students practice tests throughout the school year, most of our students are failing.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on February 3, 2014  6:00pm

My solution to New Haven’s dilemma is to drop the entire AP program and continue and expand partnerships with all of the local colleges and universities to allow QUALIFIED and MOTIVATED New Haven high school students to take REAL college courses, using real college texts with real college professors. This trumps anything the College Board could ever offer and would save the school system tens of thousands of dollars. Also, it would be much more impressive for the Board to say that New Haven has hundreds of students taking one or more courses in college.

posted by: Career High School Parent on February 3, 2014  6:26pm

I haven’t had a chance to sit & read the whole article as I am at work and can’t give my full attention to it.

My child took an AP course one year and did AMAZINGLY well on the test that year. The teacher was stellar and he was dedicated his craft. His expectations were extremely high and he pushed the class to greatness. They sweat, they bled and they cried…many a sleepless night to produce for him. He is well regarded by everyone.

My student wasn’t so lucky with one teacher in particular the following year. They barely had homework, special projects or meaningful assignments. The class was a joke & it showed when the scores were released. Not every teacher should be teaching AP classes. It should be an honor and a privilege and not a way to get out of teaching challenging, less abled students.

posted by: concernedcitizenNewHaven on February 3, 2014  7:42pm

As someone who has been paying attention…from 2010

“Amistad Academy showed relatively high participation but no passing scores.

In 2010, 23 Amistad students took a total of 44 AP tests. There were 122 students in the high school that year, according to state records.

None scored a 3, 4 or 5 on any test. In 2009, 28 students took a total of 62 AP tests. Only one student scored a 3, 4 or 5 that year.”

Now their policy is that EVERY CHILD in high school takes two AP tests.

Two years ago (2012 scores) they had a 4% pass rate. FOUR PERCENT!

Why did the NHI leave out Amistad’s performance this year? Why do 100% of THOSE kids GET to take the AP exams but the district is trying to restrict “regular” public school kids? WHO pays for Amistad’s kids to take the exams? Parents?

posted by: rocket on February 3, 2014  7:53pm

I have to disagree T.A.P. My daughter walked into her freshman year of college with 15 credits already under her belt as a result of the AP tests she took at Amity. This saved a widowed, single mom a considerable amount of money. My son is at the Sound School, also a strong student, and I would encourage him to take the AP classes as well. The bigger question for me is why kids taking the classes aren’t being adequately prepared for the tests. What qualifications are there for taking and teaching the classes?

posted by: crosschemdr on February 3, 2014  8:35pm

As a New Haven AP teacher I feel compelled to correct some of Mr. Payne’s misconceptions and offer my experience as a New Haven AP teacher.
Yes, AP teachers must go through training in College Board workshops but there are plenty of grants available. In fact I don’t know of any colleague in my school whose training was paid by the district. And there are no “special textbooks and teaching resources (that) must be purchased from the College Board”.
AP classes are not meant to replicate College classes but to offer College-level curriculum in High School setting. There is a substantial difference. A lot of students are not ready for college classes at Yale while in High School but truly benefit from the AP experience: a rigorous, high-level course with a defined curriculum to be covered in full in a defined time frame. In fact, many of my students have come back to visit, or communicated with me after entering college, and said that their AP experience was critical in preparing them for College work.
Paradoxically, students not passing the AP exam does not mean “failure”. Many students benefit from taking an AP class even if they fall short of passing the test. There is plenty of data to show that students who took AP classes perform better in college, whether they passed the AP exam or not.

posted by: Pantagruel on February 3, 2014  10:36pm

One of my kids got a semester’s worth of college credit at the university he attends thanks to APs in New Haven. Another, currently in school, takes a Yale course but also APs. It is logistically a challenge to get to Yale for one course, the maximum allowed, let alone several.

These practical considerations aside, the article is technically incorrect when it speaks of failing AP grades. The grades are advisory. Some colleges will give credit only for 4s or 5s. Other colleges will use them only for placement not credit. Even 1s and 2s are not meaningless. Colleges in general like students who attempt challenging curriculums, and APs are a marker of that.

