Tag Archives: Advanced Placement

The Challenge of Black Students and Advanced Placement

When the bell rings at Wheaton North High School, a river of white students flows into Advanced Placement classrooms. A trickle of brown and black students joins them. —The Challenge of Creating Schools That Work for Everybody, Catherine Gewertz

Gewertz’s piece is one of a million or so outlining the earnest efforts of suburban schools to increase their  black and Hispanic student representation in AP classes. And indeed, these efforts are real and neverending. I have been in two separate schools that have been mandated in no uncertain terms to get numbers up.

But the data does not suggest overrepresentation. I’m going to focus on African American representation for a few reasons. Until recently, the College Board split up Hispanic scores into three categories, none of them useful, and it’s a real hassle to combine them. Moreover, the Hispanic category has an ace in the hole known as the Spanish Language test. Whenever you see someone boasting of great Hispanic AP scores, ask how well they did in non-language courses. (Foreign language study has largely disappeared as a competitive endeavor in the US. It’s just a way for Hispanic students to get one good test score, and Chinese students to add one to their arsenal.)

College Board data goes back twenty years, so I built a simple table:

blkaptable

I eliminated foreign language tests and those that didn’t exist back in 1997. It’s pretty obvious from the table that the mean scores for each test have declined in almost every case:

blkapmeanscorechg

Enter a caption

While the population for each test has increased, it’s been lopsided.

blkapgrowthbytest

It’s not hard to see the pattern behind the increases. The high-growth courses are one-offs with no prerequisites. It’s hard to convince kids to take these courses year after year–even harder to convince suburban teachers to lower their standards for that long. So put the kids in US History, Government–hey, it’s short, too!– and Statistics, which technically requires Algebra II, but not really.

The next three show data that isn’t often compiled for witnesses. I’m not good at presenting data, so there might be better means of presenting this. But the message is clear enough.

First,  here’s the breakdown behind the test growth. I took the growth in each score category (5 high, 1 low) and determined its percentage of the overall growth.

blkapscoredistributiongrowth

See all that blue? Most of the growth has been taken up by students getting the lowest possible score. Across the academic test spectrum, black student growth in 5s and 4s is anemic compared to the robust explosion of  failing 1s and 2s. Unsurprisingly, the tests that require a two to three year commitment have the best performace. Calc AB has real growth in high scores–but, alas, even bigger growth in low scores. Calc BC is the strongest performance. English Lang & Comp has something approaching a normal distribution of scores, even.

Here you can see the total scores by test and category. Calc BC and European History, two of the tests with the smallest growth, have the best distributions. Only four tests have the most scores in the 1 category; most have 2 as their modal score.

blkap1997

The same chart in 2016 is pretty brutally slanted. Eight tests now fail most students with a one, just four have a two. Worst is the dramatic drop in threes. In 1997, test percentages with 3 scores ranged from 10-38%. In 2016, they range from 10-20%. Meanwhile, the 4s and 5s are all well below 10%, with the cheery exception of Calculus BC.

blkap2016

Jay Mathews’ relentless and generally harmful push of Advanced Placement has been going strong since the 80s, even if the  Challenge Index only began in 1998. So 1997’s result include a decade of “AP push”. But the last 20 years have been even worse, as Jay, Newsweek, and the Washington Post all hawked the Index as a quality signifier: America’s Best High Schools! Suddenly, low-achieving, high-minority students had a way to bring some pride to their schools–just put their kids in AP classes.

As I wrote a couple years ago, this effort wasn’t evenly distributed. High achieving, diverse suburban high schools couldn’t just dump uninterested, low-achieving students (of any race) into a class filled with actually qualified students (of any race). Low achieving schools, on the other hand, had nothing to lose. Just dub a class “Advanced Placement” and put some kids in it. Most states cover AP costs, often using federal Title I dollars, so it’s a cheap way to get some air time.

African American AP test scores don’t represent a homogeneous population, and you can see that in the numbers.  Black students genuinely committed to academic achievement in a school with equally committed peers and qualified teachers are probably best reflected in the Calculus BC scores, as BC requires about four years of successful math. Black students dumped in APUSH and AP Government  are the recourse of diverse suburban schools not rich enough to ignore bureaucratic pressure to up their AP diversity.  They are taking promising students with low motivation and putting them in AP classes. This annoys the hell out of the parents and kids who genuinely want the rigorous course, and quite often angers the “promising” students, who are known to fail the class and refuse to take the test. The explosion of 1s across the board comes from the low-achieving urban schools who want to make the Challenge Index and don’t have any need to keep the standards high.

