Abby Whitbeck joined us on episode 019 Evidence and Action to discuss how the College Board is using data from AP programs around the world to craft policy that improves inclusion and representation in AP coursework.
Ralph: So we get to start season two by welcoming a guest. Abby Whitbeck is the executive director for the College Board AP strategy team. The College Board’s AP program stands for Advanced Placement, and it focuses on supporting teachers to deliver college level course work opportunities to high school students. College credit can be earned by taking a nationally standardized end-of-course exam that colleges can accept as equivalent to completing their on campus class. Abby’s focus is AP access and success for students, especially from the perspective of demographics, promoting best practices from successful AP programs. Welcome Abby. Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about what exactly that means.
Whitbeck: Thanks. Thanks so much for that question. We said demographics. When I think about it in particular, it is what does the program do to identify disparities in course availability, disparities in course participation, exam participation and exam success. Those disparities can be by gender. We can look at women, women in STEM courses. It can also be looking at students from under-represented backgrounds by reason ethnicity. I spend a lot of time thinking about students who have financial needs and their ability to participate and succeed in the A.P. Program. In particular, right now there’s been a strong focus in the program on what are we doing to best serve students in rural communities, and coming from rural areas. That has really expanded our lens of late as we think about rural being, I live in Brooklyn New York and there’s rural within fifty miles of where I live. I think we often forget that. That’s become a big focus recently.
Ralph: You said, “big focus recently,” and that’s the real deal. There’s been several articles that have come out, which is what Laurence and I read in preparation for this segment. There was “The Seven Things Research Reveals and Doesn’t About Advanced Placement,” and that was in The Washington Post. Then there’s the peer reviewed literature which was an article called, “Advanced Placement, The Dual Challenge of Equal Access and Effectiveness.” I was really trying to analyze, what’s the progress Advanced Placement program has made over the course of last couple decades, and what are the changes that we’re making recently to try and address some of the remaining problems that are still present? Maybe we need to start from the beginning of what has been happening over the last couple decades.
Whitbeck: I think when a lot of us when high school there is this concept of an AP student. Somebody who was part of the A.P. Group. I think over the last couple decades we’ve seen a lot of changes in how schools think about who should participate in AP. Who should get access to those classes and what practices across the school leads to a more inclusive classroom. We’ve seen schools shift from using teacher recommendations and typical prerequisite lenses on who should get access to A.P. to allow greater proliferation of what we would think of as almost an opt-out model, where it’s expected that a student would participate in A.P. unless, through a conversation with a guidance counselor and a teacher that student can withdraw from an AP course. We’ve also seen a lot of schools use more data driven models. One of the big upticks in AP participation in the last ten, fifteen, years was driven by the College Board really linking P.S.A.T. data to A.P. and using schools PSAT data to turn that back around to schools and say, “These are the students who, based on their P.S.A.T. scores,
are likely to be really successful on an AP exam in biology, in calculus, in statistics. Making that relationship between P.S.A.T data, we’re able to generate a roster, as we call it, an AP potential tool that educators have access to online. I don’t know if either of you have ever used the AP potential tool.
Ralph: We have. Olathe East did use it. I taught the AP program when I was at Olathe East. I know that was something that was available to us.
Whitbeck: Our hope is that really just expands the list beyond all those other indicators that schools use to find student for AP courses, which are great. Hopefully this can add another dimension of who else might be able to be really successful who doesn’t naturally come to the attention of people who are looking to recruit into those classes. Another really amazing program that started up in the late ninety’s that actually was eliminated with the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act, was the federal subsidy for our low income students’ A.P. exam fees. That program really made the program much more accessible to families for whom the exam fee was a barrier. That brought the fee, after the college board subsidy and after contributions from schools, would have typically been about fifty dollars for students, down to about twelve to fifteen dollars. Since the elimination of that subsidy a lot of states have stepped up and kind of replaced it with their own funding. We’ve seen a continuation of that that does look like it might be eroding slightly. But for the most part, it looks like we’re settling into a place where students are paying about, out of pocket, about eleven dollars for students who are coming from low-income backgrounds, which is great to see.
