One school’s open-enrollment AP experiement

In our recent report High school rigor and good advice: Setting up students to succeed, we found that one way to give high school students the tools necessary to succeed and persist in college is to have them enroll in rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) classes, no matter their level of achievement. Now one school is putting the theory to test. Woodside High, an arts magnet school about an hour outside of Richmond, VA, is trying out open-enrollment AP classes. Any student, regardless of their class year or GPA, is allowed to enroll in an AP class.

A report released earlier this year by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that only 29% of schools with a high number of minority students offered classes as advanced as Calculus. For Woodside High, which is about 70% minority, an effort to get students into AP classes will help it compete with schools in neighboring and more affluent areas.

Some common criticisms of open-enrollment AP courses are that lower-achieving students will get completely overwhelmed, or that it’s unfair to higher-achieving students to have to cater to those who might not be able to handle advanced courses. The teachers and administrators at Woodside understand that, but as Meg Wiggins, an AP Biology teacher, says, “People need to strive to do things that are meaningful and good and hard. The more kids you can convince to do tougher things, the better off your society will be.” As is common at many schools, some students at Woodside believed that only cream-of-the-crop students could do well in AP classes, and thus completely dismissed them. As part of the effort to get more students into AP courses, Principal Sean Callendar pushed the issue with parents, and the school offered tutoring sessions to students who were struggling to keep up in the AP courses.

The results? Since starting open enrollment, Woodside has seen a 75% increase in the number of students taking advanced math and science courses. Though many students end up getting only a 1 or 2 (and thus no college credit) on the end-of-course AP exams, as our study showed what really matters is that students simply get use to rigorous coursework and the kind of conceptual thinking taught in AP courses that will help them succeed should they go on to college. Hopefully many more schools will follow Woodside in the future.  — Ashwini Yelamanchili

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