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How Can We Ensure More New Orleans Kids Get AP Credit?

This summer, Louisiana families got some good news: More Louisiana high schoolers are passing Advanced Placement (AP) tests. Passing scores for African American students showed particular progress, rising 17 percent from last year. Congratulations to the students, teachers, and educators whose hard work made these gains possible.  

Passing AP exams is a big deal. The exams provide a high, common standard for student performance, and research has consistently shown that students who take and pass them are more likely to thrive in college as well

AP tests also allow high school students to earn college credit. In today’s climate of skyrocketing college costs and students forced to take out debt to finance an education, AP tests are one of the best deals you can imagine. By paying $93 for one test, a student can get the same amount of college credit that would require thousands of dollars in tuition. Every test passed is money in the pocket of families. 

But this year’s results also show that, for students in New Orleans public high schools, we can still do much better. Not very many New Orleans students are attempting AP tests, and those who take the tests often earn low scores that will not earn them any college credit. 

AP Test Passage Rates in Orleans Parish Schools

Let me give you a brief overview. At two selective enrollment high schools in Orleans Parish—Ben Franklin and Lusher—AP participation is through the roof. Ben Franklin, by itself, had 845 instances last year of students scoring 3 or better on an exam, which is normally the threshold for college credit. Lusher had 334. These two schools, by themselves, accounted for an astounding 92 percent of AP passing scores in Orleans Parish.

Now, Ben Franklin and Lusher are not typical schools. Students must have top notch results just to get in and, demographically, they are dramatically more affluent than other Orleans Parish public high schools.  But nonetheless, passing an AP test is commonplace for students at Ben Franklin and Lusher. Many students take and pass multiple AP exams per year.

What about the other schools in Orleans? Well, the school with the next most AP tests passed, after Franklin and Lusher, is KIPP Renaissance. How many? It had 32. You read that correctly. The third-place school had 10 percent as many passing scores on the AP tests as the second-place school. After KIPP Renaissance, it was Edna Karr with 27, Sci High with 25, and Sci Academy with 11. No other high schools had more than 10, which is the minimum number to be included in public reporting.  

(Warren Easton, which earned an A from the state on its most recent report card, had more than 330 AP test attempts but fewer than 10 passing scores and a pass rate below 1 percent.) 

The success rate at KIPP Renaissance, Edna Karr, Sci High, and Sci Academy combined was 11 percent.  Meaning, about 9 in 10 test attempts resulted in a non-passing score of 1 or 2. At Ben Franklin and Lusher, the success rate was about 80 percent. 

We need to hold two ideas in our heads at once. 

First, Orleans Parish public schools are increasing participation in AP coursework and helping somewhat more students to pass. Well done. But we also need to be clear that, if anything, the AP tests results remind us of how far we are from putting Orleans Parish students on a level playing field to maximize their potential. Do we really think there aren’t more bright students capable of mastering these challenges?  I don’t believe that. I think that with the right exposure to good content and good teaching leading up to high school, far more Orleans Parish students can conquer AP.

Part of the solution is to improve the quality of high school instruction. But high schools are only part of the story. To be ready for AP-level rigor in the last years of high school, students need to be ascending a staircase of rigor many years prior, in middle school.  And the key is writing.

Why writing?

The three subject areas with the highest number of successful AP exams are English Language, and U.S. History, and English Literature.  What’s the common denominator?  A heavy emphasis on essays.  All three require outstanding, lucid writing skills, with students citing clear evidence to support a well-structured argument. The amount and quality of writing students are doing in middle school is the fuel that propels students to AP success down the road. If we want more Orleans students to meet the challenge of AP, we must get better at teaching writing – across the board.

Moreover, this is not just an issue in Orleans Parish. Across Louisiana, only 8 percent of high school students earn a passing AP score. That’s one of the lowest rates in the country – even though it is improving. In Massachusetts, which leads the pack, 31 percent of high school students pass at least one AP exam. Imagine how much college tuition those Massachusetts families are saving.

For now, let’s acknowledge the important steps forward students and schools have taken without forgetting the amount of unrealized potential in Orleans Parish’s young people and our responsibility to help them unleash it.