research shows

More students are taking AP exams, but researchers don’t know if that helps them

Juniors in an AP U.S. History class in Lafayette, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Let’s start with the good news: Over the last two decades, a rapidly increasing number of students have taken and passed Advancement Placement exams, which are often seen as helpful preparation for college.

But here’s the bad news: Many more students are also taking those courses but failing the exams. The majority of black and Hispanic test-takers don’t score a 3 or higher, which is usually needed to earn college credit.

So has the rapid expansion of AP been a net good for students and schools?

A new review of research provides a stark reminder that we simply don’t know the answer to that or a number of other important questions about AP courses, even as the program has become a more common part of the American high school experience.

Suneal Kolluri of the University of Southern California looked at over 50 studies of AP tests and classes that examine how they have expanded and whether they’ve equipped students with “college-level knowledge and skills.”

“AP is such an important element of high school for kids and teachers, and we don’t really understand how it’s impacting student experiences,” said Kolluri.

Unsurprisingly, students who score a 3 or higher on an AP exam do better in college. But, remarkably, there is virtually no research pinning down cause and effect — that is, whether taking AP courses actually helps students succeed. The association could be due to factors like a student’s high school quality or their own motivation.

The College Board, the nonprofit that oversees the AP program, points to research that shows that in four general subjects — English, math, history, and world languages — scoring a 2 is associated with boosting a student’s college grade point average in that subject. However, the effect is small, and the research can’t conclude that the GPA increase is a direct result of AP classes.

One study of Texas students in college found that the relationship between AP courses and college GPA largely disappeared once you account for a student’s overall high school academic program. The results imply that students in similar schools who took similarly hard classes do equally well in college.

Little research exists examining the trade-offs of taking an AP class rather than a community college course, a career and technical education class, or another high school class.

“The question of ‘Is that money better spent elsewhere’? We don’t have the evidence to say,” Kolluri said.

Both the College Board and individual U.S. states have prioritized increasing access to AP classes. According to the Education Commission of the States, a majority of states encourage schools to offer AP courses, some with financial incentives. Eight states specifically require districts or schools to provide access to AP classes.

Source: College Board (Graphic: Amanda Zhou/Chalkbeat)

That’s helped push participation up. Between 2001 and 2017, the total number of students taking an AP exam grew from about 820,000 to more than 2.6 million.

The success of those students varies widely. Only about 30 percent of exams taken by black students and 42 percent of exams taken by Hispanic students received a passing score in 2017, compared to 64 percent of exams taken by white students.

One explanation for that, Kolluri said, is that many students may be enrolled in low-quality AP classes. Another is that more students have not been prepared to take on the advanced material.

The existing research “is long on patterns and short on possibility,” he concludes. “While enrollment rates, AP test scores, and college attainment variables can effectively tell us where we are, more innovative investigations can better help us understand how we got here and where we might go next.”

dollars and cents

New York City teacher salaries to range from $61,070 to $128,657 in new contract

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
The pay increases included in the new contract are marginal. UFT President Michael Mulgrew (right) and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza (left) announced the new agreement Thursday along with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Starting salaries for a first-year New York City teacher will increase over the next three years to $61,070, up from $56,711 this year, according to a salary schedule released Friday by the United Federation of Teachers.

Unlike the first contract under Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in 2014, the pay increases included in the new contract are marginal. In that contract, starting teacher pay jumped by almost 20 percent — nearly $10,000 — because city teachers had gone without an updated contract for five years.

[Related: More money for New York City teachers in contract deal, but is it a raise? Some are pushing back]

The 2019-2022 contract, announced four months before the current one is due to expire, includes annual raises of 2, 2.5, and 3 percent. Teachers have criticized the increases as insufficient to keep up with rising living costs.

“Furious my beloved @UFT wants me to support a contract that doesn’t even include cost of living increases when I teach in one of most expensive housing markets in USA,” tweeted Samantha Rubin.

Under the contract agreement, which still needs to be ratified by the UFT’s members, the maximum salary for teachers will rise from $119,565 to $128,657. The proposed salary schedule details how much teachers earn based on how many years they’ve been working and how many education credits they’ve accrued.

The union posted the schedule as part of a massive document dump aimed at explaining the new contract. Those documents include an outline of the proposed changes and the agreement signed by UFT President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, which also made several policy changes that will affect schools and classrooms.

