Assessment changes on tap

Colorado hustles to roll out new testing plan

State testing is going to take up a lot less space on school calendars in 2016 than it did last spring.

The main 2016 “testing window,” recently announced by the Department of Education, is scheduled for April 11-29.

That calendar is very different from last spring’s, when state assessments of various kinds stretched across three periods totaling more than 12 weeks, starting in March and ending in May.

The testing window isn’t the only thing that’s changing because of a law passed by the 2015 legislature and changes announced shortly thereafter by the multi-state PARCC testing group.

Other key changes include elimination of state tests for high school seniors, different tests for ninth and 10th graders and a cutback is social studies testing.

But while CDE is moving quickly to set up the new system, lots of questions remain to be answered, and key elements need to be approved by the federal government. That means students, parents and teachers don’t yet have a full picture of what state testing will look like in 2016.

Here are the details of the changes in the CMAS system, how they could affect different kinds of tests and students and what questions remain to be answered.

Time on test

The testing window is the period of time during which a school has to start and complete testing; every day of the window isn’t necessarily taken up by tests.

Next spring schools are supposed to fit language arts, math, science, social studies and alternate tests within the April 11-29 window. (This year the first part of language arts and math tests were given in March, followed by social studies and science in April and the second part of language arts and math at the end of the school year.)

Test time chart
Source: Colorado Department of Education

That may seem like a lot of tests, but PARCC also is reducing the total time consumed for language arts and math tests and number of testing sessions, known as “units” in assessment lingo. (See this story for details on PARCC’s plans for 2016.)

School districts like the single, smaller window. Last spring’s separate windows required a lot of duplicate set-up time, testing directors say.

“We really appreciate the change,” said Norm Alerta, director of assessment and evaluation for the Cherry Creek Schools. “That will help with a lot of issues.”

And CDE is providing an escape hatch for districts that can’t fit all those tests into three weeks. Districts can use a window of up to six weeks for language arts and math tests if needed because of limitations on the number of laptops and other devices available for testing use.

“We expect the vast majority to use” the three-week window, said Joyce Zurkowski, CDE executive director of assessment.

High school testing

Expansion of state tests into the 11th and 12th grades during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years sparked much of the public outcry faced by legislators during the last session.

Laura Johnson, 17, works on a computer between classes at Florence High School / File photo
Laura Johnson, 17, works on a computer between classes at Florence High School / File photo

The lawmakers’ ultimate solution, House Bill 15-1323, significantly reduced high school testing while making few changes at other grade levels.

Seniors – Students are off the hook for state tests in their last year of high school, so there will be no science and social studies to boycott next fall.

Juniors – The new law eliminates the full language arts and math tests in 11th grade, but the school year won’t be test-free for these students. Officials at CDE haven’t decided when to give high school science and social studies tests. But they acknowledge that spring of junior year is the logical time to test, rather than in freshman or sophomore years. And all juniors will still have to take the ACT test or an equivalent.

Sophomores – It’s too early to say what 2016 testing will look like for 10th graders. The new law proposes eliminating language arts and math tests for 11th graders, replacing those with a shorter college-and-career readiness test like the Accuplacer. That test also has to be aligned to state academic standards. However, this is a change that must be approved by the federal government.

And even if Washington signs off, it isn’t known yet which readiness test will be used, nor which 11th grade college entrance exam will be given. The new law requires those contracts be put out to competitive bid, which hasn’t happened yet. CDE officials acknowledge that the likely competitors are the ACT organization and the College Board.

Freshmen – Students will continue to take PARCC language arts and math tests in the first year of high school, just as their predecessors have done for years. CDE will have to make changes in the math tests, given that they won’t be given later in high school, as was the case for the last two years.

Social studies tests

To be decided
  • Whether language arts and math tests in 9th grade only will meet federal requirements for high school testing
  • Which college and career readiness tests sophomores and juniors will take
  • When high school science and social studies tests will be given
  • Which schools will give social studies tests next year
  • Extent of flexibility in testing some ELL students
  • Definition of “grade level” for early literacy tests
  • Double testing of students in any pilot assessment program

During the legislative testing debates these tests looked they were headed for the chopping block. But a compromise detailed in another testing measure (Senate Bill 15-056) saved the exams by drastically reducing the number of students who have to take them every year.

Now the tests will be given in one third of state schools every year, to one grade each in elementary, middle and high school. Stay tuned for CDE to decide which schools will be on the 2016 list.

