The welcome news of success for many students taking Advanced Placement exams last May during the pandemic was tempered by information that students from School District 65 are coming to Evanston Township High School less prepared to do the reading required for these rigorous courses. It appears that many of those students choose not to take AP classes.

Assistant Superintendent Pete Bavis and Math Department Chair Dale Leibforth presented data at the Dec. 14 School Board meeting about the results of the spring AP tests and answered questions about how teachers recruit, monitor and support their AP students, particularly Black and Brown students.

Dr. Bavis said ETHS’s AP program has received national recognition for three reasons: Student participation has risen; more students are successful; and the AP program is more diverse than it has ever been.

Nonetheless, that diversity is being weakened by the flow of students from School District 65 who lack sufficient literacy skills to succeed in AP courses and exams, administrators said. Even the supports offered at the high-school level do not appear to be strong enough to increase the students’ literacy skills to where they need to be. Despite strong efforts to recruit students to enroll in AP classes, students who lack good reading skills are deciding not to take AP classes. There has thus been a decrease in the percentages of minority students taking AP classes over the past few years, even though the raw numbers have increased. Among minority students who did take at least one AP class, however, the success rate – as measured by earning a score of 3 or higher on the AP exam – has increased.

Overall, results from last semester were better than might have been expected, given the disruptions caused by the pandemic – such as taking the exams remotely by submitting a photo of the selected answer. ETHS  “is at an all-time high for student success on AP exams. This is significant, because nationally, success on AP exams showed a decline from previous years,” Dr. Bavis wrote in a Dec. 14 memo.

“School year 2020 saw increases in enrollment in Advanced Placement courses, as well as increases in the number of AP exams taken and scores of 3 or higher,” the memo said.

While ETHS’s success rate compared favorably against national statistics, by its internal metrics, the school showed losses. Compared to last year, the percentage of students who took an AP exam decreased. Most students who chose to take the remote AP exam were performing at a grade-level of A, B or C, whereas those who did not take the exam in their AP course were generally performing below those levels.

In the past few years, ETHS has focused on getting more students to take AP courses, saying the fact of a student’s taking an AP course, regardless of the student’s grade in the class or on the AP exam or whether the student takes the exam or not to is one of its criteria for college-and-career readiness.

The COVID Cohort at ETHS

Last spring, 1,226 students at ETHS were enrolled in AP courses, and 989 students took one or more AP exams during the COVD-19 shelter-in-place period. That represents an 81% exam participation rate, Dr. Bavis said. Of those 989 students, 803 students scored a 3 or higher on one or more AP exams in 2020. “This is the sixth 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,” Dr. Bavis said.

He said ETHS students were well positioned to take the exam remotely because the school made Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots available to students. Instructionally, he said, “Our teachers prepared our students to do well, despite the pandemic. …This is a credit to our students and our teachers. … ETHS students exceeded national achievement numbers in 23 of 26 courses.”

Though the participation by minority students decreased, the success rate, as measured by the exam score, increased.

Of the 989 students who took AP exams, 803, or 81% earned a score of 3 or higher. Broken out by race/ethnicity, the numbers and percentages of students scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam were as follows: 563, or 87%, of the 645 white students; 78, or 76%, of the 103 Latinx students; and 67, or 53%, of the 127 Black students.

The charts below show a five-year spectrum of the percentages of student by race/ethnicity who took at least one AP course and earned a score of 3 or higher on at least one AP exam.



Why Take an AP Course?

Dr. Bavis said there are two main reasons ETHS encourages all students to take at least one AP course: college credit and college-readiness. Students who earn a score of 3 or higher on an AP exam and attend an Illinois college or university receive course credit – not merely course placement. Additionally, he said, research conducted on ETHS students who attend college shows that students who took at least one AP course – regardless of the exam score – were more likely than their peers who did not take any AP exams  to persist through at least five semesters of college.

“This is unique data to ETHS students, not data from the College Board,” Dr. Bavis said.

Equity, AP Recruitment, and AP Support

AP enrollment at ETHS depends on peer as well as faculty recruitment, but the classes have open enrollment.

Mr. Leibforth said the 70 AP teachers “are working incredibly hard. …  They’re teaching remotely, and to balance this challenging academic course [they are] creating relationships, which is very difficult to do in person and even more difficult to do in the remote setting. So on the on the backs of our teachers and students, we’ve really seen a lot of success.”

