Accelify Blog

Can San Diego Close the Gaps in AP Participation?

April 12, 2016

By: Denisa R. Superville


When Vincent Mays arrived as the new principal of Serra High School in San Diego in 2014, he was struck by the low number of students of color in Advanced Placement classes.

“It seemed odd, because the majority of my population is Hispanic,” said Mays.

When he asked Hispanic and African-American students why they were not enrolled in AP courses even when they earned A’s and B’s in others, some told Mays they didn’t know they could sign up for AP.

The San Diego district is working to change that pattern by instituting a districtwide expansion of both Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate enrollment among its low-income students and students of color by the start of the 2016-17 school year. It has identified 1,891 low-income students and students of color who it believes are capable of taking and passing AP and IB courses. Educators are now working to enroll them.

Expanding Opportunity

If San Diego is successful, it will become the largest district to close the gaps between low-income students and students of color and middle- and high-income white and Asian students in AP and IB programs, according to Cindy Marten, the superintendent, and Equal Opportunity Schools, the Seattle-based organization that is partnering with San Diego to eliminate the so-called “opportunity gap.”

San Diego’s AP and IB expansion is a major plank in a pledge it signed in 2014—along with the majority of big-city districts that make up the Council of the Great City Schools—to take concrete steps to increase opportunities for African-American, Latino, and Native American boys. The AP and IB push is also one component of a districtwide initiative to expose all students to a rigorous curriculum and increase the value of a high school diploma, Marten said.

Across the country, there are approximately 640,000 high school students who are capable of taking AP and IB classes but are not enrolled in them, and fewer than 1 percent of schools have AP and IB enrollments that reflect their schools’ diversity, said Reid Saaris, the executive director and founder of Equal Opportunity Schools. The organization has teamed up with dozens of school systems in recent years to expand access to AP and IB classes at the same time that many districts are working to strip away barriers for students, including by picking up the cost of AP exams.

‘Missing’ Students

The organization helps districts identify “missing” students by digging into school-level data and surveying staff and students about barriers and access. It prepares profiles on each student deemed capable of succeeding in AP and IB courses with information on their educational goals, career interests, the adults in the building whom they trust, and barriers that they face—the kind of fine-grained information that isn’t unearthed simply by using Preliminary SAT scores, Marten said.

“If you only use the PSAT scores, you’re going to miss some kids,” she said. “If they tell us that they don’t feel that their classes are challenging, that’s an indicator. If they say, ‘I am willing to take an AP class, I am willing to try,’ that’s an indicator. If they have a growth mindset around grit and academic readiness to be successful—that’s an indicator for AP readiness. Those are the silent indicators.”

While there has been some criticism of recent pushes to expand AP and IB that stems, in part, from questions about whether a wider swath of students are able to pass the rigorous exams, Saaris said the passing rate for students who take one or more AP or IB courses in the districts in which the organization has worked is 75 percent or higher.

Saaris and Marten said the work in San Diego and other districts is not simply about expanding access to courses, but about ensuring that students persevere in the classes. Increasing diversity can help students persist by reducing stereotype threat, Saaris said. When students see that the classes mirror the school’s diversity, they are less likely to feel that they don’t belong in them, he said.

Each San Diego high school principal is tasked with creating a plan tailored to his or her school that covers student outreach, staff training, and the support the school will provide to newly enrolled students.

Providing Support

At Serra High School, Mays discovered many poor and Hispanic students had the grades to participate in AP and IB but weren’t enrolled. The school’s population is 44.3 percent Hispanic, 26.8 percent white, and 12.2 percent Asian-American, Filipino, and Indochinese. About 8 percent of students are African-American.

“This year, those students who were capable—even if they didn’t ask me—I pushed them either into honors or AP classes, with support,” Mays said.

He added math and English/language arts tutoring, hired a professional-learning coach, and changed professional development for teachers.

The district received a $715,000 National Math and Science Initiative grant for Serra, where about one-third of students are dependents of military personnel, to help those students get into and complete AP classes.

Students who pass AP English, math, or science courses can earn $100, Mays said. The grant also pays for teacher training. Students also attend some Saturday sessions with instructors from across the country, Mays said.

With the help of Equal Opportunity Schools, Serra has ramped up outreach to 136 “missing” students. After sending letters home to parents, the school hosted a recruitment night where families met AP teachers and students enrolled in the courses. Mays said that he’s heard the worries that expanding access dilutes program quality, but that’s not been the case in San Diego.

“I am talking about raising standards, giving all young people what they need, at the level that they need it,” he said. “Equity means some kids need more than others. We are talking about pushing people up.”

“No one can argue the model because it doesn’t take away anything from high-fliers,” he continued. “It just creates an opportunity for others to fly.”