Wednesday, July 18, 2012

An Action Plan for AP Success

Advanced Placement (AP) exams, in a variety of subjects, are offered at virtually every high school.  I had been particularly concerned about my school’s overall performance the past couple of years.  Our scores were well below the state level and our District Factor Group (DFG), which is a comparison of similar schools based on socioeconomics.  Last year only 46% of those students taking AP exams scored a 3 or higher.  This number was so troubling that we knew it was time to take action.

In collaboration with Central Office, some changes were made in late June of 2011.  Historically, up until this point the District paid the full cost of exams taken for every student, regardless of the score they received.  The first major change was that only students scoring a 3 or higher would be fully reimbursed for the cost of each AP exam he or she took.  Yes, this is an example of an “if-then” reward.  Daniel Pink would probably not endorse this type of motivation, but it was obvious that the current structure was not working, as many students didn’t seem to be taking the exam(s) seriously.  The second major change, with the assistance from Central Office, was to encourage AP teachers to attend a week of targeted training sponsored by the College Board and then to provide them with reimbursement.  The last change was the development of an action plan by my HS Administrative team and me focusing on bringing up our overall scores.   We decided to shoot for the stars and established the following goal: By June 2012 seventy-five percent (75%) of the students taking an Advanced Placement (AP) exam will score a three (3) or better.

AP scores were recently released and I was totally shocked when the scores were broken down.  We experienced significant gains over the previous year where 72% of our students taking the exams scored a 3 or higher.  This represented a 26% increase over the previous year.  Those who follow me on Twitter were able to experience my excitement and pride firsthand as I shared this amazing news.  I was so proud of my students and AP teachers, as well as the collective work of both the High School and District Administrative teams.  We identified an area where we needed to improve, didn’t make excuses, and developed a multifaceted strategy to address the issue at hand.

Many educators asked me specifically about the strategic plan I developed with my administrative team at the high school.  Based upon the goal stated previously, the following activities were put in place and monitored throughout the year:

  • In September, all involved staff will meet to discuss how to increase AP scores and review data from last year.  This meeting was held and the dismal scores from the previous year were discussed.  Collaboratively as group activities were established to address our low scores.
  • Administer practice tests and problems through Study Island and other web-based resources. Other resources suggested to teachers included the following:
  • Organize a minimum 3 study sessions throughout the year leading up to the test.
  • Consult with local high-performing districts to acquire strategies and tips.
  • Attend relevant training during the year.
  • Identify constraints that could hinder the success of the plan (time, availability to attend trainings, student participation, Study Island not available for all tested subjects).
Action plans do not have to be fancy in order to be successful.  The changes and action plan highlighted above were able to assist us in significantly improving student achievement on the AP exams.  However, none of this would have been possible had it not been for the hard work on behalf of my students and teachers as well as the collaboration and support from Central Office.   


  1. Eric, thanks for publishing your plan that you cultivated with your teachers and central office. We have similar elements but what really interests me is the use of free resources. We just restructured our schedule which will fit nicely into some of the things you mentioned above. Congrats to you and your staff on the gains. It is a testament to your teaching staff and your ability to recognize the problem with all reacting accordingly.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Eric. I am actually fascinated by this and how it will be received by others because of the "if-then" rewards that you referred to (obviously knowing that people may criticize you for that; good proactive move). The reality of our school system is that we are accountable to a provincial (state) accountability system and it is a delicate balance between doing this type of work and the other side where I know your school has done some great things. Often people are basically on the side of dumping all that we have done before, but the reality is that if we ignore these type of "tests", we could lose our job. How are we going to make change? Not all of us are Diane Ravitch where we can have a huge audience for education reform, but I also believe it is REALLY easy to complain how the system is broke from outside. You are actually trying to do the fine balance of making sure that your school is accountable while still pushing their learning to have them prepared for what they encounter now in the world, as well in the future.

    I saw this video yesterday about point of view:

    It is something that we should talk about when we look at the point of view as a school administrator and what we have to deal with. Congratulations on the work that you have done and thank you for sharing it.


  3. Congrats, Eric, to you, your staff, and your students on their gains. I have used the "if-then" motivation at my previous school. I implemented an ACT Prep course during students' lunch/study period (they brought their lunches to the classroom during the weeks of the prep course). If they attended all sessions, completed their activities/homework and took the practice ACT offered on a Saturday, they would be reimbursed all but $50 (the central office footed the bill). The sessions were led by two local former teachers who host ACT Prep workshops full time. Most of our students lacked the confidence and/or test-taking skills needed to be successful, and the prep course fullfilled those needs. The students' scores increased as a result.

    Thank you for sharing your plan!

  4. Eric,thanks for the transparency. I just received the data for our pilot class in AP US History. Forty-eight percent in the 3 and higher, fifteen percent in the 4-5 range. I really appreciate you sharing a plan for improvement. Another district recruited my AP instructor so I will have a new AP instructor this year.

  5. I don't know when the world started associating extrinsic rewards with such a negative connotation. When used correctly it can be a very effective motivator. Ever heard of the "carrot and stick"?

    Does your school weight the GPA of the AP courses? I am curious if the "carrot" of the inflated GPA would interfere with the reward of actually passing the test. Some students, I fear, take the course to simply "play the GPA game" and get the higher GPA without any real intent to pass the exam.

  6. Steve: Yes, I have heard of "carrot and tick" approaches to motivation. We do weight the GPA for AP courses. However, we are trying to cultivate a sustainable culture where the expectation is not only taking the exam, but also scoring a 3 or higher. Even with these changes and a weighted GPA we still found that the majority of our students took the exam.

    1. What to you see as the bridge that shifts this experience from extrinsic (reward of higher GPA and/or reimbursement) to intrinsic where it becomes part of the culture?

  7. That is our next challenge. Stay tuned.

  8. Our system currently pays for all AP tests too (much the the chagrin of teachers and administrators). Additionally, many of our AP classes are part of our Dual Enrollment classes in which students receive college credit. Knowing they already received college credit, it's hard to find why a student would be motivated to study for his/her AP test. We've had many conversations about how we can motivate students while maintaining an inclusive atmosphere (more and more students are taking AP) and a culture where 3+ is expected.

    It's great to hear that you've had success. We know we're not changing our pay for the test system, so we're continuing our PLC and other efforts and have added 3 scholarships for $500 given randomly to seniors who passed an AP exam (for each 3, a student received one chance, a 4 was worth two chances and a 5 equaled 3 chances).

    What do you think was the biggest factor in your school's turn-around?

  9. Reed: Hard to pinpoint exactly, but I would say it was a combination of reimbursing the students if they earned a 3 or higher and more teachers attending the week lon training.

  10. As a high school student, I am highly opposed to "if-then" rewards of this kind. Since when is education about results? Are we not trying to cultivate a certain attitude in our schools?

    Yes, I know that teachers and administrators are beholden to state standards, but shouldn't we be fighting to eradicate the system instead of sacrificing our morals to the beast that is standardization?

    What's more, this "if-then" reward is financial in nature. It is one thing if a teacher rewards a student for a job well done by raising his/her grade for the semester or something of the like. It is quite another to use financial incentives to get students to preform on exams.