Several years ago Mr. Leibforth created Team ASAP – Team Access and Success in Advanced Placement. With this group of about nine students, Mr. Leibforth hosted a forum called Pathways to AP. “And from that forum grew a variety of supports. We realized, through talking with students, that if they just walked into an AP class, the first day could be really intimidating.  And so we wanted to start early, from even the year before they stepped into that class, to make sure that students were prepared, that they were aware of the classes, that they were ready for the classes, that they had access to the AP classes, and that they were set up to be successful. So a series of events was created to support students both the year before and the year during their AP class. …[so when] they walk into the AP class, they’ve had a lot of opportunities to experience the curriculum, to meet AP teachers, to talk with other AP students and to feel more prepared as they enter into the class.”

About 600 students are now “heavily involved” in Team ASAP, Mr. Leibforth said. “And we’ve found that they really continue to want a sense of connection,” whether it comes within or outside the classroom.

 “Every year we see some gaps and we see some strengths. We want to be sure to make sure that we’re giving students, giving teachers, and giving departments what they really need in terms of our AP success,” he said.

AP Recruitment and Retention Coordinators Josh Brown and Tina Lulla have worked with the AP chairs, AP course teams to learn where there are gaps in supports for both teachers and students, he said.

Many Team ASAP conversations center around equity, Mr. Leibforth said, and remote learning has added “a brand-new depth that we’re really excited about. And the kind of takeaways that the students then bring into their classrooms from those conversations has been really impactful in the classroom, particularly around the sense of belonging in the classroom.”

Conversations with students, he added, center around the student experience in an AP class. “Team ASAP is all about, ‘Let’s make this highly competitive environment and make it one that’s more collaborative.’ … So I think no matter the topic that we choose, at a particular meeting, that theme is always a part of the conversation, how we can have an equitable experience for all students.”

Board member Jude Laude asked whether the conversations Mr. Leibforth and his team had with SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism) provided any information that would help inform their practices.

“Yes,” Mr. Leibforth said, “They gave us questions that we could actually bring back into the classrooms.” He said he and Mr. Brown and Ms. Lulla plan to keep the conversations growing and continue that collaboration with SOAR.

Concerns About Literacy

ETHS administrators said some students self-select not to enroll in AP courses because they feel unprepared, having entered ETHs with insufficient literacy skills.

Board member Pat Maunsell said, “I just continue to be excited about our numbers over time and how we’ve increased the number of students taking AP classes, taking the exams, getting threes and above. And it is a testament to all that great work that Dale and all the other team ASAP folks are doing. … But unfortunately, we do still see the pattern that we see when we have achievement data: that our students by subgroup show a similar pattern. Even though we have made significant gains with our Black students and with our with Latinx students, still it persists.”

She noted that the data on Black students had increased over the past several years but decreased somewhat in the past two years.

Dr. Bavis said recruitment efforts have not changed but the level of preparation of recent freshman cohorts has declined. As incoming freshmen, they lack sufficient literacy skills.

 “One of the things, which is a lagging indicator, is that we really had stronger cohorts for literacy and reading in those years than we do currently,” Dr. Bavis said.

“It goes back to literacy, goes back to reading. And that shouldn’t be a shock for anyone on the [Board].”

“We have expanded our recruiting, we’ve expanded our well-being work, and we’ve been having meetings. We have a strong racial-equity focus in terms of the conversations we’re having, making space welcoming, meeting and talking to teachers. But that initial hurdle of taking the AP class – just signing up for it – literacy is one of the primary drivers, and this isn’t our driver.”

Dr. Bavis said ETHS does not have any courses that require a certain grade level of reading, “but students who are not reading at a sufficient level just don’t take the [AP] classes.”

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said, “And I’m going to say the same thing just a little differently. There’s a direct correlation between how prepared students are when they enter this high school in ninth grade and things such as taking AP courses, either junior or senior year. And I won’t quote the statistics. But if you look at the reports of District 65 students for the five years leading up to these cohorts, I think you’ll be able to see some correlations.”

Mr. Leibforth added, “Yes, we’ve seen the correlation with literacy as you both highlighted. Most recently, we’ve had the same question: Who are the students that aren’t taking AP classes? We’re going to look at who those students are and hopefully have some positive things come out of that.”

Board member Gretchen Livingston took the conversation back to literacy and the preparedness of ninth-graders.

The data “are telling the story of a change in the literacy levels over the cohorts that are coming in. … So the success we’re having in those who are taking the tests in scoring a 3 or above is meaningful, because those numbers have gone up. … And I would just reiterate that our coordination with District 65 on these incoming cohorts, the transition to ninth grade, remains even more critical,” she said.

“That’s just another reason that we need to get back together with our colleagues over at District 65 and figure out what we need to do there,” Ms. Livingston said. “And it reinforces, I would also say, work of groups like cradle to career as well and everything we’re trying to do to move our kids from that pre-k, preschool, timeframe all the way up to when they reach our place.”

Mary Gavin

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...