Ralph: I was going to highlight a few of the numbers that were in that piece of literature that we reference, because they they compared a lot of changes in participation from ninety-four to twenty-thirteen, or those that I think it’s the twenty-twelve test taking numbers. Participation in A.P. jumped from less than fifteen percent all the way to thirty nine percent globally. Some of that included some considerable improvement in some of the under-represented groups who are participating. Latino, in particular, I was really heartened, we’re up to thirty six percent in twenty-twelve, but that still is lower than than our typical white students who are at forty one percent. I think a question that we discussed on the show in the past is, the goal is not to put every single student in AP. I think, we don’t want every single person to be because not every single student wants to be in an A.P. course. The question is getting every student who intends to to become an A.P. student, how do we get them access into the A.P. courses? I know the thing that I got excited about when we were talking this summer was some of the new initiatives they’re trying to prepare those students, so the students who want to be participating in AP can participate in AP. What kinds of things can you tell us about there.
Whitbeck: The way I think about that continuum you’re talking about, to get to that thirty nine percent, thirty nine percent of students who graduate from high school in this country right now, will have taken at least one A.P. exam by the time they graduate. We think about that, taking an exam and there’s a chain of events that have to happen for students to hit that kind of benchmark. They have to have access to a course, and there has to be enough seats in that course in their school that they can get one of those states. Then somebody has to really drive them and motivate them not just to participate in a course but in the exam. Those are all independent decisions. For so many of our students, that’s all taken as one decision. There is a course. There’s a seat for them. Taking the exam is an expectation. For so many others of our students it’s about closing gaps across each of those events in their experience. To your question, what we’re talking about this summer which might be one of the biggest changes in the A.P. program coming ahead is that the AP program right now is investing significantly in developing a whole new suite of resources and supports for AP teachers to really help teachers track student progress throughout the year, and really gauge how they’re performing on the content and the skills that A.P. students need to be successful in order to be successful on the end-of-year exam. You do that in granular ways throughout the year and with more dis-aggregated data, so they can really see, “What are my students successful at?” and “Where do they need more practice and more opportunities to learn ?” The other thing that we talked about which will get to that sort of continuum we talked about, is that the AP program, in parallel, with releasing all those resources in the twenty-nineteen, twenty-twenty school year, a year from now, exams, we’ll call it fall registration and fall ordering, students will order and their AP exams in the fall across the country, beginning in twenty-nineteen. Whereas, I think you both know, right now, AP exam order deadlines are in April. That’s a pretty big shift when you think about it on paper like that. Also, more than half of our schools right now already ask their students to effectively make their decision about taking their exam in the fall as it is. It’s really a big shift for about half of our schools, or a little bit less.
Ralph: Making the decision earlier, does that matter? So they commit earlier, so what?
Whitbeck: I am pretty excited about this. I think this is probably one of the most scrutinized decisions the program has made in the last several years. It really goes back to the whole purpose stated at the beginning of our team, which is to really think about what are the practices that certain schools have implemented that have really led to game changing narrowing of gaps in AP participation and access. We’ve learned through data that students who are in schools where they’re expected to make decisions early in the year are more likely to not only take the exam, which I think is probably intuitive to most people, but are more likely to be successful on the exam. We can talk about numbers. It would be interesting to hear your reflections on, “Does that jibe with the classrooms that you’ve led?” but to see students as a group make decisions earlier in the year, the anecdotal evidence which seems to be rolling up to the data is that you create a culture that needs students to be more able to stay motivated, to stay committed, and to respond to feedback, respond to criticism, and respond to setbacks, in ways that are productive, and help them ultimately be more successful.