It’s not a perfect system, but it does tilt the curriculum towards the challenging end.

Stand and deliver.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on February 4, 2014  6:36am

@concernedcitizenNewHaven - THANK YOU for your post.  The distracting attack on AP classes by Garth Harries now makes sense.  Achievement First - the corporation that is taking public money for their privately run schools - don’t touch the performance of New Haven Public School students.  In order to “fix” this “problem” Garth Harries wants the student council to deliver THIS ANSWER:  cut down on the AP offerings to New Haven Public School students.  I am offended by this clever, but repulsive tactic.

posted by: disconnect on February 4, 2014  9:05am

Oh FFS. Gaining a minimum 3 on the exam is not the sole purpose of taking an AP class. Students who fail to receive college credit as a result of a class taken in high school still have had the experience of a more rigorous class, and perhaps they’ll be a lot better prepared for college.

And $31k is chump change compared to the amount of money that’s being pissed away on the Q bridge.

posted by: PH on February 4, 2014  11:49am

NHPS needs to offer as many challenging educational options as possible.  The schools must serve a full spectrum of educational abilities—it would be terribly shortsighted to cut off access to the most demanding classes in order to save a few thousand dollars.  As others here have pointed out, the very exercise of taking a challenging course is in itself a beneficial experience to those who go on to college.  If the sole purpose of an AP class is to get a number on a test, then the school system has set itself up to fail.  How many of these kids are passing the class as judged by the teacher, rather than the exam?  Surely this should be a factor in assessing the value of these classes.  The colleges can judge what number is good enough for college credit but the high school should judge what value is being imparted by providing challenging educational options in a system that has historically been devoid of them.  When I went to college I was one of the only people in my class who had never taken an AP class ... because my New Haven high school didn’t offer them.  Taking classes at Yale was helpful, but having more academically rigorous classes in a high school setting would also have been very beneficial.

posted by: ELMCITYPROF on February 4, 2014  11:55am

I see the sudden attack on AP courses as part of a larger problem in American education: The attempt to quantify learning based on standardized tests. The District would do well to consider whether it is setting students up for failure by allowing anyone to enroll in AP courses while also determining the content/quality of those courses being offered. In this age of advanced technological access via Skype and other tools, there’s no reason why the District can’t offer a common set of AP courses that would be available to students in high schools across the city with intensive lab/discussion sections at their respective schools. NHPS prides itself on innovation but it seems that innovation only comes in the form of building elaborate schools with little concern for what’s happening inside them.

Opting out of the AP system as a show of disdain for the College Board will simply make NHPS students even less competitive when it comes to applying for college. Isn’t tracking the collegiate success of NHPS graduates supposed to be a new focus? Let’s be consistent.

posted by: liveworknNewHven on February 4, 2014  1:05pm

As a NHPS AP teacher let me say this, and let it sink in: not every student should take an AP exam. that would be a waste of funding, energy, and just would not make sense.
That being said, as many students as possible, who are ready to make the commitment, should be given the opportunity.
I want my students to do well on the exam, and I work hard to reach that goal, hopefully, and most often, they do to.
My favorite part of being an AP teacher: thanksgiving time, when the college freshmen come back to say hi, and tell me how easy college bio is after taking my course. Do they all get 3,4 or 5. No. But it happens. The two that dropped by this year and got 2s, were getting A’s in the college course, having a class they weren’t panicked about, and both are happily changing to science majors because they have the confidence they can succeed at the next level.
They thanked me for that, but it was all them, but without the chance to “fail” they may never have found this out

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on February 4, 2014  1:09pm

Why not just separate AP test-taking from AP course-taking?  If a student taking an AP course doesn’t maintain a grade above some cutoff, the district will not pay for or require the student to take the test.

