Advanced Placement Accountabaloney

Florida prides itself in the number of Advanced Placement courses its high school students take. Is it too much of a good thing? Are decisions being made in the best interest of each student? If you live in Floriduh, you will not be surprised to learn that when you follow the money, you find a bunch of accountabaloney.


In February 2016, the Florida Department of Education celebrated Florida’s position   as  second in the nation for the percentage of 2015 Florida high school graduates taking an Advanced Placement (AP) exam while in high school and third place for the percentage of 2015 high school graduates potentially earning college credit by scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam.

Other highlights included:

  • 57.7 percent of Florida 2015 graduates took an AP exam during high school, exceeding  the national average (37.3 percent)
  • Over the last decade, the number of Florida graduates participating in AP more than doubled, increasing from 40,276 students in 2005 to 86,400 students in 2015, an increase of 115 percent.
  • Florida ranks third in the nation for the percentage of 2015 graduates who potentially earned college credit by scoring a 3 or higher on AP exams (30.7 percent, higher than the national average of 22.4%).
  • Over time, increasing numbers of Hispanic, African American and low income students are taking and passing Advanced Placement courses/tests.

The increasing numbers of successful Advanced Placement participants is certainly the result of an accountability system that rewards participation in Advanced Placement Courses.

Beginning in 2010, Florida adjusted it’s school grade formula to reward (first) participation and (now) performance on Advanced Placement assessments. Currently, up to 10% of a High School’s grade is based on the percentage of graduates who earned a score on an acceleration examination (a level 3 or higher on an Advanced Placement exam), a “C” or better in a dual enrollment course, or earned an industry certification. For the purpose of calculating this rate, a student is counted no more than once in the numerator and denominator. Students who pass more than one AP course (or dual enrollment course or industry certification) do not earn any extra points in the school grade calculation.

The College Board, who created and administers Advanced Placement exams, has frequently reported that students who are successful in AP exams are more likely to graduate college. From Florida’s current school grades report, it appears that the current  system has been successful in providing at least some accelerated courses (either AP, IB, AICE, dual enrollment or industry certification) for all of Florida’s high school students.

If passing one AP exam is good, is passing more exams better? Anyone with a child in Florida’s high schools today knows that students are being pressured to take increasing numbers of AP courses, resulting in some students taking as many as 10, 15 or more AP courses during their high school career. How many is too many?

Jay Matthews, who covered college admissions for The Washington Post for more than two decades, wrote, in an article titled “Why We Wrongly Freak Out Over AP”:

“I have interviewed scores of college admissions officers and read the briefing materials of hundreds of colleges. Not one has ever said that adding an Advanced Placement class can make or break one’s chances of getting in.

Selective colleges want to see applicants take the most challenging courses at their high schools. In most cases, particularly in the Washington region, that means AP, International Baccalaureate or the Advanced International Certificate of Education. Selective colleges also like to see three to five AP courses, with good scores on the tests to show that the student is ready for college work. That can be accomplished by taking one AP course sophomore year, one or two in the junior year and one or two in the senior year — not an overwhelming burden for any student with a shot at a selective college.

Taking six, seven, eight or 20 AP courses will almost never make you more attractive to those colleges that reject more students than they accept. Your chances with them depend on your SAT or ACT scores, the depth of your extracurricular activities, the warmth of your teacher recommendations and your grade-point average compared with other students at your school applying to the same college.”

High School students, bogged down by excessive numbers of AP courses each year, may find little time to delve into extracurricular activities, participate in character building community service or, frankly, enjoy their life. While college admissions officers may recommend 4 or 5 AP classes TOTAL, in many Florida high schools it is not uncommon to find students taking 3 or 4 (or more) AP courses A YEAR. The stress of an excessive number of AP courses may be more than a high school student can, or should, be expected to handle as illustrated in this New York Times video Op-ed entitled “Advanced Pressure.”

Please take 5 minutes to watch this New York Times Op-Ed documentary, where filmmaker Vicki Abeles “features the stories of students and teachers of Advanced Placement classes and the pressures they face in our achievement-obsessed culture”:   http://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/1247466680941/op-ed-advanced-pressure.html

 

“What are we doing to our kids when we put them through this system that doesn’t allow them get enough sleep and causes them to be ramped up and stressed out?” -Jay Chugh, Teacher, Lafayette, CA.

