This story has been updated with enrollment statistics on the number of Southeast and Lanphier students enrolled in advanced placement classes.
Two years after Springfield School District 186 started paying more attention to advanced placement classes, the district acknowledges slow progress.
“We want to do better, and we know our students deserve that,” says Nicole Moody, the district’s assessment and school improvement coordinator. “We’re kind of back to where we started, which is not where we want to be.”
In 2017, the district announced a push to get more high school students, particularly minorities, enrolled in AP classes, which can earn kids college credit if they score threes or better on a five-point scale on tests in such subjects as calculus, history and psychology. Results have been mixed.
Last spring, Lanphier High School students took 74 advanced placement exams, 45% fewer exams than were taken the prior year, when 134 tests were taken. Nineteen tests were graded three or better last spring, just one more than in the prior year.
At all schools, students can take more than one test. Students enrolled in AP classes are not required to take exams that can result in college credit if scores are sufficient. As part of a push for better AP performance, the district has said that exam fees will be paid for students from poor families.
Southeast High School students last spring delivered the same number of threes or better, 87, as they did the prior year, with the number of tests taken increasing to 188 from 163, and so the “pass” rate dipped to below 50%.
Springfield High School was a bright spot, with both the number of exams taken and the number of threes or better increasing beyond national averages in the most recent test cycle. Last spring, Springfield High School students took 397 AP exams, 96 more than in the prior year, and 78% of exams were graded at three or better. The year before, 71% of the 301 exams taken were scored three or better.
It’s not what the district hoped for two years ago, when administrators, confronted by abysmal AP scores, vowed to get more kids into advanced placement classes while improving test performance. At Lanphier, the pass rate has fallen since the district’s AP push began. In 2016, the year before Superintendent Jennifer Gill acknowledged lackluster participation and performance in the district’s AP program, 28 threes or better were recorded on Lanphier exams, nine more than last spring. Lanphier’s 2016 pass rate of 49% on AP exams was 10 points below the national average; last spring, the pass rate was 24%.
In August, the school board renewed a contract with Equal Opportunity Schools, a Seattle consulting firm first retained in 2017 to help the district increase the number of minorities and poor kids enrolled in AP courses and improve performance on exams. Racial and socioeconomic gaps in AP participation are supposed to disappear by the fall of 2020, under the $86,500 contract, and AP test performance is supposed to rise by the spring of 2021. The district is one of several in Illinois and across the nation that have contracts with EOS aimed at enhancing AP programs for minorities and the poor.
An EOS communications director who responded to an emailed query that included a school-by-school summary of test scores said that he couldn’t say why test performance hasn’t improved at Lanphier or Southeast.
School board minutes and agendas show that the board has not heard a presentation on the district’s AP program since test results came in last summer.
“I’m curious to see the data,” said board member Judith Johnson. “Advanced placement is important. Supposedly, the work is a little bit more challenging, but all of our classes should be challenging.”
Johnson said it’s not realistic to expect high school students to thrive in AP classes if they haven’t been academically challenged going back to elementary school. “It doesn’t sound like they’re being challenge before they get to AP so they can handle it.”
School board president Mike Zimmers said he believes that the district has increased the number of minorities enrolled in AP classes, and participation is as important as test scores. AP enrollment at Lanphier High School increased by nearly 50 students in the 2017-18 school year, when the district hired EOS and began its push to increase AP participation, but has decreased since then. This year, 180 Lanphier students are enrolled in AP classes, 15 fewer than during the 2017-18 school year. After AP enrollment increased by 54 students in the 2017-18 school year at Southeast High School, the number has declined. This year, 213 Southeast students are enrolled in AP classes; during the 2017-18 school year, 236 Southeast students took AP classes.
“It’s one of those things we as a district can work toward, getting kids to take AP classes and encouraging them to take the test,” Zimmers said. “I don’t think that the test is the end-all-be-all. Really, I think it’s the experience. … Almost all initiatives I’m aware of take five to seven years to recognize the growth. So, I would say, let’s take another look at it in three years and see where we’re at.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.