Ralph: That is. That’s consistent with what will be the next segment here in this in this month’s show, just talking about some of those institutional constraints that are greater barriers to some students than others. That was a really important part of my AP classroom, was that every single student takes the exam. That was just the way it was. There was no rule that let me enforce that in any meaningful way other than I was calling home every night, I was sending notes, it was in the syllabus, we talked about it regularly. I was pretty successful. There was only about one or two students in my entire career who didn’t take that A.P. exam. I know that I was kind of atypical in that approach. For a lot of teachers there’s kind of this pressure. If I’m evaluated by the mean of my AP scores, then I need to be selecting for students who I think are going to succeed. The students I’m likely to succeed has some inherent biases to it. Some of those decisions lead to being barriers for other students participate in those A.P. exams. I got really excited hearing about this policy of having students decide earlier because it’s my hope that it will remove some of those implicit biases throughout the year and the barrier that it presents to some students more than others in opting out of participating in this is AP exam when they have declared, “I want to be and AP student,” then I want every student to feel that investment, that equity in, “I’m going to be an AP student. I’m on the team. I’m participating let’s all do this together.
Whitbeck: I think that’s right. Our hope is that these new resources that AP is developing will really focus on getting students to take that first, maybe those students who don’t yet even see themselves as belonging in that classroom feel more confident because, over time, hopefully, their teachers will feel more confident, and they can give them the right feedback that they need to be successful. This new policy is really about the students who took that risk that you’re talking about, where they showed up for the class, and then if you can think of any population of students who are just more likely to be less confident over time, and all the various ways that we implicitly signal to students, you know maybe this isn’t right for you, maybe you’re not going to be as successful at this, and when I say we, students absorb these signals from all different sources. It can be from just not seeing students like themselves being successful in years prior. This policy is hopefully meant to replicate what you were doing in your classroom in kind of one of the more anonymous ways the AP program can drive change is to say if Michael in Kansas is able to create that culture, is there anything we can do by moving our deadline up to help other teachers who maybe don’t have the same support from their administrator, or whatever just their own personal drive, can say, “I’m going to at least be able to advocate that my students take as examined and help them make that just an early on.” Once I’ve got that looming exam at the end of the year that we’re moving towards, I can use that as hey we’re all going to be taking this so let’s really prepare and work backwards from that. That’s our hope, but we also have tested this. That’s a big big thing. Imagine. One thing we were just very apprehensive about is there are ways where you could imagine that you’re going to fail out students who aren’t ready to say yes at the beginning of the year who would say no. Maybe you’d actually prevent students who might gain confidence from getting access to exams. Before we made this the official policy we collaborated over the past year with fourteen districts representing one hundred schools from very diverse contexts. Only in four states, but very diverse context in terms of school demographics, urbanicity, pass rates historically in their AP programs, like the run, and had those schools order on an early model, this past year. What we’ve saw really replicated and actually and perhaps even more exemplary than what we’ve seen in the schools that are ready to do this, we saw significant increases in the growth of students who participate in A.P. especially from under-represented backgrounds. Not just in exam participation, but we also saw significant increases in the percent of students who earned scores of three or higher.
Woodruff: Good. So I’m sort of the the skeptic in the room. Gonna be honest. It seems that if AP programs are going to be indicators of collegiate success, the students have to pass. They have to get a three or higher on that test. Being in the class and not taking the test, or being in the class and taking the test and getting a two or one, sounds like it’s wasted time. I was waiting for that statement. I was waiting for you to say the early commitment does not just get more people to participate, not just you know the hurdle of getting people in the class, and getting people to take the test. It’s not just the jump from step two to step three, or step one to step two. It also contributes to greater success. That needed to be true for me to be impressed. Thank you. Well done. Congratulations.
Whitbeck: We share that internal skepticism. It’s hard to say from where I sit, but it would not have satisfied us just to see a lot more students taking exams, and then ones and twos. I mean they’re perfectly mission driven reasons we don’t want that. There are strategic reasons that you don’t want to so those rates of ones and twos go up. Nobody wanted that. In particular it seeing that growth in threes and fours and fives, it’s not surprising, right? I mean, you’re going to see students who are opting out of the exam. When they opt out of the exam, they’re opting out of working hard. Then later on it’s a forgone conclusion that they can’t be successful on the exam. It doesn’t have to be. When people think about the students who don’t end up taking the exam, you don’t immediately think of a student who would have done really well, right? You don’t think, “Oh, If only I’d gotten them to take it they would have done well. By the time you get to April right now, it’s kind of like the ones who aren’t taking it are probably,for the most part, not taking it because they probably won’t be successful. That didn’t have to be the way it was. We just weren’t sure that it would actually play out this way. Availability of the added resources for teachers will only strengthen the increase in successful scores.
