At the Feb. 10 District 202 School Board meeting, Board members and administrators discussed the latest results of Evanston Township High School’s Advanced Placement program.

The two bywords of the high school’s AP program are “access” and “success.”

“Our goal is to have every ETHS graduate take at least one AP course,” said Math Department Chair Dale Leibforth, who also serves as the school’s Recruitment and Retention Manager for Advanced Placement.  

Despite strong recruitment efforts and support throughout the year, however, the percentages of black and Latinx students who enroll in at least one AP class has remained about the same since 2012-13. Absolute numbers have increased, because the total population of the high school has increased.

As they have in the past, District 202 administrators blamed School District 65, saying increasing numbers of students are coming into the high school reading below grade level. Team ASAP members appeared willing to look at individual students to see if additional supports would be necessary and could be provided.

They also said they counsel students to balance well-being with academics and to be judicious about the number of AP classes to take during their high school career.

Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, presented data from the 2018-19 showing how many students took an AP class and how many earned a score of 3 or higher, the score that allows a student to receive college credit for that course. By State law, students scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam who later attend a public college or university in Illinois must receive college credit for that course, Dr. Bavis said.

In 2018-19, 972 students took an AP exam, 694 of whom scored a 3 or higher, he said. “This is the fifth consecutive year with more than 900 students taking an AP exam and over two-thirds of those students scoring a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam,” he added.

In 2019, seven students with an Individualized Education Plan, IEP, took at least one AP exam, and five scored a 3 or higher. The year before, 15 students with an IEP took an AP exam, 15 of whom scored a 3 or higher.

Dr. Bavis referred to scholarly literature finding “that even attempting an AP class increases a student’s academic trajectory.”

The charts below show the percentages of ETHS 11th- and 12th-graders, broken down by subgroups, who took at least one AP exam each year from 2011 to 2019 (Top Chart) and the percentages of ETHS 11th- and 12th-graders, also broken down by subgroups of black, who earned a 3 or higher on one or more AP exams (Bottom Chart). These charts show little progress, and, at some points, a drop.

AP Access: Recruitment, Moderation and Outreach

Mr. Leibforth, AP English teacher Josh Brown, AP chemistry teacher Tina Lulla and Dr. Bavis a few years ago created Team ASAP – Access and Success in Advanced Placement – to recruit more students of color to take AP classes and to provide support as they are taking the classes:

Team ASAP works toward inclusion, diversity and equity. It is open to all students who are currently taking an AP class or who are interested in doing so. This year there are about 650 students.  Support for students starts the year before they even step into the classroom, Mr. Leibforth said, to make sure an AP class is a “safe place where students can feel they belong.” He added, “We all are encouraging students to take AP classes, but we are also working to support them.”

About 70 Advisory Board Captains (ABCs) – student leaders, reflecting the diversity of the high school – lead monthly lunchtime team meetings. ABC positions are offered “to anyone who would like that type of leadership role,” Ms. Lulla said.

Team ASAP faculty members “listen to the voices of the students, and we try to create supports,” Mr. Leibforth said.

Referring to the charts and narrative Dr. Bavis presented, Mr. Leibforth said, “We just l0oked at some impressive data and some data that challenges us. Our role is to take that data and dig in and see where the work needs to be done.” Team ASAP offers more than a dozen types of support to AP students. Dr. Bavis, Mr. Brown, M. Leibforth and Ms. Lulla described some of their past year’s work.

The monthly lunch meetings – one held at each of the three lunch periods – are where the students are most regularly engaged, Mr. Brown said.

He and Ms. Lulla lead a pre-meeting, to coach the ABCs about how to lead the lunch meetings, including presenting information and encouraging students to talk about their experiences.

Last year, Mr. Brown said, the team was asked to collect information on what it is like to be a student of color in an AP class.

“We really focused this year on working to see that every lunch meeting has a race and equity related conversation at its center,” he said. “Some of the themes have been about the distinction /relationship among inclusion, diversity and equity; belonging; overcoming silence in the classroom; welcoming students; the stereotype threat around exam-taking; and overcoming the deficit model. All of these meetings have included both the presentation of information and the opportunity for students to share their experiences.”