Friday afternoon, the UFT’s 3,400-member delegate assembly will meet and vote to recommend the proposed contract to all 129,000 members.

Some members have complained that the vote feels rushed. The agreement was announced Thursday afternoon and the memorandum was still being finalized in the hours before the delegate vote.

“It strikes me as sort of Republican Senate power play to just ram something through before anyone has a chance to read the contract,” said Will Ehrenfeld, an American history teacher at P-Tech and a union delegate. “I think it’s really unacceptable to not get details.”

Mulgrew defended the process, saying “everyone is going to have a couple of weeks to read the entire memorandum.”

You can read the full memorandum below.



Christina Veiga and Alex Zimmerman contributed.

Teacher quality

Teachers getting better under Tennessee’s controversial evaluation system, says new analysis

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick/Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s overhaul of its system for evaluating teachers has coincided with real and measurable benefits for students and teachers alike, says an analysis released Thursday by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The controversial changes — which since 2011 have required more frequent and rigorous evaluations aligned to student outcomes — have rankled teachers but also made a difference when it comes to teacher retention and students’ academic growth, according to the research and policy group, which backs extensive reforms to teacher preparation and evaluation.

Teachers earning highly effective ratings are generally being retained at a higher rate than less effective teachers across Tennessee. An increasing number of districts logged the highest levels of student growth on state assessments during three school years ending in the spring of 2017. And a recent survey found that 72 percent of educators believe the evaluation process has improved their teaching, up from 38 percent in 2012.

However, other research paints a much less encouraging picture of evaluation reforms, particularly a recent study commissioned by the Gates Foundation that showed few gains in student achievement under the extensive changes, including in Tennessee’s largest district in Shelby County.

The newest analysis spotlights Tennessee as one of six places that are pioneering evaluation systems aimed at improving the quality of teaching. The others are New Mexico and districts in Dallas, Denver, the District of Columbia, and Newark, New Jersey.

All six use both student test scores and classroom observations to evaluate all of their teachers every year, giving significant weight to student learning. They also feature at least three rating categories, a big change from the days when teachers were assessed as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, with almost all earning the former rating.

Perhaps most significantly, each of the systems highlighted in the analysis link evaluation results to opportunities to earn higher pay. In Tennessee, districts are now required to differentiate compensation based on educator ratings or one of two other criteria: additional roles and responsibilities, or serving in hard-to-staff schools or subject areas.

The changes have happened in the decade since the National Council on Teacher Quality analyzed state and local regulations affecting teachers and called out evaluation policies across America as broken, counterproductive, and badly in need of an overhaul.

Not surprisingly, the switch to new systems has been hard.

In Tennessee, educators found the revamped evaluation model cumbersome, confusing, and opaque after its launch was rushed to help the state win a $500 million federal award in 2010. That feedback contributed to ongoing tweaks to teacher training and evaluation systems, outlined in another new report from FutureEd, a second policy think tank favoring evaluation reforms.

“None of these systems were perfect out of the gate,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, the group behind this week’s analysis. “System leaders recognized this and worked continuously to enhance system design, implementation, and use.”

But the backlash continues to bubble up in Tennessee, especially as the state’s messy transition to a computerized assessment has undermined the credibility of student test scores and prompted a recent legislative order to mostly disregard this year’s results in evaluations.

Last April, the testing problems overshadowed another study by Brown University researchers who reported that Tennessee teachers are showing substantial, career-long improvement under the state’s reforms. The finding was important because of some previous research that teacher improvement is relatively fixed, with most development coming in the first three to five years of a teacher’s career and then plateauing.

Despite the upbeat assessments in the NCTQ, Brown, and FutureEd reports, the future of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system — which is now fully integrated into other systems for teacher preparation, licensure, support, and dismissal — is uncertain due to testing headaches that call into question the evaluation’s accuracy and fairness. The Gates study, which also found that low-income Memphis students didn’t necessarily get more access to effective teachers under evaluation reforms, hasn’t helped.

Outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has championed the reforms started by his Democratic predecessor and is urging the next administration to stay the course. His education chief says the latest analysis is a testament to the importance of incorporating student achievement into teacher ratings.

“Our evaluation model has developed the capacity of teachers to improve, put student growth at the center of our work, and established an expectation of continuous improvement,” Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement. “Even better, it’s working.”