Remember each test costs $85 and test fees are waived by taxpayers for students who can’t afford them.  Consider all the students being forced, in many cases, to take classes they have no interest in.  Those smaller increases in passing scores are purchased with considerable wasted time and taxpayer expense.

But none of this should be news. Let’s talk about the real challenge of black students and AP scores and methods to fix the abuses.

First, schools and students should be actively restricted from using the AP grade “boost” for fraudulent purposes. The grades should be linked to the test scores without exception. Students who receive 4s and 5s get an A, even if the teacher wants to give a B1. Students who get a 3 receive a B, even if the teacher wants to give an A2 . Students who get a 2 receive a C. Students who get a 1 or who don’t take the test get a D–which, remember, will be bumped to a C for GPA purposes. This sort of grade link, first suggested by Saul Geiser (although I’ve extended it to the actual high school grade) would dramatically reduce abuse not only by predominantly minority schools, but also by all students  gaming the AP system to get inflated GPAs. That should reduce a lot of the blue in this picture:

blkapscoredistributiongrowth

Then we should ask a simple question: how can we bump those yellows to greys? That is, how can we get the students who demonstrated enough competence to score a 2 on the AP test to get enough motivation and learning to score a 3?

I’ve worked in test prep for years with underachieving blacks and Hispanics, and now teaching a lot of the kids not strong enough or not motivated enough to take AP classes. My school is under a great deal of pressure to get more low income, under-represented minorities in these classes as well (and my school administration is entirely non-white, as a data point). A couple years ago, I taught a US History course that resulted in four kids being “tagged” for an advanced placement class the next year–that is, they did so well in my class, having previously shown no talent or motivation, that they were put in AP Government the next year. I kept in touch with one, who  got an A in the class and passed the test.

My advice to my own principal, which I would repeat to the principal in Gewertz’s piece, is to create a class full of the promising but unmotivated students, separate from the motivated students. Give them a teacher who will be rigorous but low key, who won’t give much homework, who will focus on skill improvement in class. (ahem. I’m raising my hand.) Focus on getting the kids to pass the test. If they pass, they will get a guaranteed B in the class, which will count as an A for GPA purposes. (Even if the College Board doesn’t change the rules, schools can guarantee this policy.)

This strategy would work for advanced placement classes in English, history, government, probably economics.  It could work for statistics. Getting unmotivated kids to pass AP Calculus may be more difficult, as it would involve using the strategy consistently for 3 years with no test to guarantee a grade.

The challenge of increasing the abilities and college-readiness of promising but not strongly motivated students (of any race) lies in understanding their motives. Teachers need to give their first loyalty to the students, not the content. Traditional AP teachers are reluctant to do this, and I don’t think they should be required to change. But traditional AP teachers are, perhaps, not the best teachers for this endeavor.

In order for this proposal to get any serious attention, however, reporters would have to stop pretending that talented black students aren’t taking AP courses. The data simply doesn’t support that charge. We are putting too many black students into AP courses. Too many of them are completely unfit, have remedial level skills that high schools aren’t allowed to address. Much of the growth of Advanced Placement has relied on this fraud–and again, not just for black students.

It’s what we do with the kids in the middle, the skeptics, the uncertain ones, the ones who dearly want to be proven wrong about their own skills, that will help us improve these dismal statistics.

1I can’t even begin to tell you how many teachers in suburban districts do this.
2The same teachers who give students with 4s and 5s Bs are also prone to giving As to kids who got 3s. But of course, this is also the habit of teachers in low achieving urban districts. Consider this 2006 story celebrating the first two kids ever to pass the AP English test, and wonder how many of the students got As notwithstanding.

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Advanced Placement Test Preferences: Asians and Whites

I just finished my AP US History survey course, and a glorious time it was. But I will save the specifics of my three to four hour lectures, and whether or not this is a good way to teach history for another post. I will also, hopefully, weigh in some time on what value add I think I bring to history. (If you’re curious, in public school I taught history of Elizabethan theater and a truly awesome 50s science fiction film course, in which students were to analyze the movie’s foreign policy approach by Walter Russell Mead’s paradigm.)

I always end my AP class by discussing the students’ course selections for next year. APUSH is a junior course, and I have about ten kids in this particular class, and the conversation is always the same.

“What are you taking?”