Once heralded as essential to a rigorous high school education, Advanced Placement courses are now being questioned as “too rigid” and even eliminated by elite private schools. John Tierney, writing for The Atlantic, suggests how, though they may have initially been developed with good intentions,  somewhere along the line AP courses appear to have become corrupted by corporate profits (at $89 per test, the College Board earns over half of all its revenues from its Advanced Placement program — more than all its other revenue streams (SATs, SAT subject tests, PSATs) combined). Mr. Tierney states that AP courses are NOT equivalent to college courses, that claims of saving money in college are overstated, and that the push to increase enrollment has resulted in students who are marginally prepared for the rigors of an AP course diluting the experience for students who might be well placed in such courses. His greatest criticism is the effect of the AP curriculum on creativity and free thought:

“To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.”

The death of intellectual curiosity should concern everyone. A recent article in Psychology Today, looked at the relationship of college grade point average (GPA) and creativity, noting an inverse relationship between students’ reported GPA and their orientation toward creative or innovative work.  The higher a student’s GPA, the lower was the students’ interest in innovation. In addition, the article sounded the alarm regarding the effect our current test focused education may have on future innovation: “In the United States, as our schools have moved increasingly toward an almost exclusive emphasis on test performance, creative thinking, objectively measured, has been declining at every grade level.”

Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, parents have become increasingly concerned with the loss of creative, authentic experiences in the classroom, pushed out by increasing levels of test preparation for high stakes standardized testing. Rather than developing “the whole child” with art, music and other creative programing, students are spending more and more time focused on and preparing for tests. In such an environment, should Advanced Placement courses be considered just more “teaching to the test”? Is that what our students need?

At the end of the “Advanced Pressure” documentary, high school teacher, Jay Chugh, suggests a solution: “The best thing to do would be to get rid of the AP program and just design a course that prepares students for the college experience.” Ahhh, such a system used to exist, and in some instances still does, and it was called “honors courses.” Of course, in Florida, students who pass honors courses do NOT count in the “College and Career Acceleration” category of the School Grading system. Also, if students abandoned AP courses for equal rigorous honors courses, the FLDOE might no longer have national bragging rights. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to returning to more honors classes in Florida’s public high schools, would be the lost incentive funding paid to the schools and teachers.

F.S. 1011.62 (n) provides financial incentives to schools depending on the numbers of level 3 and higher scores students earn on AP exams. For each student who earns a 3 or higher on an AP test, the district receives 0.16 of an FTE (Full time equivalent/per pupil spending). Currently this calculates to approximately $1,000 per successful AP score. If students are able to pass multiple AP tests each year, the amount can quickly add up.  Districts are required to allocate at least 80% of those funds to the high school whose student generated the funds. Teachers of Advanced Placement courses are also rewarded $50 for each of their students that pass the AP test with a score of 3 or higher, up to $2,000 per teacher each year.  Extra incentives are available for teachers in “D” or “F” schools, who will receive an additional $500 if just one student passes the AP test. [Similar financial incentives for schools offering International Baccalaureate programs/exams are outlined in F.S.1011.62(l).]

Last year, Monroe County increased the financial incentives for AP participation in their schools when it joined in partnership with the National Math and Science Initiative, another profit generating (net profit of $7 million in 2014) non-profit, which has the goal of increasing successful participation in specific STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and AP Literature courses. Despite concerns that the “STEM crisis” might be a myth, Monroe County School District entered into a 3 year, almost $2 million, contract with NMSI, who lists the College Board as a partner and “funder.” Everytime NMSI is successful in increasing participation in AP courses, its partner, College Board, increases revenue. In addition to providing aggressive (much needed Monroe County) professional development programs for AP instructors, the NMSI program rewards students, teachers and administrators for successful AP test scores. Such funds are in addition to the previously described FS 1011.62(n) bonus funding.

NMSI Awards and Incentives

Given these financial incentives, it is difficult to imagine that schools might scale back on AP courses in pursuit of a more balanced education experience for students. When administrators receive bonuses based on AP scores, will they work to increase dual enrollment or honors participation? Not likely. Monroe County AP teachers could earn more than  $6,500 annually if 30 of their AP students score a 3 or higher. Would these teachers be willing to give that up to teach an honors class?
Florida’s test based accountability system is designed to encourage participation in Advanced Placement and other acceleration programs. A 2009 OPPAGA Report (Report No. 09-12) showed the incentive funding for AP courses exceeded the required program costs by more than $30 million annually. With increasing AP enrollment and, therefore, increasing costs, the OPPAGA study recommended reducing the level of incentive funding, but little legislative action was taken.  The incentive programs and school grades system are to be designed to encourage (push) more and more students into AP courses, without regard to any potentially negative impact on the students’ unique education needs.
So when it comes to Advanced Placement in Florida’s high schools, the winners are:
  • The College Board, with profits of $62 MILLION annually.
  • The FLDOE, with national bragging rights regarding AP participation AND the ability to deflect attention from declining SAT and ACT scores.
  • Districts, high schools and teachers, who receive bonus funding.
  • National Math Science Initiative, ready to expand across the state.
The losers? Overstressed high school students, curiosity and innovation and those who value an authentic education experience.
Expensive programming that benefits everyone’s bottom line, while underserving the educational needs of the students, is more evidence of Florida’s failed accountability system. It is time to reign in the overemphasis of Advanced Placement coursework in our classrooms. Schools should be offering students the courses that best fit their individual interests and needs and not the courses that provide the biggest bonuses.
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What Do Florida’s School Grades REALLY tell you?

