State Students See AP Gains

Wisconsin Advanced Placement Participation Rates Rise in High School, Could Pave Way for Greater College Readiness

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Educational Policy Analyst

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction announced Monday that the number of students taking and passing Advanced Placement exams in high school rose in 2012, with over 33,000 pupils participating in the program. This comes a week after Superintendent Tony Evers’ State of Education address wherein he re-asserted his commitment to making just that all public school students are better prepared for life after high school.

In all, 33,455 students took college-level coursework in high school in order to test out of entry-level college courses in the 2011-2012 school year. A total of 55,300 tests were taken this year, and 37,808 of those tests earned passing grades. That’s a passage rate of 68.4 percent. However, since some universities require grades of “4” or better rather than the passing grade of “3,” it is unclear just how many students were able to apply this credit to their freshman coursework in college.

These rising rates of AP passage are a strong step forward for the state. However, with a sharper focus on college readiness looming, Wisconsin will have to continue to push programs like Advanced Placement further to reach more students than ever before. There were an estimated 135,000 high school juniors and seniors in WI’s public schools this past year. That means that slightly fewer than 25 percent of eligible students took AP exams.

Fortunately, there are already great examples that exist if the state and local districts want to push forward with higher education preparedness programs.

Wisconsin’s public education policy has already taken a few leads from successful reforms in Florida. The Read to Lead program, which is in its first year, is an early childhood literacy screening and intervention system that is based on a popular reform that has helped spur a significant turnaround in the Sunshine State. Now, with Advanced Placement participation rates rising, districts across Wisconsin can borrow another successful Florida reform as well.

One of Florida’s many changes from over a decade ago included a modest merit pay system for teachers and schools based on student participation and passing rates related to AP testing. Beginning in 2000, the state incentivized teaching AP courses in public schools thanks to a program that was co-developed by the College Board. Teachers were awarded $50 per student – up to $2,000 total – for each student in their class that passed an AP exam with a score of three or better. Schools were also rewarded for their efforts – $650 per student awarded directly to the institution itself rather than the entire district.

These bonuses were even greater for the state’s lowest performing schools. Florida awarded an additional $500 per student to schools that earned “D” or “F” grades in the state’s school accountability program. This meant that schools with the lowest performing students were given greater incentives to challenge students and increase their college readiness.

The results in Florida were significant. Overall AP passage rates rose dramatically, but the overall effect may have been greatest amongst minority students. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of Hispanic and African-American pupils that passed AP exams and earned college credit in high school more than tripled.

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A system that encourages more minority students to take AP courses and better prepare themselves for higher education would be a boost in Wisconsin. According to DPI, only 12 percent of all test-takers in the state were “students of color” in 2012.

Wisconsin will have the framework in place to make a similar reform a reality in the coming years. The emerging school accountability program – a major part in the state’s waiver application from federal No Child Left Behind standards – will soon help identify the state’s low-performing schools. Modest merit pay systems in districts like Hartland-Lakeside will also help gauge the reception for an incentivized program directed towards high schools. Even the upcoming shift to ACT testing as a standardized examination will give educational leaders the chance to further examine how to better prepare 10th, 11th, and 12th graders for higher education opportunities.

Wisconsin is already putting together a strong performance when it comes to passing AP exams. However, there are opportunities for the state to encourage more students than ever to join these courses and become better prepared for college. In a time where college readiness is a top-line priority, the state would benefit greatly from adopting a policy that has paid major dividends in Florida. Not only would it reward teachers and schools for making students better equipped for life after high school, but it would help raise the educational status of the next generation of Wisconsinites well into the future.