Mr. Brown said when he and a colleague, Jodi Schirmer, learned that several students who had registered for Senior AP English had not taken an AP exam before, they arranged a set of meetings for these students to learn what to expect in an AP class. 

Ms. Lulla said the lunch meetings have a “really high attendance rate as compared to the last couple of years, averaging about 100 students per lunch meeting.

“Last year, we restructured the AP [recruitment] Fair and held it in the HUB at lunch time, and we did it again this year. Thirty-two classes attended – more than 600 students, mostly freshmen and sophomores. We talk about why and how to choose a course, and how to balance the course with well-being. Seniors who came offered advice, and some juniors were captured if they hadn’t heard about AP.”

“We really focused on the balancing on the number of AP classes with your well-being,” she added.

Dr. Bavis said, “We don’t necessarily endorse taking five or six AP classes, because that’s sort of like the flip side of the well-being piece. … [Taking a lot of AP classes] is great, if that’s what you’re passionate about.”

 “We are not sending the message [to take a lot of AP classes]. … We are sending a message of being thoughtful. Yes, for some students they need to take a lot of AP classes, but most have to be thoughtful,” Ms. Lulla said.

Dr. Bavis said, “One of the questions we’re asked is, ‘What makes a difference in college persistence?’” He showed a chart prepared by the Northwestern Evanston. Educational Research Alliance, correlating the number of AP classes taken by three different cohorts of ETHS students with their chances of persisting into a fifth semester of college.

“Even if you take zero AP classes, [ETHS students] have a 30% chance of persisting. … Students who took three or four AP classes over their entire high school career – that leads to about an 80% chance of persisting into the fifth semester. That’s by virtue of sitting for the exam and preparing for the exam, not the score,” he said.

This information, Dr. Bavis said, is a powerful talking point for moderation in taking AP classes.

Team ASAP members are reaching out to students at District 65 middle schools Chute, Nichols and Haven, Mr. Leibforth said.

“We always have said the earlier we can reach students the better,” Mr. Leibforth said. He referred to one colleague who said she would like to go to hospitals and pass out AP flyers to newborns, “but we’ll start with the eighth-graders,” he said.        

“We talk about AP. We say, ‘AP, AP, AP,’ but it’s really about how you can reach your full potential as a person, as a student; and we found the eighth-graders had a lot of excitement around this.” 

Eighth-graders’ questions covered both long-term and short-term concerns. “Some of the questions are, ‘Can I chew gum at the high school?’ and ‘Here’s what I want to be when I grow up. What classes, what AP classes should I take?’” Mr. Leibforth said.

Ms. Lulla added, “I think the most common question to our ABCs is about gym uniforms.”

Pointing to outside supports, Dr. Bavis said, “We’re in our first year of getting our kids registered with the College Board, and we pushed hard to get them registered online so they will have online modules for reviews and other resources.” These modules are from the College Board and are content-specific, aligned to AP tests.

Another reason to register early is to ease the financial burden on a family of having to pay a lump sum in the spring. Students who receive free lunches do not have to pay for the exams, he said.

In addition to having students register early for exams, the teachers now collect demographic information well before the date of the exam. Some research has shown that having to provide demographic information on an exam day can be detrimental to a student’s performance. 

AP Success: Who Does Not Sign Up, Who Drops, and Why

Even with strong recruitment into AP courses and support for students taking those courses, Dr. Bavis, Mr. Brown, Mr. Leibforth and Ms. Lulla acknowledged some students do not enroll in AP courses, and some students drop out.

Board member Jude Laude thanked the team members for their work. “I really think the District has done transformative work with access.”

He added, though, “I’m very, very concerned about success when I look at subgroups. I see more black and brown students taking AP course for rigor, in general, but there’s a glaring disparity in students scoring 3 and higher on these tests. … So, we’re really raising the bar on access, but I think we really need to double down on figuring out why there is a disparity. …

“Let’s just say the students have the skills they need to be in those classrooms, but why is there such a disparity? The notion that you all are talking to these students and trying to get data from them I think is great; it’s transformative as well.