English language learners

The new law proposes to allow districts to give state tests in other languages to English language learners for up to five years, instead the three now allowed. ELL students enrolled in a school for fewer than 12 months wouldn’t have to take English language arts tests.

The legislation also proposes to not use the English language arts scores of ELL students who have been in the U.S. for fewer than two years as part of school and district accountability calculations.

Some of these changes have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Early learners

One non-controversial element of the testing law was the streamlining of how students are evaluated for school readiness and how the reading skills of K-3 students are determined under the READ Act. There were concerns about duplication of assessments and about the need to retest students who read a grade level.

If schools evaluate students within the first 60 days of school, the results of READ Act tests can be used for the literacy component of school readiness. The law also streamlines some of the readiness and READ Act record keeping.

Students who demonstrate reading proficiency on the first test don’t have to take additional tests during the year. However, CDE has to set cut scores to define grade-level reading, and those won’t be determined until late summer.

Mouse or pencil

Students taking tests

Last spring the state allowed districts to request paper tests for 3rd grade language arts and math and for math in other grades. Those got only limited use around the state.

The new law allows districts to request paper tests for any grade. The state has no role in deciding, so parents anxious to have paper tests will have to make their case to their districts by next fall.

But CDE is working with test providers on the logistics of having all tests available on paper. “It’s a pretty significant shift for science and social studies,” Zurkowski said,

At least one set of paper tests also must be available for READ Act assessments.

Opting out

The right of parents to pull children out of state tests and the impact of low test participation rates on school and district ratings were hot issues during the legislative session.

Another sign at rally
Sign at anti-testing rally

The Senate and House ultimately couldn’t agree on an opt-out bill, but HB 15-1323 contains compromise language that gives districts some guidance on how to handle the issue.

Here’s how CDE explains it: “Each district must adopt a written policy and procedure allowing a student’s parent to excuse a student from participating in one or more state assessments. If a parent excuses his/her student from participating in an assessment, the district must not impose negative consequences on students or parents, including prohibiting school attendance, imposing an unexcused absence, or prohibiting participation in extracurricular activities. At the same time, the district cannot impose an unreasonable burden or requirement on a student to discourage the student from taking an assessment or encourage the student’s parent to excuse his/her student from the assessment.”

Evaluation & accountability

The testing law was driven partly by concerns that low scores on the new tests and high opt-out rates might unfairly affect teacher evaluations and school and district ratings. (Federal law requires states to penalize districts where participation rates fall below 95 percent on two or more tests.)

Evaluation illustration
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN

As on many other issues, the new law offered a compromise. How the U.S. Department of Education reacts to the changes remains to be seen.

Teachers – Results from last spring’s state tests cannot be used to calculate the student growth measures used in teachers’ 2014-15 school year evaluations. Instead, districts can only use growth data derived from local tests.

The state’s evaluation system requires that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on “multiple measures” of student academic growth, including more than data derived from state test results. A 2014 law created a one-year timeout for that requirement, meaning individual districts could use 50 percent, 0 percent or any percentage in-between when doing evaluations for the school year that just ended. Districts took that flexibility to heart (see story).

Starting with the upcoming 2015-16 school year, 50 percent of teacher evaluations must be based on student academic growth measures. The new law provides an out in years when state test results aren’t promptly available. If growth data isn’t given to districts at least two weeks before the school year ends, districts don’t have to use that data for evaluations but can instead use it in evaluations for the following school year.

Schools and districts – The upcoming school year will be time-out for accreditation ratings. No new ratings will be announced this autumn, meaning schools and districts will retain the ratings they were assigned at the end of 2014.

Districts and schools that have been rated in the two lowest categories for five consecutive years are subject to state intervention. That clock has been stopped for one year.

There will be ratings issued again in the fall of 2016. They will go into effect, and the accountability clock will restart, on July 1, 2017.

See this Chalkbeat story for details about the district ratings issued last November, and use this database to find individual district ratings.

Pilot programs

Another compromise element of the testing law was creation of pilot programs through which districts and groups of districts could try out new ways of testing students and holding schools accountable.

The idea, if it gets off the ground, is that two programs will be chosen from the first group of pilots, and that one of those might eventually become the new state testing and accountability system.

This plan will require multiple levels of federal approval, the first of which may affect districts’ interest in trying the experiment. That question is whether students who participate in a pilot have to continue taking regular state tests as well.

Getting those questions answered

More info

CDE is working to get most of the open questions answered by late summer or early fall.