Ralph: I want to expound a little bit on a comment you made in the middle there. Not every student who want to be taking the exam is somebody who would say, “Oh man, I wish if they’d only taken it they totally would have earned a four.” Following that narrative backwards a little bit, I guess that is part of this conversation. I think is part of what’s in the literature that we read also, is there are some students who if they opted in at the beginning of the school year can be successful. You’ve got the data to show that that’s on the tape already, but also greater participation is paired, if I read this correctly, with some lower scores which suggests that there are some students taking the exam and doing not as well as they want to be doing. We are or increasing the participation of some students who are not getting everything out of their experience we want them to be getting. It suggests that there’s more to be done in just increased participation in A.P. coursework. More is needed to be done especially further up in the pipeline. I think there’s, actually, you all have some answers to that. There’s a news story we’re going to put in the show notes about some of the Pre-AP programs. I know I am involved in some of that work also. Can you tell us a little bit more about what your are doing to strengthen the pipeline that might lead to AP work as well?
Whitbeck: Absolutely. So pre-AP is, I think probably, can turn out to be on the best ideas the College Board has really invested in because it’s so much about what you’re saying. By the time we’re focusing on this little moment of students who already got to a place that had A.P. courses and at least where somebody thought that, “You could be in this course,” we’ve already lost so many students behind. so pre-AP is really about, right now where we’re working in the ninth grade. I’m not sure, Michael, if you are in a pilot school, but the pre-AP program right now is piloting, it is september now, so in a hundred schools around the country there are batches of ninth graders. It’s meant to be all inclusive, that any student in the ninth grade should be enrolled in the program if it’s available. It’s not meant to already identify one set of students who are A.P. and segregate them, it’s meant to ensure that every ninth grader, at least has a moment in time where he or she self-identifies as an AP student. I’m proud, I’m preparing to be an AP student, that is what my course is about. It’s taking the skills, especially the skills that are so powerful and so important to be successful in A.P. classes, and getting students early practice with those skills. At the right level, for what they’d be doing in ninth grade. so if it’s a world history course, they are going to be practicing historical thinking skills that will make them successful whether it’s in AP world history, whether AP European history, AP US history, It’s really about,I think, the hundred schools that are in the pilot in the year ahead, all had to, in their applications to be a pilot school, really talk about what they would do to make sure the program was inclusive, and that it really promoted inclusion, not just in the pre-AP program but in the AP program as well. Hopefully that will be a strong response. It’s much like this other initiative that I’ve talked about. It’s a reflection of the many, very strong pre-AP programs that already exist. There are so many schools that already have something thats identified as pre-AP, and that schools have really innovated as a way to get more students to feel confident taking A.P. courses. That’s the start of our trying to make that more available to schools across the country. There’s a pilot this year and I’ll just plug that the application deadline for next year’s cohort of schools is coming up very soon. I think it’s October first. Schools that are interested in being pre-AP in the twenty-ninteen, twenty-twenty school year should go to the website for that.
Ralph: What we will talk about later in this episode is acknowledging whatever drawbacks or whatever cost there might be for interventions, so maybe that’s the direction to take this, is the same way that I think you may have listened to a while back, student’s who don’t self identify as being college bound, or they don’t intend to go to university, they may not have the same interests in college credits, and so there’s who says I want just regular biology I don’t really care about the AP credit, and I don’t want to be honors, I want to learn to weld, and I want to go work for this construction company. That is what I want to do. That is paired with this general conversation, it is actually one of the other segments we’ve already taped for this coming month, is about acknowledging downsides of interventions. There is no panacea. There’s no perfect medicine. One of the things we need to be aware of, is maybe the costs of a new initiative.
