Thursday, February 10, 2011

Achievement Gap Closed: Misusing the AP Facts

by Joseph Hawkins

As Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) Superintendent Jerry Weast rides off into retirement this summer, he honestly can make the claim that student participation in Advanced Placement (AP) courses skyrocketed during his tenure. Over a 10-year period, from 2001 to 2010, total AP exam volume went from 10,689 exams in 2001 to 29,854 exams in 2010, an increase of 179%.[1] [2] It is critical here to point out, however, that nationally, student participation in AP courses also leaped forward with record enrollments and exam taking. In 2001, the College Board recorded a volume of 1,414,387 AP exams. In 2010, the volume increased by 1,798,838 exams or an increase of 127%.[3]

Emerging research shows that students with high-quality AP experiences perform better in college than do students without such experiences.[4] So, it is easy to make the case—the argument—that the above increases aid a large number of students in preparing for and succeeding in college.

There are other aspects surrounding AP participation by MCPS students, however, that do not match reality. In fact, it appears as though facts have been exaggerated to make a rather clear point:  MCPS closed the achievement gap. In the past two years, this point surfaced several times.  Consider these two examples:

·        In a Washington Post article, published on July 28, 2009, reporter Daniel de Vise wrote the following, “The share of black student who graduate with a passing score on at least one Advanced Placement test has doubled since 2000; blacks in Montgomery now outperform whites in the country as whole.”[5]  (Emphasis added.)

·        On January 21, 2010, when testifying to the United State Senate Committee on Appropriations, MCPS Superintendent Weast said the following: “The district is proud of its accomplishments during the last decade in improving the level of student achievement and closing the gap between white and Asian American students and African American and Hispanic students.  … We have improved performance with 78 percent of students taking Honors or Advanced Placement courses.  The percentage of African American and Hispanic students who score a 3 or higher on AP exams surpasses the national percentage for all students.”[6]  (Emphasis added.)

Both of these statements add to the myth that under Weast’s leadership, MCPS closed the achievement gap.

De Vise goes way out on a limb and makes the rather absurd claim that black MCPS AP exam performance is higher than white AP exam performance elsewhere in the nation. The fascinating thing about this statement is he uses absolutely no data to support the claim. MCPS rarely reports the actual mean AP scores by race or ethnic background. The last time they so was in 2007, and the mean 2006 AP exam score for black MCPS exam takers was 2.6 (on a scale of 1 to 5).[7] (Note:  There is an earlier MCPS report that provides a different mean—2.4.[8])  For white MCPS exam takers the mean was 3.3, and for whites elsewhere in the nation, the mean score was 3.0. Clearly, black MCPS AP exam takers are not outscoring or outperforming their white peers in the county or in the country as whole.

(By the way, from the College Board website, the public can download Excel files with score information.[9] Why can’t MCPS provide Excel files with data?)

The statement made by Weast in front of Congress, “The percentage of African American and Hispanic students who score a 3 or higher on AP exams surpasses the national percentage for all students,” is factually correct. The statement is based on AP data first reported to the public in February 2010 via a Weast memorandum to the Montgomery County Board of Education.[10]  The actual memo, for example, reports that 20.9% of the blacks in the class of 2009 (high school seniors) who took an AP exam scored 3 or higher. In comparison, nationwide, the College Board reported that 15.9% of all high schoolers (high school seniors plus students in other grades) who took an AP exam in 2009 scored a 3 or higher.[11] So, if this true—and it is, the percentages are correct—then clearly MCPS closed the achievement gap because our kids of color outscored their peers elsewhere in the nation.

But the percentages cannot and should not really be used to make the case that Weast is trying to make.  Here is why:

·        First, if the goal is to make the argument that MCPS closed the AP performance gap between black and Hispanic and white and Asian American students, comparisons should be made between these groups. A comparison of our black and Hispanic kids to the nation as a whole—while interesting—is an inadequate apples-to-oranges comparison.

·        Second, if Weast truly wants to make a case for MCPS closing the gap, he ought to use actual scores to make that case and not percentages. The percentages are misleading. They merely reflect the reality that the MCPS AP score distribution for black and Hispanic exam takers (how many scores of 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s exists) different than the distribution of AP scores for the nation. This only reveals that our county has slightly more higher scoring black and Hispanic seniors than does the nation. This is not evidence, however, to support an argument that the AP score performance gap was closed. In 2010, the overall national mean score for AP exams taken was 2.84.[12]  (Note: The 2.84 mean is much higher than the 2.6 mean reported above for all black MCPS AP exam takers. The higher national mean probably means that there are more national exam takers scoring 4s and 5s than black MCPS AP exam takers scoring 4s and 5s. We could figure this out if MCPS would release scores consistently broken out by all of the key demographic variables.)

·        Third, in general, we should use some caution when comparing AP participation rates in Montgomery County to those in other parts of the nation. Not everyone in the nation jumped on the AP bandwagon with the same degree of enthusiasm and abandonment found in Maryland or the Washington DC region. In 2010, only one other state, Florida, recorded a higher percentage of students who were AP exam takers than Maryland. In Florida, 40.2% of high schoolers sat for an AP exam, compared to 40.0% in Maryland. The next two closest states were New York (36.8%) and Virginia (36.4%). In addition, we should use caution when comparing AP scores from other parts of the nation. True, the goal for every exam taker is to score 3 or higher; however, one certainly could (and should) argue that the Maryland and Virginia numbers and performance are driven in part by the annual Washington Post Challenge Index. Thanks to the Index, our region has turned the annual AP exam taking scene into its own version of “race to the top,” where scores literally mean everything.

Of course, it is somewhat absurd to use results from a single exam as evidence that MCPS has closed the achievement gap. And even though frequently it is characterized as a single “thing”—the gap—there really is no single achievement gap but rather a fairly long and complex list of gaps, ways in which black and Hispanic students differ from white and Asian students.

In 2008, the Montgomery County government’s Office of Legislative Oversight issued the report “Defining and Describing Montgomery County Public Schools’ Progress in Closing the Achievement Gap.”[13] The report stands as a fairly objective scorecard on progress made and not made on closing the achievement gaps by summarizing data from more than 50 MCPS measures. While the report presents no mean AP scores—it should have—it does make the following observation about AP exam performance, that is, the percentage of AP exam takers who earned one or more AP scores of 3 or higher. “The AP performance gap remained virtually unchanged between White and Black students, diminishing slightly from 29 points in 2002 to 27 points in 2006.” A look into a more recent MCPS AP report reveals that these performance gaps have not changed very much; in fact, the performance gaps have increased from 2006 to 2010.[14] In short, white MCPS AP exam takers still outscore black MCPS AP exam takers. So, regardless of how many additional black kids we have enrolled in AP courses, and MCPS has been extremely successful in jacking enrollments, the AP score gap remains a pretty robust gap.

So, as Superintendent Weast rides off into the retirement sunset, let us keep in mind that he leaves behind a lot of unfinished business—the AP performance gap is not closed. Could we just kill this myth. Weast has been responsible for a lot more black and Hispanics students getting into the “AP game,” and that should be applauded. Now we need to focus more attention on those black and Hispanic students winning at the AP game—scoring higher.

(And it probably would do a lot of good for the Office of Legislative Oversight to update its 2008 report.)

[4]Chrys Dougherty, Lynn Mellor, and Shuling Jian, “The Relationship Between Advanced Placement and College Graduation” (2005), National Center for Educational Accountability.
[6] Testimony of Jerry Weast.  Hearing of the United State Appropriations Committee: Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies.  January 21, 2010.
[12]The 6th Annual AP Report to the Nation, February 10, 2010, College Board.

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