To Get More Students Ready for College and Careers, Kentucky Expands Access to Advanced Placement for Low-Income Students

A graph showing three rising, upward-pointing arrows over an outline of the state of Kentucky.  Above the first block it says “Students taking an AP exam, 2012,” then the number 20,147 below that sentence and “+92% since 2008” below that number.  Above the second arrow it reads “total number of AP exams taken, 2012,” with the number 45,553 under those words and “+95% since 2008” below that figure  Above the third block are the words “number of qualifying scores of 3 or more, 2012” and inside the third block is the number 21,922 and +100% since 2008.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Education

A Kentucky partnership working to boost career and college readiness by increasing access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses is producing nothing short of phenomenal results at participating schools. During its first five years of implementation, AdvanceKentucky has been a driving force in Kentucky’s statewide 100 percent increase in total AP qualifying scores, among the largest gains of any state in the country.

A student writing during a high school class.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education

“We’ve seen a wild increase in enrollment and qualifying scores every single year,” said Joanne Lang, who heads the AdvanceKentucky partnership. “Our goal is to give every child access to challenging coursework, not just those who traditionally are eligible.”

Students who pass an AP exam complete college at three times the rate of those who do not. African-American and Hispanic students who pass an exam graduate at four times the rate of those who do not.  Increasing low-income African-American and Hispanic students’ access and success with AP classes is a focus of AdvanceKentucky.

The program began in 2008 with 12 schools.  Kentucky’s partnership in Race to the Top, which focuses on college- and career-readiness, allowed the State to scale this AP initiative, growing to 88 schools around the state. AdvanceKentucky reached 43 percent of public schools in the state by 2013-14.

“With our Race to the Top funding, we’ve been able expand the AdvanceKentucky initiative so that more students, especially those who are traditionally underserved and underrepresented in Advanced Placement, are exposed to rigorous, college-level courses,” said Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday. “With the proper supports provided, they learn they can be successful and more kids graduate ready for college, with college credit and an option for continuing their education they might otherwise have never considered.”

The gains made by the schools in the program have contributed to impressive gains in AP and college readiness statewide. Since AdvanceKentucky began operating in 2008, the number of individual students taking AP exams statewide increased 92 percent to over 28,000, according to data from the College Board, which operates the AP program. The total number of exams taken is up 95 percent and the number of scores of 3 or better is up 100 percent. AP exams are scored by national reviewers on a five-point scale and scores of 3 or better are considered passing and earn course credits at many colleges.

Students studying in a library.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education

Lang said that, beyond the gains in participation and success, the program is bringing about transformative changes in the schools it serves. The program “is translating into an environment of high expectations and a culture of confidence in students that will last,” she said. “The personal anecdotes about these young people, who are often the first in their family to earn college credits, are compelling many others to stand up and take note of their own capabilities.”

In the first cohort of twelve AdvanceKentucky schools, the number of low-income high school students passing AP exams in math, science and English rose from 24 to 204.  Subsequent cohorts of schools have seen similar dramatic growth.

An important element of AdvanceKentucky’s comprehensive approach is the training provided to teachers. Through Race to the Top, the program has also added a pre-AP teacher training component.

Micki Clark, a 10-year veteran English teacher at Madisonville North-Hopkins High School in Madisonville, said the training session she attended this past summer was eye-opening. “I thought I was a great teacher,” she said. But “I realized that I had not in fact been preparing my students for college … I can now go back to my classroom and say ‘I need to be teaching these specific things, and here are some really great ways I can teach on all levels.’”

Teachers appreciate the opportunity to share ideas and learn from one another about effective practices. “I love the collaboration of teachers in the same content areas,” said Del Ehemann, a chemistry instructor who works with her fellow educators at Highlands High School in Fort Thomas. “It’s nice hearing what different people do and the strategies that are working in their classroom.”

The trainings offer practical tools and strategies for increasing rigor and student engagement. “The trainings have given me lessons and activities that I can bring into my classroom that are not just good in theory but are actually good in practice,” said Jessica Conner, a second-year AP statistics teacher in Clinton County. “As an AP teacher, I now have the tools to help my students grasp complex concepts in a much more concrete and hands-on way.”

AdvanceKentucky brings the advantage of being an outside partner to schools. “We offer a third-party, highly accountable partner that can walk into a school and say we’re in this with you,” Lang said.

To participate, schools have to show they are committed to opening AP classes to historically underrepresented groups. In addition, starting in middle school, students and their families receive counseling on what they need to do to be ready for AP classes in high school. They are encouraged to enroll in demanding pre-AP classes starting in the sixth grade.

Teachers receive extra training in the AP course content in the summer, the support of a mentor during the school year and $500 for being an AP teacher participating in training and a $100 bonus for each of their students who receives a qualifying score. This past summer, more than 1,000 teachers participated in AP and pre-AP training sessions at four locations in Kentucky.

The model for the AdvanceKentucky program is the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), which is working at 462 schools in 18 states, from California to Massachusetts.

The Mass Math + Science Initiative (MMSI), for instance, started in 2008, and is now working with 61 schools across Massachusetts serving 8,000 mostly low-income high school students. Like Kentucky, Race to the Top has allowed Massachusetts to also have a pre-AP teacher training component.

MMSI has doubled participation in AP math, science and English courses, and doubled the percentage of students earning qualifying scores of 3 or above. College persistence rates for its class of 2010 are 10 points higher than the state average in four-year colleges and 23 points higher for students in two-year programs.

AdvanceKentucky involves colleges, corporations, national nonprofits, the Kentucky Department of Education through its Race to the Top grant, the Kentucky Science &Technology Corporation, and the U.S. Department of Education.

Advice and Lessons Learned

  • Provide teachers with high quality, content-rich training: “The biggest value that we add is the content-rich training that we offer.”
  • Identify a Third Party Partner: “Being a third party is a major asset. We offer a third-party, highly accountable partner that can walk into a school and say we’re in this with you.”
  • Raise expectations for students and teachers: “Believe in your teachers, believe in your students and give them a chance.”

—Joanne Lang, AdvanceKentucky Executive Director

Tools and Resources