The department already has opened informal talks with the federal department, trying to feel out what Washington is thinking. “We first have been having conversations with them” and have sent a letter detailing the changes in Colorado law, said Associate Commissioner Jill Hawley. As to how DOE will react, “We can’t answer what that will look like,’ she said.

Hawley and Zurkowski said it could be anytime between early July and early August before Colorado gets “formal guidance” from DOE.

The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires annual testing of every state’s students and an accountability system for districts and schools, among other requirements.

Colorado has some flexibility under a formal agreement called a waiver. If DOE doesn’t approve of changes in the state’s system, that could lead to revocation of the waiver, re-imposing the more onerous requirements of ESEA on the state.

States that don’t follow federal requirements are subject to possible loss of federal education funding, although that’s a multi-step process that could take time to play out.

Miseducation

In Colorado’s high-poverty schools, many teachers are just starting their careers

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
A first-grade student reads in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Koli Jamerson’s residency program gave her tools that she uses every day as a teacher, ideas for developing engaging lessons and for working with English language learners.

But it didn’t teach her how to help a student who explodes in anger because the police were at her house the night before on a domestic violence call or who cries all day because she doesn’t know where she’ll sleep that night.

Jamerson, now in her third year of teaching first grade at Altura Elementary in the Aurora school district, is still standing. She remains committed to her profession in large part due to the help of veteran teachers on her team, who provided advice as she found her footing those first couple of years.

“It helps keep things in perspective,” Jamerson said of her conversations with more experienced educators. “Otherwise, I would have been talking to a bunch of other teachers who were also drowning, and we would have drowned together.”

It’s getting hard for new teachers in Colorado to find those support systems, since the percentage of Colorado’s teachers in their first or second year in the classroom is among the highest in the nation. In 2015-16, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 17 percent of Colorado teachers were new to the classroom, compared with 12 percent nationally. Only Tennessee, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., rank higher. As recently as 2011, less than 11 percent of Colorado’s teachers were new to the classroom.

This information comes from a new interactive database from the investigative news organization ProPublica. It draws on data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and for the first time allows parents to easily search their school and district and compare it with others in the region. 

The rates of inexperienced teachers are even higher in certain rural districts and in districts where lots of students come from low-income families and face more challenges. Those districts also often have high numbers of students of color. In contrast, whiter, more affluent suburban districts tend to have low rates of inexperienced teachers.

And those numbers have significant ramifications for Colorado’s students: New teachers can bring energy and innovation to the classroom, and some, especially those with support and guidance, manage to thrive early on. But students with inexperienced teachers tend to have lower test scores on average, according to numerous studies, and new teachers often get lower scores in classroom management from their principals.

Most teachers will readily admit it takes several years to get your bearings in a profession for which no amount of classroom learning can fully prepare you.

“In reality, you get second grade one time, you get third grade one time, as a kid,” said David Singer, founder of Denver’s University Prep charter network, which has shown impressive test results even with plenty of relatively inexperienced teachers. “You deserve an excellent educator.”

Chalkbeat reviewed more recent state data that follows the typical federal definition of “inexperienced teachers” — teachers with less than three full years of classroom experience — and found that the broad trends remain true and in many cases are even more severe than they appear in the federal data. Statewide, one in four Colorado teachers was classified as inexperienced. Last school year, 31 percent of Denver Public Schools teachers were in their first three years on the job, compared with just 7 percent of teachers in the more affluent Boulder Valley School District.

The Adams 14 district, based in the working-class suburb of Commerce City, is one of the lowest-performing in the state. Last year, 45 percent of teachers there were considered inexperienced, compared with 8 percent in the south suburban Littleton district. 

In districts with so many new teachers, it becomes inevitable that students there will encounter educators who haven’t yet reached their prime.

“When a teacher is new to the profession, as with any profession, they’re not as effective,” said Allison Atteberry, an assistant professor in the research and evaluation methods program at the University of Colorado’s School of Education. “There’s a really steep learning curve in those first years. That can’t really be avoided. But if there are more of those teachers, then more students will be exposed to those teachers. And if you have districts with more at-risk students, that has major equity implications.”

Atteberry said the numbers don’t surprise her, and they reflect a perfect storm in the state’s teacher corps. Colorado has experienced rapid population growth, increasing the demand for teachers, at the same time that experienced teachers are retiring or changing careers. That means more new teachers in Colorado classrooms, even as fewer students are entering teacher preparation programs.