 

“What was educationally significant and hard to measure has been replaced by what is educationally insignificant and easy to measure. So now we measure how well we taught what isn’t worth learning.”

Arthur Costa, Emeritus Professor at California State University

Take a moment and think about the best moments your children have had at their public school… you know, those times where they came home so excited, talking a mile a minute, about what they have seen and learned. For my daughter, this might have been when the whole third grade spent the day celebrating “Early Man,” with art, music and skits, all dressed in fake fur, dirt smeared on their faces, hair all teased up into “Early Man Style,” culminated with a “eat with your hands” feast (Thank you, Mrs. Carter). For my son, it is probably a tie between “getting to do science experiments ALL DAY” and having a Beatnik Poetry Slam that was “Oh too cool” (Thank you Ms. Osborne). I remember similar moments from my childhood and they still make me smile. These are the moments that will make or break your child’s education experience. These are when the real learning, the kind that inspires, really happens. To everyone who has provided these moments for my children, I thank you.

This week, the Florida Department of Education will finally be releasing school grades from the 2014-15 school year, six months late, after the flawed rollout of the new Florida State Assessment (FSA). Superintendents have warned “these grades hold little value for school districts and should be viewed as such by the public.” In a recent op-ed, Orange County Superintendent and current President of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, Barbara Jenkins explained the superintendents’ opposition to the publishing of school grades, asking for “incompletes” to be issued instead. In addition, she repeats that “superintendents in the 67 Florida districts have unanimously called for a comprehensive review of our accountability system in order to better inform students, parents, educators and the public.”

“Now is the time to admit that the current system is no longer sufficient, and simply labeling schools A through F provides an inaccurate picture of what is occurring in every school.”

Here’s a News Flash: Florida’s A-F School Grading System has NEVER been sufficient, it has ALWAYS provided an inaccurate picture of what is occurring is schools. Why? Because it focuses almost entirely on standardized test scores and they are a poor reflection of real learning. We hope Superintendent Jenkins understands that even with the addition of measured “learning gains” calculated from this year’s FSA scores, the A-F grading system will still be completely flawed.

According to the 2015 PDK/Gallup Poll, these are the factors most important to parents when choosing a school.  The primary factors being quality of teaching staff, curriculum, student discipline, class size, variety of extra-curricular activities and reputation of school. Only 15% of those surveyed felt “student achievement on standardized tests” was “very important” when choosing a local public school.

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Florida School Grades do not reflect what parents deem important when choosing schools but, rather focus almost entirely on standardized test scores.  Here is the Elementary School Grades Model. Elementary schools are graded based on how well their students, in 3rd grade and up, perform on the grade level, standardized Math and English Language Arts (ELA) FSA and on the 5th grade Science FCAT. By testing students on a grade level assessment, they are looking for how many student are performing at or above average (because that is what “grade level” represents, the average performance of a child in that grade). Learning gains are calculated for all students and the learning gains of the lowest quartile of students count twice in the calculation.
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This year, in all grade levels, English Language Learners will be required to sit for hours of FSA testing, even if they arrived in the country yesterday and do not speak a word of english. Why? To provide a baseline for a learning gains calculation when they are again asked to take the assessment next year.  After two years, English Language Learners’ scores will be counted in with the rest of the student body.

Also, it is the focus on preparation for the third grade math and ELA FSA (third graders must pass the reading/ELA portion for promotion to 4th grade) that drives much of the progress monitoring and test preparation in the younger grades. Children as young as kindergarten are required to have 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading instruction, leaving little time for creative endeavors, art, music and, in some schools, even recess. (Read here to learn about the Florida moms fighting to restore recess in our public schools, after being told there wasn’t time for daily recess “given the growing demands on schools to raise test scores”).

Middle schools, in addition to grade level performance and calculated learning gains on the Math and ELA, are rated on how well their 8th graders perform on the 8th grade Science FCAT, how many students pass the state created Civics End of Course exam (EOC) and how many students pass accelerated math (like Algebra 1) EOCs or qualifying industry certifications.