“But what are we learning, and how is what we are learning informing practice in the classroom? And can you provide examples of what may be causing this disparity? What kinds of adjustments are you making? Do you have examples? It’s just a glaring disparity.”

Ms. Lulla said one of the difficulties is getting the help students need during the times they are available. When the time is built into the day, she said, she has more success in getting students to come ask for help

“This year, I have really focused hard on offering lunch-period help, and I have been successful in getting a lot more students. … I get students who come in two or three times a week or students just know I am there, and they drop in.”

Mr. Laude asked what information, if any, the team has received from parents about what time slots are good for the students. “Are there other factors relating to their households, responsibilities in the morning? Because if it’s just a function of them accessing the help …”

Ms. Lulla said, “My students have mentioned to me that it’s sports on Saturday morning, for example. And when I ask for after-school time, it’s work. So those are the two things that are mentioned.”

Mr. Leibforth said, “I can give you an example from AP Calculus; that’s one of the classes that has that disparity. … For many of our students it’s the level of problems – the difficulty. The crux of that is in Algebra 2, primarily sophomores who will eventually take calculus.

“So, we’ve been working to up the challenges in Algebra 2, not only reinforcing basic skills but building up the difficulty of problems so they are doing problems that take more than a minute or two minutes to solve. We’re going to monitor that.”

Mr. Leibforth also said the team is working with Stanford University on text anxiety and stereotyping and would have a report about that soon.

Dr. Bavis said another way to look at “success” was to note that taking an AP class, regardless of score, was one of the marks of persistence to a fifth year of college. Nonetheless, he said, “We want to get that [score] up to 3 so [the students] can get college credit.”

 Mr. Brown said classroom climate makes a difference to students. “There are any number of students who feel singled out in the classroom, ignored in the classroom and both singled out and ignored in the classroom. That comes out in a lot of different forms, however the question is asked.”

He said the team is working on a mechanism whereby students can anonymously communicate their feelings about classroom climate and every teacher can hear that a good number of students said that.

“I think it’s hard to make sure that a good number of students are heard about these experiences. … Just to make sure it’s being regularly collected and listened to, so that teachers can make their own pedagogical decisions about it – is something that we’re trying to do.”

Mr. Laude said, “So, you’re being transparent about that – and I think that’s the ‘belonging’ factor that is talked about so often.”

Board President Pat Savage-Williams said, “It is, like you said; it’s hard to address because people are people and they mean well. And when you talk about the race and equity conversations … I wondered how much time you have to talk with the teachers…and help them look at their connections with students…and affirm that this is crux of what we do. We want these students to have access and have success. And we want to look into the curriculum, like you said, [Mr. Leibforth], to see what we can do.”

 Board Vice President Monique Parsons said, “I appreciate that our numbers have grown and of course atmosphere and a sense of belonging is a part of that. I always ask, ‘How many black students and students of color have signed up for AP and dropped out?’ Because they are not the ones coming to the lunch meetings and sharing their experiences.

“Somewhere in between signing up and taking that test, we may lose a few or have lost a few. And I’m interested learning what you have heard and what conversations you’re having among yourselves … because it’s happening and it keeps happening with this group.”

Dr. Bavis said, “I have some numbers. We had 10 black students drop AP last year, and for Latino students we had 16% (153 started and ended with 128); all were juniors and seniors.

“What I’ll tell you is this, overall, we had 4.7% drop rate in Advanced Placement courses last year, but they didn’t just drop AP; it’s a level change. In the Language and Composition class, you can drop down to Junior English, so you’re not leaving the curriculum entirely.”

Mr. Leibforth said, “To add to that, a lot of those dropping – it’s often seniors dropping calculus. And they often move into our dual-credit class, Finite Math.

“And I have conversations about why is it happening – whether it’s belonging in the classroom or preparedness. Oftentimes I’ll find the student had received Ds in pre-calculus but wanted to challenge himself and take an AP class. And the struggle was too great, and we placed him into a dual credit class, with Oakton Community College – still a challenging class taught at a high level. And you can’t fault the student.”

Mr. Leibforth added that he and the other AP teachers are “hearing those stories and collecting information. … In some cases, the move needed to be made but it also points to changes that need to be made at the school.”

