Teachers and officials at Evanston Township High School struck a largely positive tone Monday night in presenting the latest available data on student participation and success in Advanced Placement classes.

Despite an expected pandemic downturn in the number of students taking and passing AP exams in the spring of 2021 – when classes were held remotely – those same numbers mostly returned to near pre-pandemic levels in 2022, as shown in the graphs below.

AP exams, administered in the spring and written by the College Board, which also writes the SAT, are scored on a scale from zero through five, with five being the highest possible grade. Generally, high schools and colleges consider a score of three or higher to be passing.

As the data in the charts above reveals, the number of students taking and passing AP tests dipped significantly in 2020-2021 and then rebounded in 2021-2022.

But Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Pete Bavis urged caution in evaluating the data from this past spring, as well.

“We do not know if these scores represent a one-year rebound, a sustained recovery or a new norm,” Bavis told school board members at their meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17. “We’ll have to wait and see. I’m glad it’s going in this direction, but I don’t want to speculate long-term.”

In addition, several board members, including Gretchen Livingston and Pat Maunsell, pointed out that since ETHS decided to heavily invest in AP course and exam participation in the late 2000s, the enrollment and scores have somewhat stagnated, which the above graphs also show.

Gaps also persist between opportunities for white students to take and pass the exams and the chances that students of color have to do the same.

“The graph isn’t changing enough. When we hired [Superintendent] Dr. Campbell, we really pushed to be bold,” Maunsell told Bavis and a group of AP teachers discussing the data. “We support you to be bold because we want to see that graph start to close up. The reality is that we still have gaps. That’s the bottom line.”

Searching for better data?

Back in 2013, Northwestern University researcher David Figlio told the ETHS board that “there’s consensus in the scholarly literature that even the mere attempt at an AP class or classes seems to send kids on the type of trajectory we are looking for.”

Combined with the vision of former Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, who came to ETHS in 2006 and retired last year, the research referenced by Figlio ultimately motivated a newfound focus on getting as many students as possible involved in AP courses at the high school.

In terms of raw data, the total numbers of Black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities taking AP classes has skyrocketed over the past 15 years. But, as Livingston mentioned on Monday night, that period of time also coincided with some relatively large increases in the student population at ETHS, as well.

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One of the other reasons to encourage AP participation, and specifically taking AP exams, is the opportunity to receive college credit. By law, all public universities and community colleges in Illinois have to offer course credit for a score on an AP test of three or higher.

Passing five AP exams could lead to an entire semester’s worth of tuition savings for someone pursuing a college degree. With the expense of a postsecondary education in modern times, that represents many thousands of dollars that could be saved.

But one of the issues with the data collected and presented by ETHS is that the school primarily tracks the total number of students who take at least one exam and receive at least one score of three or higher, instead of also keeping tabs on the total number of exams taken out of the total number of seats in AP classes. That means a student enrolled in four AP classes could technically count as participating in AP exams if they only took one of the four tests at the end of the year.

Currently, ETHS does not impose any academic penalties against students who choose not to take their AP exam, according to Bavis, though students and their families do have to shoulder the burden of paying for the exam even if they end up not taking it. In 2022, each AP exam cost $97.

“Over a decade ago, when we set out to expand access and success in AP courses at ETHS, we made the decision to measure the number of students enrolled in at least one AP course, and not to break down the data by students taking one, two, three, four or more AP courses,” Bavis told the RoundTable in an email. “Our push, at the time, was to increase the number of students taking AP at ETHS.”

teamASAP

ETHS students are also lucky enough to have the resources of “teamASAP” (team Access and Success in Advanced Placement) at their disposal. The group consists of several experienced AP teachers, along with 20 student leaders who help coordinate events and help out younger students.

TeamASAP conducts a wide range of engagement opportunities throughout the year, including an AP summer camp, an annual online forum, exam preparation and regular lunch meetings with students in AP classes.

Dale Leibforth, math department chair and teamASAP member, highlighted some exciting new upcoming developments with AP at ETHS, including the introduction of a full-fledged AP African American Studies class launching this fall.

And, beyond the sole focus on AP, the school is also working on expanding dual credit and certification programs for students who are not necessarily interested in college, Leibforth said.

“We talk about AP a lot, but I know one of the foundations of Dr. Campbell’s superintendency, is postsecondary planning, so we’re looking to see how we might expand beyond just Advanced Placement as a narrow focus,” he said.

Affinity spaces, like one that exists specifically for Black students taking AP exams, can also provide a powerful platform to engage with students who may not traditionally be involved in AP classes, as well, according to English teacher and teamASAP member Jody Elliott-Schrimmer.

“We’ve had students who actually reportedly have no interest in joining AP, come into the space just to hang out with friends, grab some pizza, and they end up sharing their experience in class,” she said. “And we talk about, ‘Well, you decided not to take an AP. Why not?’ Those have been really interesting conversations. … We want students who might not have ever considered this space before to now have that seat planted and feel like this could possibly be a space for me.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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