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The number of students eligible for the “Acceleration Success” calculation in the Middle School Grade Model, is determined by the number of students in the class AND all 8th graders who scored a 3 or higher on EITHER Reading or Math in their 7th grade state assessment. To be clear, the number of students deemed eligible to take a high school level Algebra 1 course in 8th grade is NOT determined by their performance on any Algebra readiness standards but on their previous year’s FSA Math and Reading scores.

The High School Grade Model includes a calculation of overall 4-year graduation rate, but otherwise is entirely determined by standardized test scores. English Language Arts scores are calculated from performance on the 9th and 10 grade FSA ELA and Math scores are determined by performance on state mandated and created EOCs. Science achievement depends on scores for the state mandated Biology 1 EOC and Social Studies achievement depends on the state mandated U.S. History EOC.

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In high schools, “Acceleration Success” is calculated as the percentage of graduates who, while in high school passed an AP, IB, or AICE examinations, earned a C or better in dual enrollment or earned a CAPE industry certification. In addition, high schools receive performance funding for enrolling students into these programs so there is a lot of “encouragement” to enroll students in these courses. Students, sometimes, find themselves enrolled in advanced classes they didn’t ask for and may have difficulty getting out of these classes if that is their desire. With the pressure to pass  AP exams, Monroe County has paid the National Math and Science Initiative, a non-profit, almost $2 million over three years to help improve participation and passing rate on AP exams, and is now requiring AP students to attend extra Saturday sessions during the school year.

What can we learn about our schools from their A-F letter grade?

School grades may be a reflection of the socioeconomic status of the student body. Researchers have been able to predict school grades based on US census data alone. Chris Tienken and colleagues “predicted the percentage of students at the district and school levels who score proficient or above on their state’s mandated standardized tests, without using any school-specific information” making the need for testing obsolete!  For more information, click here.

More concerning, when considering a local school’s grade, is whether the school has gone through any extraordinary measures to ensure high test scores from their students. Are the students engaging in creative engaging lessons that inspire a love for learning or does the curriculum resemble test prep? Have non-tested subjects, like art, music, physical education, etc, been minimized or marginalized to preserve more time for tested subjects? Is there time in the day to read fiction or fairy tales? For the youngest students, has seat work replaced time spent in free play or exploration?  For high school students, has the push towards AP classes eliminated Honors classes and/or inappropriately placed more and more students, ill prepared for the rigors of AP classes, into these classes, setting these students up for failure.  Are today’s AP courses really representative of college level courses or are they little more than test preparation for the required AP exams? Parents should be asking these questions of their highly rated schools. How many hoops have been jumped through in order to earn that coveted “A” rating? What have the students missed out on while practicing “hoop jumping”? Perhaps it is not surprising that many of Florida’s voucher students leave “A” rated public schools; are they escaping from the constant test pressure?

Likewise, some parents of children at schools that earn lower school grades must recognize the many positive experiences their school provides their children. Perhaps they have a wonderful chorus, an active theater group, a school garden… Maybe they focus more on the whole child and less on the test prep… Is the teaching staff loving and devoted to your children? These things are important and should be celebrated! Sadly, they are not even considered in the current school grade formula.

Any straight A student can tell you their final grade did not always reflect the quality of the course. Likewise, school grades may only reflect the test scores, not the quality of the education provided. In fact, parents of children in “A” schools, or in “A” districts, should be questioning whether their school focuses too much on testing and forgets the whole child. Parents need to start recognizing Florida’s A-F School grade system for what it really is: a reflection of a test focused system that has gone too far.

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Don’t Blame Godby for Florida’s Accountabaloney Policies

When you combine a flawed metric with high stakes reward and/or punishment, you get Accountabaloney.  Florida’s education policy is full of it…

This week, in an interesting article written by Amanda Curcio, the Tallahassee Democrat documented a perfect case study in Accountabaloney. By placing all their students into Advanced Placement U.S. History classes, rather than routine or honors U.S. History classes, it appears that Leon County’s Godby High School was able to raise their calculated school grade and benefit from increased funding, even though 97% of their students failed the corresponding  Advanced Placement test. This blog is not an attempt to vilify Godby but rather an opportunity to demonstrate that policies, like Florida’s A-F School Grade system, are flawed and continue to corrupt our public education system, creating this baloney.

According to the national 2015 PDK/Gallup poll of the public’s attitude toward the public schools, here are the most important factors families consider when choosing their children’s school (the top 6, in order, are: quality of teaching staff, curriculum, student discipline, class size, variety of extracurricular activities, and reputation of school).