Whitbeck: A student who wants to…, “I’m a career track student. College is not for me.” We too quickly get to a place where instead talking that through with the student, and trying to understand what police they have about who college is for and who it’s not for, and why it’s not for them, we too quickly want to meet them there. There is an easy way to say, “Sure. We’ll get you on an ag-science cluster and you can pursue that two year degree while you’re in high school.” Or there’s the teacher who can connect the students’ interests to AP-environmental science, and then push that student to really think about that state university system at Cornell has a really amazing Ag science program here, and can push that student to take those incremental steps towards a four year degree. I worry that sometimes we get a little bit too quick to just serve to a student a program that meets exactly what they say they want right now. This afternoon I was with some high schoolers and they were telling me they all know what their major is, and they’re all fifteen. I just want them to maintain openness to the idea that might not be their major and probably the best thing they can do in highschool is build as many skills as they can. They might be more successful at building those skills in AP courses.
Ralph: That’s a big part of… I so I work with the Center for STEM learning. I have those statistics. I’m going to put in the show notes also. We just put together a graphic that shows some of the results. We say, “Well if we want to help them see their options with this four year degree, but they are ending up in basically the same jobs, so what good does that do them?” We have the numbers of their increase only potential if they have that higher level of education. There’s an actual dollar value amount that act gets added to their experience if they find that, “Yeah. As I understand more about this particular degree field, I can find something that maybe is a higher level expertise. I can exercise all of the same skills and have the same satisfying experience but with a higher earning potential.” I think that’s something. We have the numbers for that. That’s what I do.
Woodruff: So when we cast a wider net to include more people in the AP experience, one of the critiques that have been written is that in some circumstances, A.P. is not necessarily always sold with a consistent goal. What is the goal of A.P? Is it to prepare students to be successful in college or is it for those that are already college ready as high school students?
Whitbeck: A.P. is not meant to exclusively serve students who are already identified as advanced. It is meant to prepare students to be as successful as possible in college, and increasingly in college and career. For some students, that looks like giving them a chance to take courses while in highschool that are going to be the most demanding of them, and that they might not have otherwise had access to. I those are one side of your equation, which is, the students who are already accelerated. Is this about helping them continue to take their next opportunity in their lane, and so absolutely about serving that, but for other students, what that looks like is when we say to get access to coursework that will make them as successful as possible in college, it may be that being in an A.P. course, is going to give them a different type of classroom environment that’s going to be more similar to what they’re going to see in college, and experience the expectation that all the college professors will have of them, the roles that they’ll need to play in team assignments, and I don’t think that students can’t get that in non-AP courses. I think there are amazing non-AP teachers and a lot of amazing AP teachers teach non-AP courses. There is nothing exclusive about AP’s ability to do that, but I just think, in many schools A.P. tends to be the best preparation when it comes to what a student needs to be as successful as she or he possibly can. We spend a lot of time with faculty talking about, “Can you tell the AP students from the non-AP students in the classroom?” and a lot of it is people point to ways that AP students are exhibiting leadership qualities when it comes to helping advance the dialogue in the classroom. They’ll talk about AP students as the ones who are really helping their peers understand the topic, because they’ve at least been exposed to it before. I think it’s not just that group of students that have already been traditionally identified as accelerated, but it’s getting a student maybe who hasn’t been identified as an accelerated, his or her first chance or only chance, to work alongside of the peers who have been traditionally accelerated in some cases, and to do it through content that particularly interest him or her. So you’ll see students who maybe never identify as an A.P. student in the sort of more core quote unquote academic disciplines but to really get psychology, let’s say, and they can be in there in that classroom holding their own, contributing, and really developing as a scholar alongside students who are just typically accelerated, and kind of inhabit the A.P. classrooms throughout their high school career.
Ralph: As kind of a sign off, we really appreciate you coming on with us. If there are teachers who want to get more involved, or want to help promote some of these opportunities for their students, do you have somewhere that you’d like to direct them so they could learn more about the Pre-AP program or the redesign and find the data, or just where could teachers who are interested to learn more or maybe get involved.
Whitbeck: There are two sites. One is what we’re calling the AP twenty-ninteen. That’s where teachers, school leaders, district leaders can learn more about the new resources and the new processes that I mentioned that are launching in twenty-ninteen. Specifically, what are all the tools that students and teachers will have access to, and what are the contours of fall registration and ordering, and how might that change buildings policies and practices around A.P. The other one of course is the AP website which also includes a way register for the AP. I’d definitely direct you to both of those.