Torey Robinson threw down in microeconomics, scored a 3 on the end-of-year test—and became the national face of a new effort to help more disadvantaged kids enroll in and succeed in Advanced Placement courses.
Torey, who’s 17, shared his story Tuesday in the library of Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet School. National and statewide education officials gathered there to celebrate the state’s performance on the Advanced Placement courses—high school 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 issued by a not-for-profit called The College Board.
Jeremy Singer, chief operating officer of The College Board, showed up at Co-op to congratulate Torey and his fellow students for helping Connecticut win a “triple crown” by scoring high marks on improvement, access and overall performance on the tests.
Connecticut showed the most improvement in the nation on the AP tests, according to The College Board’s 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation, which was released Tuesday. The report covers the last decade. The percentage of Connecticut’s graduating classes scoring 3 or higher on an AP exam rose by 13.2 points from 2003 to 2013, state education Commissioner Stefan Pryor announced.
Connecticut also scored well on two other measures: With 28.8 percent of students earning a score of 3 or higher, Connecticut ranked second in the nation, behind Maryland. And with 22.1 percent of exams earning a top score of 5, Connecticut ranked second in the nation on that measure, behind New Jersey.
Officials praised schools for the accomplishment—and used the occasion to promote a national campaign to encourage more kids who show “potential” to take the courses, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The event took place amid a national rise in AP test-taking and local soul-searching over the equity of resources surrounding New Haven’s AP program, as well as the role it should take in kids’ high school careers.
Co-op High, which serves about 630 total kids from New Haven and surrounding towns, served as Exhibit A in an effort to encourage more low-income kids to take APs. Co-op has the most robust AP program in the city: 182 students are enrolled to take 343 exams this year. Students can choose from 15 AP classes taught by 14 AP teachers. The school produced nearly 100 passing exams last year. Students who score a 3 or higher on APs are seen as better-poised to succeed in college.
Co-op wasn’t always a model, said former Principal Lola Garcia-Blocker, who’s now a school district administrator in charge of college and career pathways. She said when she took over the school 10 years ago, staff would put together AP course lists based on teacher recommendations. College Board also offers an online tracker that generates a list of kids with AP potential—kids who are likely to pass an AP test, given their performance on the PSAT. (Click here to see the College Board’s tool, which predicts how likely students are to pass different tests, based on their PSATs.)
Garcia-Blocker said school staff compared two lists—those who had AP potential and those who were actually taking the courses—and found an “absolute mismatch.” The school then went about vastly expanding its AP offerings, and including kids who didn’t think of themselves as AP scholars.
Today, Co-op’s AP students reflect its student body, according to Principal Frank Costanzo: Two-thirds of AP-enrolled students are of color, and 70 percent are low-income.
Torey Robinson, a senior at Co-op, counts himself among that group. He said when he joined Co-op after one year as a freshman in Ansonia, he “didn’t know what AP was.” In his old school, he said, “academics wasn’t really a big deal.” When a teacher encouraged him to sign up for APs, he said, “I really wasn’t sure.” He ended up taking two AP classes, statistics and microeconomics, his junior year.
Taking an AP course was like culture shock, Torey said. It was a lot of work: “Wow.” His notebook became “full of notes” when only half the year had gone by. He ended up earning a passing score of 3 in microeconomics, and earning college credit. He said he was glad his teacher encouraged him to sign up, and motivated him to stick with it. Until you take that challenge, he said, “you really don’t know what you can do.”
Orianna Cruz (pictured), a senior at Co-op from New Haven, said she found courses too easy at her high school until she enrolled in APs. Those courses have been the most challenging classes she has taken, she said: “Instead of getting a grade, it makes you work for a grade.”
The district has been expanding its AP offerings to make sure all of the Toreys out there—high-potential students for whom taking APs wasn’t an obvious route—find their way to AP classrooms.
The district’s AP enrollment far exceeds the minimum recommendations of the College Board, according to Blocker: The AP recommended students take a total of 963 AP tests this year, and students are currently enrolled in 1,336. The district pays for all students’ tests.
Statewide, there are an estimated 6,000 students who have AP “potential,” based on their PSAT scores, but are not enrolled in APs, according to College Board.
Commissioner Pryor Tuesday announced steps to improving college-readiness and access to the APs: The state paid for all sophomores and juniors in the state’s 30 lowest performing school districts, including New Haven, to take the PSAT in October. The College Board considers the PSAT the most accurate way to measure if a student will be successful on the AP. The state plans to send letters to all kids with AP potential to encourage them to sign up for AP tests, Pryor announced. And it plans to pay the gap in test fees so that all low-income students can take AP tests for free this spring, he said.
Some have warned against an AP test-taking frenzy in places like Maryland, which saw the nation’s swiftest AP expansion. That expansion has meant lots of kids don’t pass the tests. In New Haven, two-thirds of test-takers don’t score high enough to earn credit, according to the district.
Torey, who failed to get the credit-earning grade of 3 or higher on his AP Statistics course last year, said he still learned a lot.
It “changed the way I think,” he said. “Even though I didn’t get college credit, I feel it was worth it.”