posted by: AP Positive on February 4, 2014  3:37pm

Melissa Bailey, shame on you for quoting a misinformed ESUMs student about how AP exams are scored in the 2nd line of your article, “Most of them are failing the tests.” There is no failure in AP scores. 5 = extremely well-qualified for a college level course, 4= well-qualified, 3= qualified, 2= possibly qualified and 1=no recommendation. Study after study supports student access to not only AP classes, but to taking AP exams.Check Harvard Education Press website, Advanced Placement Course Enrollment and Long-range Educational Outcomes” and a host of other articles at (Rick Morgan and John Klaric).
Both research and testimony of former AP students -see isenojones’ comments - documents the impact of AP courses and exams on college GPA’s, STEM majors, and college graduation time frame.
Another point I want to stress is that while the state average for students earning “qualifying” scores is 70%, not every district in the state of CT requires, or even allows, AP students to take the test. In new haven, we strongly believe that every student who wants the challenge of AP, should get the full experience, including taking a very challenging exam. When our students go to college, they will not be able to just opt out of college exams. And yes, while our rate of “qualifying” scores is about 33%, all 724 students sitting for all 1208 AP exams got an experience that will benefit them as they prepare for college exams.
Our teachers understand and work hard at supporting our underprepared students. They do not turn their backs on students. They offer before-schools tutorials,after-school sessions, Saturday sessions, administer practice exams, and like many coaches, inspire and motivate these students to do their best. While their best might not earn them college credit in high school, it just may give them the confidence to take those challenging course in college.For 398 students, there is the option to earn credit.
Failure :NO; Access: YES

posted by: Bishop on February 4, 2014  6:28pm

@NewHavenPublic @concernedcitizenNewHaven

Achievement First is technically three charters attending one school (AF Bridgeport Academy, Amistad Academy, and Elm City College Prep), so the data from the state and other sources is often inaccurate because it does not get combined.

In 2013, Achievement First had 100% of students taking the AP Calculus exam pass with a 4 or 5 last year. It also had the one of the highest African American and Latino pass rates in the state on the brand new AP Biology exam. It also has strong pass rates for the AP US History and AP Composition and Language exam - particularly as it serves a low income population.

Do adequate homework first, please, before resorting to scare tactics about charters.

Nonetheless, I agree with others who emphasize the value of an AP course beyond test performance. The rigor of an AP course is most certainly college preparatory, and the content and skills necessary to succeed (combined with the aggressive pacing of the courses) have time and time again shown that they prepare students for the rigors of college. The experience of taking the course, itself, goes a long way towards building the character necessary to persist at the university level. Multiple states have expanded their AP access to low income students and seen big gains in achievement even outside of AP courses simply because the expectations in the classroom go up dramatically (Florida is an example of this). New Haven absolutely needs to do a better job getting more kids to pass, but restricting access or de-emphasizing this very worthwhile program is not the answer.

posted by: concernedcitizenNewHaven on February 4, 2014  9:18pm

@Bishop I cited my sources for the years mentioned. Please cite yours so that we may see what you are talking about rather than just taking your word for it.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on February 4, 2014  11:04pm

@ Bishop – 100%, eh?  Very impressive. 

Achievement First public relations are all about the 100%. 

100% graduation rate and 100% college acceptance - after “counseling out” the “underperforming” students.  Not so impressive.

We want to know the actual numbers, why do you have the numbers but the public does not?  The only school in your “portfolio” listed on the CT State Dept. of Education site is “Amistad Academy” and they had 102 exams taken and 44 exams received a 3, 4, or 5.  That’s 43%.  Um, not 100%.  Oops.

Wilbur Cross has 344 exams taken and 150 received a 3, 4, or 5.  That’s 48%.  This is also a high-poverty school with a high percentage of students of color taking the tests.

I’m not scared of your publicly-funded, privately-operated schools.  I’m calling out your deceptive marketing. 

I demand my tax dollars to go to schools that are open to all children, regardless of how well they may comply with detailed mandates.  I demand my tax dollars to go to schools that honor my children for who they are, and not the numbers they are given on standardized tests.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on February 5, 2014  10:16am

Hooray for NewHavenPublic!  That is the kind of skepticism, critical thinking, and practical math/statistics awareness that we desperately need more of—both in the schools and in the town!