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Here is how Florida calculates a high school’s A-F school grade (School Accountability presentation here):

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Do you notice any differences? The State calculates school grades almost entirely based on standardized test scores. Parents choose schools based on almost everything BUT standardized test scores. So, if A-F School Grades do not assist parents in choosing schools based on the public’s priorities, what good are they?  In Florida, A-F grades can significantly impact a school’s funding. This impact on funding encourages schools to embrace the Accountabaloney.

What happened at Godby?

  • “Florida adopted an AP incentive program that offers schools bonuses of $700 per student who passes an AP exam. Teachers receive $50 for every passing student score, capped at $2,000, and $500 for the first passing score in a “D” or “F” school. The state also pays the College Board for testing fees — $87 each, or $53 for low-income students.”
  • “And under the proposed grade rule, schools are not penalized when students “fail” — a “1” or “2” score — AP exams.”
  • In Florida’s A-F grading system, schools are now given extra points for student participation in AP courses, encouraging more liberal enrollment in these courses, whether a student is qualified for the course or not.
  • Beginning in 2014-2105, performance on the state’s U.S. History EOC (End of Course) exam was calculated into the A-F formula (as “Social Studies Achievement”).
  • The U.S. History EOC is a graduation requirement, EXCEPT for those that take the U.S. History AP exam. At Godby, it appears a select group of students may have been “chosen” to take the state EOC.  In 2015, only 26 Godby students participated in the U.S. History EOC (91% were “proficient”) compare to 250 students in 2014.
  • PASSING the U.S. History AP exam is NOT required for graduation, which was “lucky” for Godby because 97% of their students received a “1” or “2” on the AP test (A “3” is considered “qualified” to earn college credit).

How does Godby benefit? “Boosted by the 91 percent in social studies, Godby would jump from a “C” to a “B” under the proposed school grades set by DOE. This improvement could grant the high school as much as $126,700 in school recognition dollars — given to “A” schools and the schools that improve at least one letter grade.” This is, of course, in addition to the $700 per AP passing score and the financial incentives to the individual students.

While Godby financially benefits, what is the impact on the students? What is the impact of enrolling possibly underprepared students into college level AP courses? Is it possible to maintain the same challenging level of curriculum if 72% of the class are struggling readers? Will the high achieving students get the same high level, college-like experience, expected in an AP course, in overcrowded classes containing unprepared classmates?

“A representative of the College Board” (which, by the way, writes the exams and financially benefits every time a student takes one) claimed “taking an AP exam, even for students who score a “1” or “2,” increases the expected on-time college graduation rate for students when compared to academically matched peers who did not take an AP exam.” I would love to see those studies.  I wonder if they included students who were randomly placed in AP classes, from schools with a 28% reading proficiency level? What is the impact on the self-esteem and confidence of teenagers asked to sit for exams that 97% of them will fail? Would they have been better served in a “regular” U.S. History course? Were they placed in the AP course for its rigor or to avoid the state EOC?

To be sure, Godby is not alone in this scheme. As school began in August, parents across Florida found their children enrolled in AP courses they had not signed up for.  Students found themselves in overcrowded AP courses with unprepared classmates. The dramatic changes in AP enrollment policies can only be attributed to new state education policies.

One Manatee County parent, in response to the Godby article posted on Facebook, expressed her frustration. “I am furious. This directly affects my kid right now. He has 40 kids in his class, his textbook is 17 years old, and the majority of the kids did not sign up for the class, they were just thrown in there. The class has zero rigor and my son never has any homework ever. I am horrified and angry and have been to admin about it many times… I took that same class in high school. I wrote a critical essay a week, read volume after volume of history books, did exhaustive research. Last week, for the first homework he had in weeks, my kid drew a cartoon with 6 squares depicting the entire revolutionary war.”

Perhaps there are benefits to students who participate in AP courses without passing the exam, but the dramatic shift of all of Godby’s U.S. History students into Advanced Placement, along the significantly increased enrollment into AP classes statewide, appear to be consequences of Florida’s School Grading system, in other words: Accountabaloney.

One thing is certain, when school funding depends on jumping through A-F grading scale “hoops”, you can count on schools focusing a significant amount of time and effort practicing “hoop jumping”.

Florida’s entire A-F school grading system has corrupted our public school system. Rather than focus on education best practices, administrators and districts contrive ways to score more points on the latest A-F grading scale, which may or may not lead to improved educational outcomes. In this situation, Godby got caught, but ALL of Florida’s schools have changed the way they educate students in pursuit of the all important letter grade. Parents know this, teachers know this, students suffer due to this… the system is full of Baloney.