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Advanced Placement Gambit: Challenging Students at the Risk of Penalizing Teachers

| May 20, 2012

There's money riding on the answer.

*Note:  (Student name has been changed for privacy.)

Just double-checking if you authorized K. Sanchez* to take Advanced Placement English next year,” a guidance counselor e-mailed me. “He didn’t pass FCAT as a tenth-grader and his GPA is lower than what you typically accept. Does he meet your criteria?”

I typed out a quick response: “I did allow Kenny to sign up for my class. I agree he’ll probably struggle. But he assured me he’ll work hard.  I have a good rapport with him and I’d like to give him a chance. I think being in a class like this will benefit him, even if it isn’t likely he’ll pass the AP exam.”

That was my response last year.  I’m not sure I’d say the same thing again this year. Or next year either, despite a recent e-mail from my principal:  “Dear Teachers:  I’ve received a report that we’ve had a significant drop in the percentage of students taking honors and Advanced Placement courses. Please encourage students whom you believe have potential to sign up.”

The Nahirny Files:


With the new teacher evaluation system enacted statewide this year, I’m reconsidering whether to permit Kenny, or students like him, to sign up for my AP English class, regardless of how motivated they are.  The College Board, which administers the AP program, strongly advocates an “open access” policy for AP courses, and encourages educators to actively recruit low-income and minority students to enroll in AP classes. Nationwide, less than a quarter of students who take AP classes are African-American (7 percent) or Hispanic-Latino (17 percent). Unfortunately, Florida’s new teacher evaluation system stands poised to erode these dismal percentages even further as AP teachers begin to ponder whether to limit AP classes solely to those who can pass the exam, to avoid taking the inevitable hit to their own evaluation scores which will occur if they accept students who aren’t likely to pass the exam.

Advanced Placement courses offer challenging, college-level instruction to students while they’re still in high school.  Teens can take AP classes in more than 30 different subjects such as English, Spanish, psychology, chemistry and American history, with teachers who’ve received intensive training from the College Board.  Matanzas High School offers about a dozen AP classes; students who take an AP course and pass the culminating exam can earn college credit.  (AP exams began this year on May 7 and were being administered nationwide through May 18.)

In Flagler County, the school district picks up the entire tab for all AP exams. At $87 per exam, that doesn’t come cheap.  Matanzas High School students are taking 395 AP exams this month, at a cost of nearly $35,000.  But clearly that’s money well spent, because Flagler’s investment in our youth can yield significant savings for these college-bound teens. It limits their future student loan debt, or keeps them on track to finish college on time, resulting in a more educated, employable community.

Last year, 75 percent of the students in my AP English classes passed the exam.  Those students can potentially save anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars in tuition, depending on where they attend college, since passing the exam  allows  them to  forgo taking one or two freshman English courses worth three to six credits.  AP scores of 3, 4 or 5 (out of a possible 5) indicate students have already displayed college level competency, so most colleges exempt those who’ve passed AP exams from introductory freshman courses in corresponding subjects.

When the principal voiced his concern about the decrease in students taking AP classes, I mailed out invitation letters to potential students and their parents, and dispatched some of my current AP students to serve as guest speakers in sophomore English classes, where they promoted the benefits of taking AP English. Enrollment in my AP English Language & Composition class has climbed steadily since Matanzas first offered it in 2006 and only 14 enrolled; this year I have 71 students.  Preliminary figures for 2012-2013 indicate about 100 have already signed up for next year.

While the majority of these students will end up passing the exam, some won’t.   Despite the fact that my recruiting efforts have proved successful, Florida’s new teacher evaluation system has me wondering whether to turn away potential AP students, some of whom are minority and/or low income, two groups traditionally viewed as “underserved” by the College Board.

Without a doubt, passing an AP exam is a boon for students, but those who don’t pass will be a bane for me, because they’ll drag down my evaluation score, which will hit me in the pocketbook, now that teacher merit pay is tied to student performance. The irony of this situation is that while I’m directly helping dozens of my students trim the costs of their college tuition, those who don’t pass will negatively impact my salary–the very salary I’m using to pay the college tuition bills of my own two children.

Studies show that students who take AP classes  –whether they pass an AP exam or not— are much better prepared for college, and less likely to need remedial courses once they get there. In 2007, a   team of Texas researchers who looked at 222,289 students from all backgrounds attending a wide range of Texas universities, found  strong evidence of benefits to students who participate in both AP courses and exams in terms of higher GPAs, credit hours earned and four-year graduation rates.

Up until now, I’ve welcomed just about any student into my AP class who’s willing to put forth the effort and do the work.  Professionally, ethically and morally, I want to continue to do so.  But financially, at some point I’ll be asking myself if I can afford to stick to the principles guiding my heart.

Florida is going to have to decide what matters more:  should we allow open access to AP classes for interested, motivated students, to better prepare them for college and cut down on the number of students requiring remediation upon entering college? Or should we penalize teachers of   those who will still benefit academically from taking AP classes,  if those students don’t pass the AP exams?