posted by: Carlin2016 on February 5, 2014  11:31am

As a recent New Haven Academy graduate who took (and ultimately did poorly on) an AP exam, I believe that my experience reflects what several commenters have already stated here. Although I did not get the score that I would have liked, the experience as a whole was extremely useful. As I have found out, the AP course did do an excellent job of simulating a college environment and college-type course work. The instruction I received was excellent, and that was reflected in the fact that I earned a solid grade on the course work.
My solution for the problem would probably mirror Linda Powell’s the closest: we should find a way to ensure that AP courses a primarily taken by students who will get a positive experience out of them.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on February 5, 2014  3:23pm

posted by: NewHavenPublic on February 4, 2014 10:04pm

I demand my tax dollars to go to schools that are open to all children, regardless of how well they may comply with detailed mandates.  I demand my tax dollars to go to schools that honor my children for who they are, and not the numbers they are given on standardized tests.

Check out what the mayor of New York is doing.

Education Department Diverts $210 Million Away From Charter Schools
By Colby Hamilton on January 31, 2014 5:59pm

CIVIC CENTER — In a move that hit at the core of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s schools legacy, the city’s Department of Education announced Friday evening that it was slashing $210 million away from city charter schools and redistributing it to programs including creating new pre-K seats.

The move, which sent shock waves through the charter school community, gutted the entirety of the devoted capital funds designated by the Bloomberg administration to help charter school and their partners in the private sector construct new charter facilities, according to the previous version of the department’s capital plan, released in November of last year.

De Blasio, who rose to frontrunner in large part with his vow to cut back on the growing power of charter schools, has been openly critical of the role that charter schools play in the education system.

De Blasio has vowed to institute a moratorium on new charters in the city, while reviewing the previous administration’s stance on existing charter colocations in public schools. Some charters would be forced to pay rent going forward, de Blasio has promised.

posted by: Allison Matura on February 5, 2014  5:53pm

I was lucky enough to have worked with Linda Powell at Cross as a colleague and as our AP coordinator. Her push to expand access to AP classes and remove artificial barriers to entrance was and continues to be remarkable. Linda has devoted her entire (and exemplary) professional career to the students of New Haven, which gives me great confidence that her thoughts on the value of AP access are important and instructive.

And yet I also believe that reframing “barrier” to “readiness” is a shift the district should be looking at far more closely. At Cross, those of us who taught the 9ths and 10ths did an ad hoc vertical integration. Although perhaps not even in Honors classes yet, if we saw students with a spark, an agility of the mind, a “something”, even in a student with less developed academic skills, we pushed. College to Honors, Honors to AP.

However, it has been my experience that the students who are most successful at doing AP have similar habits of mind: they are intentional learners, able to persist through difficult and sometimes grinding coursework, open to being intellectually challenged and willing to put in the hours and hours of prep for class. Habits of mind can be cultivated. What cannot be encouraged, cultivated or brought into being from thin air is academic readiness.

No student will survive AP Calculus without mastery of the first three courses of rigorous math. No student will survive any AP Lit class, whether Comp or Language who cannot fundamentally read or write at or above the 11th Honors level.

If we want to create a spectacularly successful AP program, we have to stop thinking that open access means automatic success. It’s time to backwards engineer. And in AP parlance, that’s vertical integration and in daily practice those habits of mind look a lot like an AVID class.

Readiness is not a synonym for barrier. What are we doing in daily practice to prepare our students for academic success? That is the question.

posted by: SLP on February 6, 2014  9:10am

There is much to be debated about the AP program, particularly in New Haven. But I echo AP Positive on this pivotal point that Ms. Bailey should have emphasized in her article: New Haven students are REQUIRED to take AP tests if they are taking an AP class. Other school systems allow students who don’t think they’ll do well (or whom the teacher doesn’t think will do well—or, perhaps, who can’t afford the test fee) to skip the exam. This is a critical difference that negates comparisons. Furthermore, many school systems offer nowhere near the access to AP classes that New Haven does. So again, one cannot compare New Haven’s AP exam pass rates to other towns’, both because New Haven’s AP students probably represent a broader academic cross-section, and especially because all, not just some, will tackle the AP test. (Also, kudos to Garth Harries for engaging citywide student council on a relevant topic.)

posted by: Josiah Brown on February 6, 2014  11:46pm

It is good that students are considering such issues.

Of possible interest: