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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

District view of AP at odds with universities

Updated February 5, 2009:

In October, a parent of a student in Spokane Public Schools sent me copies of his email to the district and the district’s response. The parent was concerned that “the math District 81 is teaching will not prepare our students for entry into colleges both in WA and around our nation… Students are graduating from local high schools with A's in honors math and are having to take remedial math to get into college.”

The district response to this parent came from Rick Biggerstaff, secondary mathematics coordinator and AP calculus teacher at Lewis & Clark High School. Biggerstaff reassured the worried parent, noting (in part) that Advanced Placement enrollments and “passing scores” are increasing. (Advanced Placement classes are college-level classes that are taken in high school. School districts often point to increasing AP enrollments and pass rates as indicators that mathematics achievement is improving.) Biggerstaff wrote:

“… I can say that our district continues to increase enrollment in AP classes and statistically performs very well on the AP exam. In the 12 years that I have personally been involved with the AP calculus program I have watched the number of students in AP mathematics throughout our district double in volume, seen the program go from no high school statistics programs, to each high school having at least one AP statistics class, and watched the number of passing scores on these tests grow significantly. … What matters is the level of cognitive engagement in our classrooms. Whether you arrive at that through a traditional approach or non-traditional approach is not nearly as significant as focusing on student engagement. We believe our increased numbers in ‘honors’ level math along with a growth in passing AP scores reflects our work in this area.”Naturally, this response piqued my interest. The entire point of school is to gain useful information and skills for the next grades and for postsecondary life. If AP enrollment and pass rates are increasing, these could be indicators that student knowledge is increasing. Recognizing, however, that there has been much speculation in the nation about what education statistics actually represent, I called the district to determine Spokane’s AP enrollments and pass rates. Staff members were unable to give me AP enrollments specifically (that data is lumped in with honors enrollment), but they sent me a table of AP exam results from 1992 to 2008. Here is part of that table:

Summary of AP Exam Results

1992 2000 2008
Number of students 193 368 1093
Number of exams 271 636 2028
Number of course areas 13 15 27
Number of exams passed 198 515 1099
Percent passing 73% 81% 54%
Average grade 3.18 3.45 2.72

Average Passing Grade

1992 2000 2008
Spokane 3.18 3.45 2.72
Washington 3.02 3.10 2.87
Western Region 3.08 3.03 2.86
Global 3.05 3.02 2.85

According to the full table, numbers of exam-takers steadily increased from 2000 to 2008, while the percent passing and the average grades steadily decreased. In 2000, 368 students took AP exams; 81% achieved a score of 3 or greater ("3" has traditionally been considered a passing grade.) Their average grade was 3.45. In 2008, however, 1,093 students took exams; 54.2% achieved a 3 or greater. Their average grade was 2.72. This decline occurred despite the near doubling of course areas in which students took their exams – from 15 course areas in 2000 to 27 course areas in 2008. Meanwhile, since 2001, the full-time enrollment in District 81 dropped by about 2,000 students. Therefore, AP enrollment and AP exam-taking increased despite a decrease in overall student population.

In 2000, Spokane students scored better on their AP exams than students in certain other areas. In 2008, however, Spokane students did less well than students in those other areas.

Technically, Spokane administrators can say that the number of students passing AP exams has increased. In 2000, 81% of 636 student exams were passed, for a total of 515 exams passed. In 2008, 54.2% of 2,028 student exams were passed, for a total of 1,099 exams passed. In effect, 584 more exams were passed in 2008 than in 2000.

Technically, however, it can also be said that the number of students failing AP exams has increased. In 2000, 19% of student exams (121 total) were not passed, while in 2008, 45.8% of student exams (929 total) were not passed. In effect, 808 more exams were failed in 2008 than in 2000.

In 2008 in AP mathematics, 66% of the students achieved a 3 or better on their exams. At Lewis & Clark High School, just 24% achieved a 3 or better on the Calculus AB exam; in Calculus BC, 59% did. In 2007, just 36% of the Lewis & Clark students achieved a 3 or better on the Calculus AB exam; in Calculus BC, 53% did.

Do these numbers indicate district improvement in mathematics? Much depends on how important you think it is to achieve a score of at least 3. Last year, a school board member commented that students who failed to achieve a 3 or better on their AP exams "must have learned something while they were there.” A district administrator told me today the College Board (which runs the AP program) says schools shouldn’t “talk about pass rates” because colleges vary in what they’ll accept. I asked her if schools should at least have a target in mind, and she said, “Not necessarily.” AP courses are rigorous and accredited, she said, so “it’s hard” to make pass rates “a concern.”

Folks, if we aren’t concerned with pass rates, if we don’t even have a target, how do parents and students know when they’ve achieved what they want to achieve? How do the universities know? How do employers know? How does the district know when it’s failed to do its job?

It turns out the universities do know. Whitworth University, Gonzaga University, Eastern Washington University, Washington State University and the University of Washington (Seattle) all indicate that - depending on the subject - they give credit for passing scores of 3, 4 or 5. For example, Gonzaga gives credit for AP calculus scores of 4 or 5. Spokane's community colleges also give credit for scores of 3, 4 or 5. The College Board probably knows, too. It says the 5-point scale represents the following:

5 – extremely well qualified
4 – well qualified
3 – qualified
2 – possibly qualified
1 – no recommendation

School administrators know, too. Students in Washington must obtain at least a "3" on AP math exams in order to use the classes as alternatives to the 10th-grade math WASL.

So I worry about those 929 failed AP exams in 2008 and the drop in the average grade. I worry about students who are ushered into AP classes, who fail to achieve at least a 3 on the exams, and about whom we’re supposed to say, “Well, they must have learned something while they were there.” Sadly for them, some will have learned that achievement doesn’t matter. It does, though. It always will. They’ll find that out on their own – the hard way.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (December, 2008). "District view of AP at odds with universities." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was also published December 18, 2008, in at

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Board meeting yields few answers

[Edited Oct. 11, 2011, to correct spelling of a name.]

By Laurie H. Rogers

On Nov. 5, 2008, I went to a Spokane Public Schools board meeting and asked for five things – three having to do with accountability and communication, and two having to do with mathematics.

I left written copies of my requests with board members and the secretary who keeps the minutes. Knowing that board meetings are considered to be “business meetings,” I suspected that board members wouldn’t discuss my requests with me that night. I was right. Board President Rocco Treppiedi told me the board would respond to my requests in writing.

Later, Treppiedi asked an area principal for his reaction to my comments about reform mathematics curriculum Investigations in Number, Data, and Space. The principal said he was confident that things would improve once teachers had a chance to delve more deeply into the curriculum.

When the minutes from that Nov. 5 meeting were approved and posted on the school board Web site at, my entire presentation was winnowed down to exactly this:

“Ms. Laurie Rogers commented on her research of public education over the past two years and distributed a list of items she would like to see changed in Spokane Public Schools. She noted that the list is given in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. President Treppiedi noted that the staff can get back to Ms. Rogers with a response in writing” (“Regular,” 2008). There is nothing in the minutes to tell the public what I requested or why. (Treppiedi’s aforementioned exchange with the principal isn’t in the minutes either.) It’s ironic, considering that the first item on my list had to do with providing opportunities for the community to have regular two-way public dialogue with the school board. In brief, here’s what I requested:

1. Dialogue.Currently, parents can’t initiate open, two-way public dialogue on topics of our choosing with the entire District 81 school board. I asked the board to offer regular opportunities to do that. 2. Inclusion.A District 81 curriculum coordinator told me that parents are not invited into curriculum discussions or decisions because we don’t have the background to offer informed feedback. Recognizing that many parents have a stronger background in math than that curriculum coordinator – and that parents who have no background in math still have valuable things to say – I asked the board to include parents in curriculum discussions and decisions. 3. Details.According to former board President Christine Querna, the board debates the issues in “work sessions.” Regular board meetings are where members vote on items they’ve already discussed. Currently, notice of the work sessions is briefly given at the very bottom of board meeting agendas, but no details are provided of planned topics or guests. I asked the board to post details of the work sessions in a prominent, easy-to-find place on the district and school board Web sites so that parents can determine if they wish to attend. 4. Choice of a traditional track in mathematics.The National Mathematics Advisory Panel has recommended more traditional mathematics in K-12 schools. Washington State’s revised mathematics standards include more traditional mathematics. Recent curriculum reviews have indicated that Spokane’s mathematics curricula – all reform – are inadequate. (Neither Connected Mathematics nor Investigations in Number, Data, and Space are recommended by the review panel; neither are on the final list of recommendations from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.) I asked the board to immediately offer parents the choice of a more traditional track in mathematics. 5. Tutoring.Test results, dropout rates, and tutoring and remediation rates all indicate serious problems relative to math in Spokane. Clearly, many students don’t have the skills they need to begin a more rigorous curriculum, much less graduate or go to college. I asked the board to offer tutoring and remedial help in traditional mathematics for all students so they can catch up to where they should have been.Two weeks after I made this presentation, I received the board members’ written response. Following are brief summaries of their comments:

1. Dialogue.Board members said they “have considered” reinstating the bi-monthly Coffee and Conversation public meetings the board used to host. (No decision or timeline is given, however.) 2. Inclusion.Board members said: “The district curriculum is developed by staff and administrators…Final adoption of any curricular materials is our responsibility as School Board Directors, serving as elected representatives of the community.” (No acknowledgement is made of the value or appropriateness of including parents in curriculum decisions.) 3. Details.Board members said there are plans in place to revise the Web site, including making the work sessions “more visible.” 4. Choice of a traditional track in mathematics.It’s a “lengthy process,” the board members wrote, to align curricula with state standards. Recently, the state math standards changed. The State Board of Education is finding out if financial incentives can be offered to publishers to align their texts “more closely with the revised state standards.” Therefore, the board members concluded, “It will be prudent for us to wait and see what new materials might be available for our use.” (In other words, don’t hold your breath waiting for traditional math curricula. No acknowledgement is made of the district’s problems in mathematics, the weakness of reform curricula, or the desperate need for a more traditional approach.) 5. Tutoring.Board members said: “Tutoring help for students who fall behind in any subject is one effective intervention strategy, and we are able to do that on a limited basis…Improved state funding for basic education is essential for districts to use local levy funds to provide extracurricular supports, like tutoring.” (No acknowledgement is made of the need across the entire district for immediate tutoring in basic math skills.)Perhaps behind the board’s carefully crafted response, there is much going on. Perhaps board members agree with me and just won’t say it in public or on paper. Perhaps I’m to assume I was taken seriously, that my concerns are being discussed at length, and that now, I just need to be patient. Perhaps if we all sat down together at a friendly barbecue, board members would confide their intent to immediately implement all five requests. They might even indicate their support of a sixth request - to replace our two lame-duck math tests (the WASL and SASL) with a single test that will tell us just how wide the gap is between what students know and what they need to know for college (or even just to meet the newly revised math standards).

But why would I assume any of that? At the board meeting, no board member or administrator offered me any vocal understanding, encouragement or support, and no one asked to see my research. In the meeting minutes, my presentation was edited down until it meant nothing and said nothing. The board’s written response to my presentation is careful and oblique. It acknowledges little and commits to just one small item. Most of it can be interpreted to mean anything at all. It’s the kind of response I expect from politicians and lawyers.

I plan to go to another meeting and ask that my specific requests be put in the public record. I’ll add the sixth request to the list since it makes sense. I’ll let you know what happens. No doubt you’ll be able to read in the minutes that I was there, but I can’t guarantee that the minutes will tell you what I said or what the board members said in reply.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (December, 2008). "Board meeting yields few answers." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: