MOST HIGH SCHOOLS aren’t in the enviable position of having too many students enrolled in too many AP courses. Sixty-one of the more than 360 public high schools in Massachusetts now participate in the privately run National Math and Science Initiative, which works to expand enrollment in AP math, science, and English classes. The program, which includes teacher training and Saturday student review sessions, received $400,000 in state money last year (and is vying for $2 million this year), but is primarily funded by private donors such as Exxon Mobil.
The initiative is one way to confront a persistent problem: uneven AP participation within high schools and among them, cutting across racial, ethnic, and income lines, says Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education. “I’m not wedded to AP as the only measure [of success], but it’s an important barometer,” he says. “It has tremendous cachet with the higher-ed community. One way or the other, it is a credible barometer of being prepared for college-level work.”
The encouragement seems to be working. In 2008, only about 7 percent of juniors and seniors at Methuen High took AP math, science, and English classes, but those numbers began to rise after the school entered the program in 2009. Last year, roughly 40 percent of upperclassmen took them.
Many factors account for the change. Teachers, for one, are working to make participation cool, including ordering “Varsity Biology” T-shirts for their AP biology students. They’re also casting a wider net than they used to. “It’s not so much anymore about selecting talented kids who you know would do well on the test,” says Joseph Harb, Methuen’s science curriculum coordinator and the administrator overseeing all AP courses at the school. “It’s really now about developing talent.”
Tyler Adams, a 16-year-old junior and linebacker on the football team, signed up for an AP English class after attending an information session last spring. He wants to become the first in his family to attend college. But just to be in his first AP class “feels like an accomplishment,” he says. “My parents never really pushed me. I went into it on my own.”
At the time of Adams’s interview, the school year had barely begun. “Two classes so far, and I can already see trouble brewing,” he says. “It’s the vocabulary, some of the words in there.” But if he needs it, he’ll take advantage of the regular one-on-one sessions in the cafeteria with teachers. (“Now that we’ve gotten into the year, I’ve already seen improvements in my vocab, so it’s begun to get a lot easier,” Adams said when we checked in later.)
Methuen still has room for improvement in its scores — just over half of students received a 3 or above in 2009-2010. But scores are moving up, says AP English literature teacher Bud Jennings, and students are getting a taste of the college academic experience in high school. “They’re going to be in over their heads next year in college, and they’re not going to have support,” he says. “It’s actually perfect to take a high school kid and let him or her experience college, but with the support of the high school professional community.”
Jennings compares the extra help to the “college tutor Mom hires” when a child is from a more well-to-do family. “This program helps level the playing field.”