“Calc BC, AP Physics C, AP Bio, AP Gov.”

“You?

“AP Chem, AP Stats, AP Psych,…”

“So you’ve already taken BC?”

“Yeah, just took the test. Piece of cake. I’m taking intro to MVC.”

“What about AP English?”

All the heads shake. “God, no. Way too hard.”

One kid says “I’m taking AP Gov, I heard it’s easy.”

“I’m taking Macro Econ, one of our teachers has all the info you need to pass the tests.”

I laugh. “Jesus. Embrace the stereotype.”

They all get it and laugh, shamefacedly.

“Who’s taking AP English this year?” Two hands rose. “AP English next year?” No hands.

“So here’s what I don’t understand. You are all trying to get into college, and the reason you are taking these tough classes is to make yourself look good for colleges.”

“Sure.”

“And I see only Chinese, Korean, and Indian Americans in front of me, all either FOB or citizens with parents who lived most of their lives in China, Korea, or India. Moreover, as I imagine you’ve heard, and certainly your parents have heard, universities often engage in some form of discrimination against Asians.”

“Wow,” one of the students laugh-gasped. “I never thought I’d hear an American admit that.”

“An American, or a white person?”

“They aren’t the same?”

“You born here?” Pause, as I see that datapoint register. Yes. She’s an American. (We’ll leave aside the fact that they don’t consider blacks and Hispanics American, either. I’ve written about this before; it’s still weird to see.)

“Anyway. All of you avoid classes that involve reading literature or written analysis because they would be too difficult.”

“Well, yeah.”

“So the stereotype is all wrong.”

“What, the stereotype that says we’re good at science and math?”

“No, the stereotype that says you work hard, that you take on challenges.”

“Oooooh, SNAP.”

I smiled, too. “Look, there’s a serious point here. You’re a college admissions officer, reading through approximately 16 billion Asian resumes that all read exactly the same: 4.2 GPA, BC calculus as a sophomore ( with the occasional underachiever waiting until junior year), several AP science courses, APUSH for those of you who can string a sentence together, AP Chinese for those of you lucky enough to win the language lottery, and so on. What’s going to stand out? Not one more STEM course.”

“Yeah, but I hate reading.”

“You think the universities don’t know that? Oh, look, one more Asian kid who’s a machine at math and can memorize all the facts in AP Bio but uses Cliff notes for Hamlet. College admissions is a numbers game anyway, and I’m not pretending anything is going to make a huge difference,, but…”

“My dad says colleges are reducing Asians born here…American Asians [score!] for Chinese and Koreans.”

“Your dad’s right. So given all the work you’re putting in clearly to just get that last inch of consideration, may I suggest that the path to differentiation lies in showing the admissions reviewer that you take on challenges in all subjects, as opposed to taking classes you know you’ll get an A in.”

***********************************************

I was going to just post this little anecdote, but then I got to wondering just how prevalent the behavior is—it is exclusive to my little corner of the country, or are the recent Asian immigrants showing up in national data?

One of the problems with AP data is that you simply can’t make too many assumptions. For example, much has been written about the fact that the mode AP score for blacks is 1. Not only do most blacks fail the AP test, people wail, but they fail it completely! Twice as many blacks get a failing score as get a passing score! Our teachers are failing black children!

Yeah, no. The black AP population is a combination of at least three different groups. First, the group of genuinely qualified, academically prepared black students. Small group, I know, but each year hundreds of African American students take and pass the BC Calculus test, many with a score of 5 (however, 1 is still the mode for BC Calc). Second, the group of average or higher ability blacks with relatively little interest in academic success, who have nonetheless been put in AP classes by desperate suburban school officians who are under fire from the feds for their “opportunity gap” numbers. These are kids who could, with good teaching, achieve a respectable “3” on a number of tests, and probably do.

The problem, alas, is that a teacher can focus on getting middle achievers over the hump, or on challenging a bunch of smart kids. Can’t do both in the same room, not easily and probably not at all. Thus bringing in more marginal black students and coaxing them to a three occasionally has a depressing effect on suburban AP scores, as the top white kids aren’t being taught at the top of their ability. But I digress.

The third group, and it’s huge, are low income urban and charter schools gaming the GPA and Jay Mathews Challenge Index. These are kids who are barely literate, often aren’t even taught the course material, but boy, by golly if they get the butts in the seats they’ll show up on Jay’s list somewhere. All at taxpayer expense.