Colorado’s low teacher pay exacerbates retention problems. Colorado ranks 30th for teacher pay, and when those salaries are adjusted for cost of living, it falls to 44th. The competitiveness of its teacher salaries is the lowest in the nation, meaning that people who go into teaching take a bigger salary hit compared to their peers with similar levels of education. Nationally, 1 in 10 teachers will leave the profession after their first year, and many more never reach the five-year mark.

Districts around the state are asking voters to raise taxes this November in part to raise teacher pay. Better pay for educators is also a major part of the campaign for Amendment 73, a $1.6 billion statewide tax increase for schools that appears on the ballot. But Colorado voters have so far been reluctant to raise statewide taxes for schools, and critics say there is no guarantee the money will make it into teachers’ paychecks.

Atteberry said raising pay would help mitigate these trends. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of solid research on the best ways to keep teachers in the classroom, she said, but coaching and support from other teachers can make a difference. Denver is trying a new program to ease the transition for novice teachers with more time spent observing and learning from veterans before getting sole responsibility for a classroom. But just as with teacher salaries, providing adequate coaching is expensive. And the more newcomers there are, the harder it is provide meaningful support to novices.

Denver metro area inexperienced teachers

DISTRICT Teachers with less than three years experience Students receiving subsidized lunches
Adams 14 45 percent 87.3 percent
Dougco 39 percent 12.4 percent
Sheridan 33 percent 90.4 percent
27J (Brighton) 33 percent 37.7 percent
Denver 31 percent 67.2 percent
Jeffco 31 percent 31.7 percent
Aurora 29 percent 68.7 percent
Englewood 29 percent 66 percent
Westminster 24 percent 81.4 percent
Mapleton 21 percent 60.6 percent
St. Vrain 15 percent 30.6 percent
Adams 12 11 percent 39.9 percent
Cherry Creek 9 percent 30.0 percent
Littleton 8 percent 16.8 percent
Boulder Valley 7 percent 19 percent

Source: Colorado Department of Education, 2017-18 school year

This year, for the first time, Annalee Peterson has her own fifth-grade classroom in Columbia Elementary in Colorado Springs, where a large portion of the students are homeless or face other challenges. Before starting an alternative certification process, she ran reading groups as a paraprofessional in the same building for four years. And years before that, she dropped out of a Teach for America placement in a Newark high school where she felt alone and unsupported.

Peterson said her certification program includes intensive classroom observation and feedback that has been invaluable as she made the transition from para to teacher. She also has a trusting relationship with her building principal, who encouraged her to become a teacher.

“I think every new teacher should have a mentor,” she said. “I see other teachers come in, and they don’t have it.”

Peterson said she also benefits from her school’s skilled full-time counselor, something many Colorado schools don’t have.

“If we have a kid with a fair amount of trauma, and they get triggered, they have someone they can go talk to,” she said. “And that’s a huge help. They are getting their emotional needs met, and when they come back to the classroom, they’re ready to work and ready to focus.”

The Adams 14 school district, which has spent eight years on a state watchlist due to its low-performing schools, has the highest rate of inexperienced teachers in the Denver metro area. The 7,000-student district has experienced a lot of turnover not just at the classroom level, but at the highest tiers of leadership.

With an urgent need to improve school performance, Mark Langston, the district’s new manager of educator effectiveness, tries to put a positive face on the large number of new educators that arrive each year.

“I’d rather have a phenomenal teacher for one year, than a bad teacher for many years,” Langston said. “Strong systems have a nice blend of experience.”

At the same time, he’s trying to improve the support those new teachers receive by making changes to the district’s five-day induction program to better meet their individual needs. The thinking is that a 40-year-old switching careers after running a business for 20 years might need different training from a 22-year-old recent college graduate. He’s also trying to match new teachers with mentors earlier in the school year.

But sometimes there aren’t enough mentors or he’s had to make exceptions to allow less experienced teachers to become mentors.

“They are mentoring each other,” said Barb McDowell, president of the Adams 14 teachers union, who says the churn takes a toll on teacher and student morale. “There are no veteran teachers there to help.”

Kevin Clark, a senior at Adams City High, said he always felt supported by his teachers in the district, but very few of them are still there as he enters his final year.

“For the seniors, it’s been rough,” he said. “We really value our support systems. The new teachers are trying to adjust and get their footing, but just because you send in a batch of new teachers, doesn’t mean everything is fine.”

The Denver schools with the highest percentages of inexperienced teachers in 2015-16 include a number of alternative high schools, high-poverty district-run schools, and charter schools. Some of the charter schools are part of high-performing networks whose students do well on state tests.

