Why Success Academy is going all in on the APs — disadvantaged students deserve to be prepared for college


At Success Academy, we’re going all in on Advanced Placement exams.

We had to rent room at the Javits Center to have the space needed for our 1,317 students taking AP exams this year.

And beginning next year, our primarily low-income students will be required to take at least 13 AP classes starting with pre-calculus and English in ninth grade.

To be sure, these tests are challenging.

The New York Times recently reported that low-income students only score well enough on these tests to earn college credit 40% of the time.

But that’s no reason to abandon these tests, which can play an important role in ensuring students enter college ready to do college-level work.

Only 22% of students who take the ACT college admissions exam meet its benchmarks for college readiness in English, math, reading and science.

The numbers are even worse for Hispanic (11%) and black students (6%).

As a result, many pupils, including 65% of those who attend community college, have to take remedial classes when they enter college.

Sending so many underprepared students to college has consequences.

Forty percent of students who enroll in four-year colleges fail to earn a degree within six years.

Low-income and minority students are even more at risk: 49% of Pell Grant students fail to earn a college degree, as do 54% of black students who enter four-year colleges.

Sadly, even the strongest students from disadvantaged communities can have difficulty since they are more likely to end up at top colleges at which they’ll compete with students who’ve already done college-level work at private and selective public schools.

At Thomas Jefferson, a selective public school in Virginia, 100% of students pass at least one AP exam. 

At Stuyvesant, a New York City selective high school, 92% do.

Students who’ve never been exposed to the concept of diminishing marginal returns, the fundamental theorem of calculus or Shakespeare’s sonnets are at a disadvantage.

Even a student who hasn’t done well enough on an AP exam to earn college credit is better off than a student who’s had no exposure whatsoever to this material.

Taking AP courses can also help prepare students psychologically for college.

When our school’s graduates struggle with college courses, it can be a terrible blow to their self-confidence.

Since their scholarships are usually conditioned on keeping up their grades, it can also be frightening and overwhelming.

And it comes at the worst moment: when they are living away from home for the first time.

It’s better for students to struggle with challenging coursework in high school when they have social supports at hand and won’t lose their college scholarship if they fail.

The AP exams are particularly important because many states lack rigorous examination requirements.

Take New York.

The Regents exams once set a high bar. 

In 1996, only 21% of New York City’s public school students earned “Regent diplomas,” which required passing five Regents exams.

Other students earned “local diplomas.”

That year, the state made Regents exams a graduation requirement for all pupils.

When many students failed them, passing was made easier.

A student can get a passing grade on the Algebra I Regents with a raw score of just 26 out of 86 points.

In fact, even a student who earns 23 points — just 27% of the available points — will be deemed to have passed the exam if he or she passes the rest of the course.

The content of the Regents exams isn’t very advanced.

Many schools administer these tests in middle school.

At Success Academy, our middle schoolers take four Regents exams, and virtually all pass them.

Students who fulfill relatively lax graduation requirements can mistakenly think they are prepared to do college work when they aren’t.

Many will end up dropping out with nothing to show for their efforts but debt.

One study found about 2 million students a year drop out of college with student debt.

Yes, it’s disappointing that low-income students pass AP exams only 40% of the time, but killing the messenger isn’t a solution.

Dumbing down or eliminating standardized tests won’t solve the underlying problem any more than discarding temperature measurements will solve global warming.

The reality is colleges, particularly the best ones, are challenging.

We owe it to students to give them a sense of what they’re in for and to give them practice doing college-level work before it really counts.

The AP exams play a vital role in ensuring students have this opportunity.

Eva Moskowitz is the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools.

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