The definition of K-12 academic rigor is “students demonstrate a thorough, in-depth mastery of challenging and complex curricular concepts. In every subject, at every grade level, instruction and learning must include commitment to a knowledge core and the application of that knowledge core to solve complex real-world problems", according to the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction in North Carolina. Rigor applies to both teachers and students, and that is right.

Ohio’s Department of Education talks a lot about academic rigor in the K-12 continuum, but does not define it on its own. The Common Core State Standards are an effort to raise the floor on student achievement, which we heartily support. But what about raising the ceiling?

One longstanding avenue for setting a high bar for students is found in Advanced Placement (AP) courses. While AP is not perhaps the holy grail for everyone, and perhaps it doesn’t fully live up to its own hype, it is seen by many as a way to introduce high expectations for students, to better prepare high school students for the first year of college, and especially to offer rigor where otherwise none would exist. It is also seen as a way to address concerns about high levels of college remediation, which is becoming a crisis which affects not only success in college but also growing levels of student debt for many of those who do succeed.

But as is often the case with such efforts to raise the ceiling, minority students and students with low socio-economic status are disproportionately excluded from access to AP courses and the option to take advantage of whatever boost the courses can provide.

The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has just released a study on AP access called The Road to Success, in which they detail (among other things) six large urban districts around the country who are simultaneously increasing access to AP courses for African-American students and increasing AP exam passing rates – indicating successful efforts to broaden both access to rigor and the attainment of the concomitant high expectations. The specific approaches vary across the six districts but the vision and determination of these school districts is very much the same:

  1. identify children who could rise to that higher bar – starting as early as elementary school,
  2. convince them and their families that pursuit of this goal is worthwhile – your academic success is what our school is about,
  3. give them the tools to succeed – primers on how to be organized, how to take notes, and academic confidence (check out the AVID program in Garland, Texas), and
  4. give them an academic support system all the way through – tutors, counselors, cheerleaders.

Some studies have documented the value of passing AP exams and earning college credit early in terms of increasing access to an affordable college education, and this is reiterated in the Broad report, but there is a subtext within the stories of the six districts of the value of the culture of rigor at the high school level. When many more students are recruited and trained and supported and then are expected to do better, they usually perform better. And what’s more, even if a year or two of college credit isn’t attained by all AP course takers, the knock-on effect appears to be a higher than average high school graduation rate that in itself is something to crow about. (You can check out the graduation rates for the two Georgia districts here; Garland here; Jefferson County, Ky here; Orange County, Fl here; and the San Diego USD here. Hint, they are all higher than the national average of 75%, and these are large urban districts with all of the diversity and demographics you care to include.)

The districts in the Broad study have high numbers of AP courses and are trying to increase participation and passing rates simultaneously in existing classes (also a topic of great interest in Des Moines, Iowa), both goals with many barriers to surmount for districts, students and parents. But even such herculean efforts will be useless if a district doesn’t have enough space to expand access.  

This topic is covered in another recent report, Finding America’s Missing AP and IB Students, published by The Education Trust and Equal Opportunity Schools. In it, they document “participation gaps” in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs in high schools nationwide.

They note that while “91 percent of high school students attend schools that offer at least one AP course”, “low-income students (15 percent) were almost twice as likely as other students (8 percent) to attend a school without the full complement of courses. Similarly, American-Indian (18 percent) and black (15 percent) students were far more likely than white (9 percent) students to have more limited course options.”

This situation, they reason, creates not only a “high-end opportunity gap” for children left out of the classes that are available but also a false sense of rigor for students participating in the few classes available. And the Education Trust analysis shows that while there is an obvious way to address the high-end opportunity gap (more AP classes in more schools), there is also a less obvious and potentially easier way to address the gap:  get more students into the existing AP classes that are already being offered. As the Broad Foundation report determined, there are model districts out there already doing that exact thing. But many more districts could start implementing this approach of broader access to AP today, with many benefits to be reaped down the road independent of the AP mechanism itself.

The bar must be set as high as it can be to allow students to rise to it. Low expectations breed results which are equally low. High expectations with quality teaching, a culture of support, and an eye toward each child’s future would be a great start and should be available to as many families as possible in as many cities as possible.

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