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The AP Evolution: Are Equity & Access Possible?

By AP Teacher Dr. Steve Kucinski

My first introduction with an AP teacher was somewhat awkward. I was fairly young and looking to impress, and I shared with the English Department a list of literary analysis terms I wished to cover with Honors freshmen. I was taken aback when the AP teacher pulled me aside to tell me that some of the terms were “hers” to cover in AP Lit. She was the quintessential English teacher, and I respected but feared her. At least a small part of me wondered how it was beneficial to wait until senior year to allow students access to certain terms and concepts. Clearly, the emphasis on vertical planning, coaching, and teaming has evolved since then.

As irony would have it, I entered AP teaching to replace this teacher after she retired. At this time, we seemed intent on being ‘gate-keepers’ of the sacred AP curriculum. To wit, only AP and Honors English students had required summer reading. These novels were provided without any scaffolding or assistance. We welcomed students that first week of the school year for objective tests (typically purchased from a vendor) — students who actually read did poorly, while students who Sparknoted it did decently. Test questions were not reviewed, and then we would spend a day or so discussing the big picture elements of the text. At one point, our department chair acknowledged that this was a “weed out” strategy. To be fair, it is, indeed, a potential harbinger of student struggle in AP Literature if he or she does not like to or simply won’t read. This, though, set the tone of gamesmanship for the entire year. Many students learned how to get around the inauthentic assessments, earn decent grades, and yet not truly engage with the literature. A phrase I enjoy sharing is, “They are playing in the sandbox we built for them.”

Fast-forward 15-or-so years: assessments improve, summer reading selections are updated with a bit more diversity and readability in mind, all students are asked to read over the summer, and the first weeks of class are spent discussing the works. AP Literature and AP Language are marketed to any students who want to attempt this; our district challenges every student to take an AP class sometime during their high school career. Enrollment increased, number of students taking AP tests increased, and AP scores took a small dip as expected with the increased enrollment. AP teachers had to work harder to support students who were taking us up on the offer to challenge themselves.

Pleasantly, our district and building leaders praised our efforts to increase enrollment, praised the increase in AP tests administered, and did not balk at any lower test score averages. We collectively bought into the notion that the effort was valuable and that the AP atmosphere was beneficial for all learners, even if they did not earn an ‘A’ in the class or score high on the test.

Reflecting on this, I see a few issues that still concern me. Did we over-market AP? Did we make students feel like they were failures if they didn’t try an AP class? Were we so concerned with making the class accessible that we lowered our standards or watered down the content and pedagogy? Some of those questions may not be answerable, but I learned more about teaching all students and not just the ones who were trained to do anything the teacher asked (but only out of a sense of duty not out of any joy or insight or enthusiasm).

Today, our students have so many choices, and some of our AP classes have dwindling enrollment. College Credit Plus is an attractive choice for many seniors, but if you ask them (as I often do), why they opted for that course, you get some rather concerning but honest responses: “It’s free college credit”; “My parents are making me.”; ‘It’s easier than AP.”; “It only meets three times a week.”

So here we are at an interesting time in the evolution of the class: it is more accessible than ever, and yet the numbers are lower than ever. It was not a simple task or short journey to make the Honors and AP classes more accessible, so one may be tempted to feel as if that struggle were for naught. I would tend to disagree. It was emblematic of shifting perceptions as to what any student could potentially achieve, and that can never be wrong. College Credit Plus is quite popular and for some students, beneficial. As it is part of our state law, we know that can change. If it ever does, we won’t have to scramble to convince students that AP Literature and AP Language are excellent and challenging courses. Our arms have been open for a long time, and we plan to keep them that way.

Dr. Steve Kucinski is a Nationally Board Certified teacher who has taught middle and high school English for 26 years. This is his 18th year teaching at Dublin Coffman High School. Steve has served as department chair and district lead teacher in past years. He has a Master’s in Educational Administration and a Ph.D. in Adolescent Development from The Ohio State University, and is an adjunct lecturer there. Steve has a young adult novel published, Between Friends, and he delivered a TEDx Talk in Worthington in 2016 entitled, “Resolve to enjoy the goodness and beauty in each other and in life.” Currently, he is passionate about innovation and creativity in teaching and learning as well as integrating technology into the classroom. His wife, Gretchen, has taught music for 26 years, and he has three amazing sons — Austin, a senior at the University of Cincinnati studying Electrical Engineering; Grant, an incoming freshman at the University of Cincinnati studying Sports Management; and Chase, a 7th grader.

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Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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