The AP and IB Arms Race

Sometimes more challenging coursework is a good thing for students. And sometimes more is too much.

Not all students who take AP and IB classes are succumbing to pressure from their parents and peers, however. Some may actually need a little push to challenge themselves. And some take advanced classes because they’re bored.

During her first two years at Wakefield High School, Priscilla* earned mostly A’s and routinely finished her homework in less than an hour, often doing it during other classes. Encouraged by her teachers, she enrolled in Summer Bridge, a weeklong summer program at Wakefield that teaches time management, organization and research skills to kids who plan to take AP classes the following semester. An African-American student, she also joined United Minority Girls (UMG), a support group at Wakefield that helps promising girls of color plan and prepare for college. She subsequently took two AP courses (English and U.S. history) during her junior year, spending two to three hours per night on homework.

“I feel like I’m around smarter people now, so the classes go more smoothly,” says Priscilla, who plans to take three AP classes as a senior. “I like being challenged.” She says she aspires to attend either Stanford or UVA.

Priscilla counts among the many success stories at Wakefield, which in recent years has embraced the AP curriculum as a means of narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students. (Last year, the school’s student body was approximately 44 percent Hispanic, 24 percent black, 17 percent white, 11 percent Asian and 4 percent kids reporting multiple ethnicities, according to APS data.)

“Minority students have traditionally been underrepresented in advanced-level classes,” says Wakefield Principal Chris Willmore. “We’re proud of the fact that our AP classes look like Wakefield.”

That wasn’t always the case. In 2000, only 15 of the 514 black and Latino males attending Wakefield were taking AP courses. Those numbers began to rise after a team of educators at Wakefield began identifying additional AP candidates (by their PSAT scores and other factors) and encouraging them to take more challenging courses, with the aid of support programs such as Summer Bridge.

Enter Cohort, a boys’ program similar to UMG that hosts weekly meetings and maintains certain requirements. The 140 boys who participated last year had to attend seven of nine meetings each quarter, maintain good grades and wear a collared shirt and tie on designated Cohort days.

Cohort also sponsors an annual two-day, four-college tour (so does UMG) that allows participants—many of whom aspire to be first-generation college students—to envision themselves on a college campus. For the past 14 years, a private sponsor has donated thousands of dollars in support of the Cohort program to make these trips happen.

Alan Beitler, the minority achievement coordinator at Wakefield, is proud of the results, noting that 87 percent of Cohort graduates have gone on to attend a two- or four-year college. An important factor in male minority success is “embracing an ethic of struggle,” he says. “It’s the attitude that ‘I can take challenging classes, and I will fight to learn.’ ”

While the number of minority students taking AP tests has increased in Arlington—115 black students took AP tests in 2008, compared to 160 in 2013, and the number of Hispanic students taking the test over that same time period jumped from 281 to 449—their success rate still lags behind whites.

Seventy-three percent of white APS students taking AP tests in 2013 earned a score of 3 or higher, while only 51 percent of Hispanic students and 43 percent of black students did. That same year, 589 white students scored a 5, compared to 73 Hispanic students and 14 black students.

Still, these numbers are significantly higher than the national average. Only a quarter of black students nationwide who took an AP exam in 2013 received a score of 3 or above. For Hispanic and white students, the numbers were 32 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

Across town, Gregg Robertson is equally bullish on AP classes as a means of narrowing the achievement gap, though his approach at W-L has been different from Wakefield’s. When Robertson took the helm as W-L’s principal in 2003, only 23 percent of W-L students were enrolled in AP or IB classes. “That’s the year we set the goal of 100 percent participation,” he says.

Last fall, Robertson identified 59 kids in the Class of 2014 who had not yet taken an AP or IB class. When those students arrived at school to start their senior year, they found themselves enrolled in AP Government, even though most had not requested it.

“I’m not really focused on the [AP] test as much as for the kids to participate and to build their self-esteem…to give them an opportunity to succeed in a very rigorous course, in a college-level class,” Robertson says.

Executing that mandate, however, required some ingenuity. The teachers Robertson hired to teach the class—Margaret East, a former college professor, and her assistant, Nicole Fritz—soon discovered that the college-level textbook was “inaccessible” to certain students, many of whom spoke other languages at home or struggled with reading challenges.

“Those two letters—AP—struck fear into their hearts,” says East, who ended up incorporating hands-on teaching and vocabulary building, and gave up her planning period so that she could divide three large classes into four smaller ones. She also bent some of the rules, allowing students to retake quizzes and tests, which rarely happens in most AP classes.

The modified curriculum made a big difference for students Farzin* and Alicia,* who graduated in June. When they learned they’d been automatically enrolled in AP Government, both say their first instinct was to run to the front office and switch to a regular-level class. But they later changed their minds. “The teachers explain it at a level anyone could understand really well,” Alicia says.

Farzin, who worked in food delivery and home health care for eight hours after school each day, sometimes struggled with the homework. If he didn’t finish it, he’d meet with East during the Generals period, which provides time for students to receive extra help. Both teachers also made themselves available after school two days a week.

“I’m really glad they put me in AP,” Alicia says in retrospect. “Once I adapted, I thought, This isn’t that bad.” She and Farzin both plan to enter Northern Virginia Community College’s “Pathway to the Baccalaureate” program, which helps students make the transition to four-year colleges. Both hope to receive some college credit for taking the AP exam.


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