“We should applaud teachers willing to take on students whom others had pre-judged as lacking in potential, not just those interested in teaching students who are likely to earn a ‘5’ on an AP test,” Trevor Packer, senior vice president of Advanced Placement and College Readiness at The College Board, wrote in the New York Times in 2009.

Unfortunately, a teacher evaluation system pegged directly to students’ test scores does exactly the opposite.

Jo Ann C. Nahirny, a 1985 graduate of Columbia University and a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches English at Matanzas High School in Palm Coast. Reach her by email here.

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5 Responses for “Advanced Placement Gambit: Challenging Students at the Risk of Penalizing Teachers”

  1. ric says:

    Is it because that less than 25% don’t get any push or help or support at home. The parents must but don’t care or get involved.. There use to be standard principle that you wanted your children to grow up more knowledgeable and better off then you were. Apparently this group are throwing their children out with the bath water.

  2. Liana G says:

    Teachers do receive additional pay /bonuses for teaching AP/IB courses (more if the high school is a D or F school). In addition, teachers also receive bonuses for each student’s improved FCAT performance. So, if Kenny fails his AP exam but shows FCAT gains, the teacher still receives a bonus. The probability of Kenny’s FCAT grades improving even if he fails his AP exam is likely to occur than if Kenny was in a mediocre class with an ineffective teacher.

    The following is from the Hillsborough County School District in FL.

    6. (Is this “new incentive [that] will be paid to teachers for achieving significant performance gains with any low performing student” in addition to the “new” base salary scale?
    Yes. The bonus paid for raising the performance of level 1 and 2 students is in addition to the teacher’s salary.)

    15. 2012-2013 Year – Teacher bonuses based on raising achievement of level 1 and 2 students: Will this negatively affect what we are doing to focus on moving 3’s to 4’s, 4’s to 5’s? Will there be bonuses for achievement of all levels?
    The bonuses for raising the achievement of Level I and II students are being introduced to focus on a specific need. They are meant to mirror the bonuses paid to IB and AP teachers. In the past, our primary focus (in terms of monetary rewards) on high needs students has been through the Renaissance Schools program, but those rewards did not take into account the fact that 60% of our high needs students attend A and B schools. A reward for teaching high needs students does not translate into a negative affect on other students. There is no evidence, for example, that AP/IB bonuses have had a negative impact on other students.

    http://communication.sdhc.k12.fl.us/empoweringteachers/?page_id=311

    http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook/content/will-bigger-bonuses-florida-ap-teachers-help

    Flagler District data: ( http://stateimpact.npr.org/florida/maps/mapping-access-to-accelerated-coursework-at-florida-high-schools/ )

    Matanzas High School: Students – 1611, Accelerated student enrollment – 277, Accelerated % – 17%
    Flagler P.C High School: Students – 2370, Accelerated student enrollment – 242, Accelerated % – 10%

  3. another teacher's perspective says:

    RE: Liana G’s remarks:

    Teachers don’t get any “bonus” if kids don’t pass AP exams, and their salary is based on the percentage of kids who passed, a percentage that increases the longer they teach…. so like if you teach AP for 3 years and 80 percent of your students don’t pass, you get NOTHING… 80% is unrealistic, since the the average “pass” rate nationwide is usually between 50 and 60% if it’s a good year….

    No teacher makes more money just for “teaching” an AP class, at least not in this district!!! Some districts that may be true, but NOT in Flagler. If that were the case, everyone would want to teach AP, but most don’t want to because of the increased work load.

    You are mixing apples with oranges. FCAT has nothing to do with AP classes.

    Teachers DO NOT make money for “each” student that improves on his/her FCAT performance. That also is not how it works. It depends on the PERCENTAGE of students who improve, and it has to be a certain number of points.

    Each district can use their own performance pay plan, and the one for the Hillsborough district is TOTALLY different that what Flagler has opted to use…

    • Mayday says:

      Teachers in Flagler County do get paid extra for each student who passes the AP exam. I believe they get $50.00 for each student who passes an AP exam. I don’t know about IB. Who out there can tell us if the IB teachers get an extra “bonus” for their students?

  4. Flagler Teacher says:

    Student growth linked with pay is a double edged sword. It is a finite pool of money that is distributed between teachers. The more students are successful, the less each teacher will receive. How is that fair? Its a pay rise of a question-mark. How many other careers would offer an incentive where the objectives are not clearly defined with rewards that may be negligible.

    If you were offered a job with a base pay which increase based on ‘an improvement that I am not going to quantify’ for a pay rise ‘that I am not going to be specific about’ would you accept the job?

    Talking about AP though, yes teachers may receive a ‘bonus’ if students attain a certain grade, however, when that money is laid out in terms of additional teaching, planning, grading hours over the course of an entire year, you are looking at a bonus that works out at probably about what a fast food restaurant pays. And you are going to have to work your butt off for the entire year and possibly get squat!

    Teachers get paid from 7am to 2.15. I guarantee that if teachers worked those hours, the standards in our schools would tumble so why not pay teachers for the 8-12 hours they work every day. As a teacher, I could not be a ‘Highly Effective Teacher’ by working those hours.

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