Ms. Lulla added, “I’ve found that if I know the student is considering dropping, I’m able to intervene in a way that could potentially stop that drop. The time I can’t intervene is if I don’t know the student is planning to drop.”

She says she tries to focus conversations “early in the year, so students will not think of dropping or bring up the idea of dropping in a way they can talk to me. The department chair is really wonderful and alerts me if she hears a student is thinking of dropping. The only time I’m blindsided is when I have no idea they are thinking about it. But as long as I can be part of that conversation, I can provide some confidence or, like [Mr. Leibforth said] said, try to find out the reason for the drop.”

Mr. Leibforth said, “One of the supports we have is AP Fall Academy. … If they can make it through the first two or three weeks then they’re OK. But we’ve even thought about reframing the Fall Academy, because we’re not always meeting the right students there. … We can’t keep doing the same thing if it’s not working.”

Mr. Brown said he learned from talking to students in his classes, “Students will express their idea to drop as centered around perceived lack of skill. And as the conversation will come around, that’s not it. It really is about how it feels to be in the class. So, we talk it through with them and say, ‘You did very well in the test,’ but it turns out this was an unpleasant experience. We have to learn how to equip students with that vocabulary so they can speak their experience instead placing it onto themselves as lacking preparedness.”

Board member Pat Maunsell said, “That is what students do; they internalize systemic things.”

Board member  Echo Allen said, “Accessibility is much greater for students of color. … The disparity in AP classes is still very apparent to students and it’s still a topic of conversation that a lot of students of color have: that the climate isn’t normalized to be a student of color in AP classes, and that it is still unusual to have majority of people of color in AP classes. That is still very much an issue for students.”

Ms. Maunsell asked, “What more can we do?”

Dr. Bavis said, “We can get the curriculum review team to look at that issue. And we could issue that report to our AP teachers.” The teachers then could decide how to act on the information.

“Great idea,” said Ms. Savage-Williams.

Board member Stephanie Teterycz asked, “Are you collecting demographic data on the attendance and engagement of students in each of these initiatives? … Offering is not the same as engaging. It would be helpful for us to see perhaps what your success rate is for supports when you break it down by demographics.”

“I don’t have the data for you,” Mr. Leibforth said, “but our lunch meetings are more diverse. … The  ABCs are representative in terms of students of color.”

Some Numbers ‘Obscure the Good Work’

Board member Gretchen Livingston said, “I really want to be careful not to take away from the extraordinary work you are doing and have been doing for many years. … I think it’s really extraordinary what we’ve done since the freshman restructuring.”

However, she said, the sort of praise accompanying the data “overlooks where we are right now. … Our population has increased, and that is necessarily going to lead to a greater number of our kids’ taking AP classes and a greater number scoring 3s and 4s.

“So, to me the most relevant charts are those that identify the percentage. … We are now at 27%; it was higher in 2016 – 37%. That’s not success. … When we just identify the total numbers of exams taken, as a percentage, we’re not serving our black and African American students any better. In fact, the number is worse. And similarly, in those students with scores of 3 and above; it’s a smaller bobble; a high of 15% in 2016-17 and now we’re down to 11%.

“All the numbers dropped as a percentage of student body – Latinx, black African American. … I think it’s important that we are really clear about that, because I think to suggest this total- number stuff obscures the fact and makes it more difficult for us to have the conversation about what we’re not getting done to move the numbers – not just to improve them but to stop the drop.”

Lack of Literacy Forecloses Opportunities

Dr. Bavis said, “I just have one item. That is a sobering item, and it’s probably a good preview for our joint meeting: For students who take an AP course – I disaggregated by race: What is the grade equivalent on the STAR equivalent [the assessment measure used by ETHS, different from the Measures of Academic Progress assessment used for District 65] for students who take an AP class versus those who do not?

“What I found out was that black/African American students are at grade level when they take AP classes – a 10.5 [a level of 10th grade, fifth month]. For black/African American students who do not take an AP class, their reading level is seventh grade, first month. So that’s a big difference right off the bat. And for our Latino students who don’t’ take an AP class, their score is 7.4 [seventh grade, fourth month].