One of them is University Prep. The homegrown Denver network has two elementary schools, one of which posted the most academic progress in Colorado on state math tests in 2017. But in 2015, the network had just one school — and 42 percent of the teachers there were in their first or second year of teaching, according to the federal data.

At University Prep, some first-year teachers have taken part in a teacher residency program or in a program that has college students work as paraprofessionals while earning their degrees.

“When you think about that individual exiting their undergraduate [education] having spent four years in a building with master teachers, getting all the supports they need to grow, they’re ready to teach on Day 1,” said Singer, the network’s founder.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Students at University Prep Elementary’s flagship school in Denver

Even so, the network provides its first-year teachers with extra support, he said, such as real-time coaching in the classroom, opportunities to observe more experienced teachers, and help with how to plan a lesson or conduct a parent-teacher conference.

Atteberry said successful charter schools with high rates of inexperienced teachers may be doing something different in the hiring process, looking for “spark teachers who really want to make a difference.”

The high rates of new teachers at some charter schools raise questions, though, about how sustainable the work environment is, and some of these same “spark” teachers may never intend to make a lifelong career of it and instead move on to other challenges. Asked about turnover, Singer said some University Prep teachers have left to pursue careers in medicine and law.

Denver metro area data show another exception to the trend in Douglas County. It’s an affluent and sprawling district southwest of Denver where just 12 percent of students get subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty. But in 2015-16, 31 percent of teachers were in their first or second year in the classroom, and in 2017-18, 39 percent had less than three years experience.

Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation, the teachers union there, said Douglas used to be a “destination district” that teachers aspired to work for. But political upheaval, the election of a conservative school board that has since been replaced, and a “market rate” pay structure that remains have caused experienced teachers to leave in droves — some for much higher salaries in nearby Cherry Creek schools.

The Douglas County pay scale means that teachers with the same amount of experience might make very different salaries. Leyba herself faced the prospect of a lower ceiling on her salary when her building principal asked her to switch from a first grade to a second grade classroom because first-grade teachers are more in demand.

“Even though I knew this was a crazy system, it really hurt to feel like my value had gone down in the eyes of my principal,” she said.

What could Colorado do to get more of today’s inexperienced teachers to become tomorrow’s veteran educators?

Money is a big part of the answer. As it stands, Colorado teachers can earn significantly more money by moving to another state, and with teacher salaries less competitive here than elsewhere, teachers also look to other professions that offer less stress along with better pay.

“The No. 1 thing we should do is increase the prestige and value of teachers in society, and the way we signal that in our society is through salary and compensation,” Atteberry said. “That has a huge influence on who goes into the profession and on who stays.

“This is not an easy change because it costs a lot of money, and it also requires us to change how we think about teachers, but it is the policy that would be most effective.”

Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this story.

 

Miseducation

Promising students in Detroit lack access to high-level AP classes that are common in suburban schools

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Madinah Hart, second from right, is taking four AP courses at Renaissance High School this year because "it allows me to be more advanced when I get to college." Most Detroit high school students do not have access to AP classes.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

It was Spirit Week at Renaissance High School, and students in Adam Alster’s sixth-hour Advanced Placement physics class were dressed up as senior citizens and babies. But as Alster reviewed the finer points of velocity graphs, students took notes and asked questions without seeming to notice their classmates’ silly outfits. There was work to do.

Advanced Placement courses — known as APs — offer some of the most challenging curriculum available to high schoolers in the United States, so much so that many colleges offer credits worth thousands of dollars to students who can master the material. Students in this classroom were keenly aware that their work here would provide a springboard toward a college degree.

They were aware, too, that Renaissance is an island of opportunity in Detroit, where most high schoolers don’t have the same access to AP courses as their peers across the state.

“Some of my friends at other schools, they said, ‘We don’t have AP classes at all,’” said Cierra Cox, a senior who plans to study neuroscience in college. “I was like, ‘What, that’s crazy!’ You should have the right to be able to challenge yourself and see how far you can go with a given subject.”

But her friends are not outliers. About half of Detroit’s high schools, both district and charter, offered no AP classes in 2015-16, according to data that city schools reported to the federal government.

In Detroit schools that offered AP courses, only 10 percent of students were enrolled. That’s compared to neighboring Grosse Pointe, on the other side of one of the starkest socioeconomic borders in America, where 38 percent of high schoolers are enrolled in the higher-level courses.