While the AP tests results disaggregate Mexicans and Puerto Ricans from the rest of Hispanics, Mexican performance has the same conflation of three groups as black results do, and are equally useless. The Hispanic mode score is also one.

Asian scores aren’t disaggregated, but the Big Three (Chinese, Koreans, and Indians) dominate.

So are Asians showing a preference for science and math over the humanities AP tests?

AP testing populations by race–mostly. It would have been a huge hassle to add up all the URM categories, so I just subtracted whites and Asians from the total. So “Decline to state” is categorized as a URM, when it’s probably mostly white. I checked a couple values, it wasn’t a big difference. These are the top 20 tests by popularity, in order from left to right1.

2013aptablebyrace

The visual display is useful—look for big green, little blue, or a relatively high number of URMs, fewer Asians. See? Asians live the stereotype. Don’t assume that blacks and Hispanics are drawn to the Humanities courses—it’s just easier for schools to shove unprepared kids into English, Geography, and History classes than it is to science and math courses. Fewer prerequisites.

Here’s the same data in table form. I added one column, Asians as a percentage of the Asian/white total, to clear away the URM noise. Then I highlighted the tests for each column that were more than one average deviation away from the mean, both higher and lower (I used average deviation because I don’t want outliers emphasized. Just wanted to show spread.) I bolded any values that were more than two average deviations away from mean.
2013aptablebyrace

Whites are the most tightly clustered, URMs next. Asians tilt strongly towards and against.

There’s a lot more to explore here, and I hope to do that soon. But for now, I wanted to stay focused on Asian vs. white preferences. So I next compared the top 20 Asian test preferences to those of whites. (Actually, I did 22 for Asians because I thought #22 was revealing.)

AP totals include many multiple testers, so I took the number of testers for any given test as a percentage of the total for that race. This is not a perfect measure, for obvious reasons. Or maybe not so obvious. Say, for example, that an entirely different group of Asians take the English Lit test than take the Calc AB test, but the white students have a significant overlap. In that case, the percentage of testers would be saying something entirely different about each group than if both Asians and whites had overlapping testers.

However, in either case, it would be revealing. If more whites than Asians took both math and English tests, or if one group of Asians took math tests and another group took English (or the same case of whites), the percentages are still showing a preference. I think. I’m sure there’s a way to describe this more technically, but it’s late, the school year’s almost over, so put the correct text in comments and I’ll change it.

Anyway.

whitestop20ap

asiantop22

And here it is graphically, ranked again by test popularity. The blue and green columns are the percentage of white or Asian testers taking that test. The graph above was percent of each test population that was white/Asian/URM. These columns show the percent of white or Asian population taking that particular test (the blue column “% of total” in the tables immediately above). The line graph is the percent of each group that scored a 5 on that test.

apasianwhitepref

(You notice something weird? Spanish is the tenth most popular test–but it barely makes the top 20 for either whites or Asians. How could that be? Who on earth is taking all those Spanish tests?)

So again, I want to write more about these results but I thought I’d put them out there and let people chew on them. Here’s a few preliminary observations:

  • Whites appear to be the utility players, good in a number of subjects and not expressing huge preferences. They are stretching more into STEM than Asians stretch into writing.
  • Asians appear to be avoiding writing-intensive tests relative to whites, no matter how you interpret the data.
  • Asians tend to choose tests that are more likely to yield high scores, and avoid tests that give out fewer 5s. Until recently, AP Bio doled out 5 scores like candy; they clearly changed scoring in some significant way this year (without announcing it, I guess). Environmental Science, which has a deservedly crappy rep, is actually pretty hard to get a high score on, so Asians avoid.
  • The real difference between Asians and whites in both preferences and scores is in the science tests, not math. Asians have higher scores in all tests—and while that’s probably a reflection of cognitive ability, you really can’t understand the difference in preparation and grinding until you see it—but the real gaps are in the sciences. AP Science courses are, in my opinion, pretty horrible to begin with. Yes. It’s the subject I don’t teach. Bias alert.

TL, DR: Asians across the land reflect the same biases. They may or may not be working hard, but they appear to be avoiding subjects that are more difficult for them, and don’t yield as high a score. This may also be why they avoid the ACT. Or not.

More on this later. Let me know what you think and of course, point out any errors.

1I actually did this work from the bottom up. So in the first chart, which was actually the last one I did, there are only 19 tests. Guess which one I left off, and why. The other charts all have 20 tests.