“Our white students who take an AP class, their reading level is 11th- or 12th-grade, where it should be.

Reading – literacy – is one of the biggest barriers to success,” Dr. Bavis said.

“So what you’re saying,” Ms. Livingston said, “is those kids really could not take an AP class and be successful. It would be difficult.”

“Well, they might be able to,” Dr. Bavis responded, “but it’s going to be very difficult to access the content in U.S. History, and in language and literature, literature and composition with a reading level of 7.1. It precludes an opportunity is what it does.

“I didn’t anticipate the data would be this stark, but it really is. Reading has a profound impact on your opportunities and it forecloses many academic opportunities for our students.”

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said, “I just want to point out that the charts you’re seeing mirror what you have seen from District 65 the last six straight years.

“I have talked about this before in public, and I’m going to talk about it again. Every single year for six consecutive years, reading scores have gone down in District 65. … And we’ve talked about it, and we’ve talked about it, and we’ve talked about it. But there are a lot of correlates to the charts that you’re seeing and where the reading levels of students who have been coming to ETHs for seven or eight years.

“That’s why we have a Joint Reading Goal, and that’s why the high school is so adamant that children need to be taught to read. And when you don’t teach them to read, you are disadvantaging them in many, many ways, and it shows up in what Dr. Bavis was just pointing out.”

Ms. Livingston said, “I could not agree more.”

She then pointed to data showing AP exam scores of 4 or higher … “This is a chart that doesn’t have the percentage, so when you do this as a percentage of student body and compare 2011-12 to 2019 2011-12. It was 27% then and now 28% in 2019. We have an increase in the total number of 4s but we don’t have an increase in the percentage of 4s.”

Mr. Leibforth said, “Every time I look at that chart, I have the same thoughts. I think three or four years ago we said, ‘Who are the students? Who are the ones that are not in the class?’ And we looked at the names of the 150 students who are on the list and we said, ‘What are their pathways to get to junior, senior years? We’d have to do it again, but it’s in our minds: Who are the students who are not in the AP classes? We need to talk about that. …

“We will have to dig into that data. But I don’t want to take away from your point, and I think, to that point, that it’s again time to look at each individual student who is not taking an AP class, if it is our goal to have each student take an AP class before they graduate. Right now, it’s three out of four.”

“Right now,” Ms. Livingston said, “you’ve really got two sets of problems. You’ve got this set of students that [Dr. Bavis] has just identified who are not reading at grade level – and not just not at grade level but they’re maybe three grade levels behind.

“That’s one difficult question, that I think we’re going to address at the Feb. 24 Joint] School Board meeting.

“And then you have this separate question of kids who are reading at grade level but who are not taking an AP course.”

Ms. Savage-Williams said, “This is always very informative, very helpful and so much discussion that we need to have. This is what it’s all about. This is what we set out to do and now we’re challenged with all the pieces that we knew would come up and are getting in the way.”

Referring to a recent article in Education Week that gives some nationwide AP data, Mr. Livingston said, “38.9% of graduates last year took at least one AP exam. And we should be aiming to beat that national average. And that was up from 26% of students a decade or earlier who took at least one AP exam. And we are at round 26% now. So, I’m curious whether we look at this, whether we care about it. We compare ourselves to state results and nationwide results on things like the ACT, for example.”

“Was it 26% of the entire school body?” Mr. Leibforth asked.

Ms. Livingston said, “The way it was phrased in this particular article it was 1.25 million students, which they characterized as 38.9% of graduates.”

Ms. Livingston said another aspect of the article focused on “efforts by the AP to make themselves more relevant by coming up with alternatives to test scores as the only measure – and talking about having a portfolio, essay and a capstone project. I assume this is one thing you’re aware of and thinking about as we consider ways to move away from the test score as a measure of our students – as an exclusive measure of our students.”

Mr. Leibforth said, “We’ve talked about some ways to have more meaningful courses for our students and get AP credit for it.”

Dr. Witherspoon asked, “What percentage of our graduates walking across the stage have taken an AP class”

“Three out of four – 76%,” said Mr. Leibforth. “And half of those get a 3 or higher.”

“And we’re going to beat that,” said Ms. Livingston.

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...