The federal education data, newly compiled by ProPublica in an interactive database, sheds light on a stunning gap in the opportunities available to Michigan students depending on where they attend school.

While the data will come as no surprise to educators in Detroit, it makes clear the depth of the challenge they face as they attempt to expand AP access in the city.

“There is not equitable access,” said Zach Sweet, a former AP teacher at Renaissance who is now working with the city district on an ambitious plan to offer APs at all of its roughly two dozen high schools.

AP courses in academic subjects from physics to history to art offer curriculum so challenging that it’s considered on par with college coursework. Educators say by that offering AP courses — and preparing students to take them — schools are taking powerful steps to prepare students for higher learning.

However, years of financial challenges, relentless student turnover, and disappointing test scores in both district and charter schools have put APs out of reach for most schools in Detroit, where eight in 10 students are black and over half of all students are from low-income families.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Adam Alster reviews velocity graphs with his 6th-hour AP Physics class at Renaissance High School.

Schools in the city are already under extreme pressure to increase their lowest-in-the-nation test scores, making them less likely to focus on their top students, said Agustin Arbulu, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

“You’re really fighting to meet certain score levels that the state has set,” he said. “And when you look at scores, what do you look at? The median. So you put your dollars there.”

What’s more, AP courses take extra time and money, two things that have been in short supply in city schools that have spent much of the recent decades fending off one crisis after another.

College Board, the non-profit that certifies the rigor of AP courses and administers exams that measure whether students have mastered the material, estimates that it costs between $2,000 and $10,000 to start a new AP course, depending on the subject. Most of the money goes to up-front costs like textbooks and scientific equipment, while some pays to train teachers who are new to the advanced curriculum.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who assumed control of the city’s main district last year, has sought to expand access to higher-level courses like APs. And Renaissance is serving as a de facto campaign headquarters.

With more than one in five of its students enrolled in at least one AP class in 2015-16, it was already beating the state average for AP access, but its AP program is growing quickly. Over the last year, it added an AP computer science course, and the number of AP exams passed by Renaissance students increased from 52 to 118.

At the same time, Renaissance students took but did not pass many more exams, mirroring national trends. Across the country, more black and Hispanic students are taking AP courses and exams every year, but many of them don’t earn passing scores. That means they’re not getting the financial or placement benefits that AP exams could confer, and research is inconclusive about whether their participation has benefits at all.

Kahlid Ali, who took several AP courses at Renaissance before graduating in June, said he benefited from the AP push. Ali, 18, is a standout student: Though just a freshman at Wayne State University, he’s already guaranteed admission into the university’s medical school through a scholarship program.

But it’s not the three AP tests he passed that are helping him most in his transition to college: It’s the one he failed.

Even as he admits that he didn’t study hard enough for the AP Chemistry exam his junior year, Ali says the concepts he learned are giving him a leg up.

“Although I didn’t do well on the test, I learned the lessons,” he said. “To be in college without any APs, you’d really be at a disadvantage.”

His experience is why leaders in the Detroit Public Schools Community District are hoping to spread the strategies that increased AP course access at Renaissance. They’ve asked Sweet to leave his classroom at Renaissance and help train educators to teach higher-level courses and recruit students to take them.

The challenge ahead is sweeping, according to Sweet. “What it would take for this to be successful in DPSCD is a far greater support system, if teachers had great professional development and mentors they could work with regularly,” he said.

For two years, teachers at Renaissance have received regular trainings on AP through a grant from the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit that is also supporting AP programs at two other district schools. The district is also working on a broader plan to increase AP enrollment.

Kevin Smith, a teacher at Renaissance, said AP programs can’t be expanded without extra support for teachers. “I had to start thinking on a different level,” he said of his first year teaching AP Economics.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Kevin Smith, an AP Economics teacher at Renaissance High School, said teaching the higher-level courses is more challenging.

Once teachers are trained to offer higher-level courses, Sweet is confident that the district can convince students to sign up. Soon, students will begin hearing this message from their peers. Sweet won a $2,000 grant to send his former students to schools across the district to evangelize about AP courses.

Alster, Renaissance’s AP physics teacher, says the number of students taking the AP course and passing the test has “dramatically increased,” an improvement he credits in part to improved salesmanship.

“We’ve been stressing the importance of AP, and how valuable it is,” he said. “Over the long run, this experience is going to pay off.”

A district-wide curriculum overhaul could help, too. A month into the school year, Alster says teachers in the science department at Renaissance are convinced that a new science curriculum being piloted this year at some schools is much stronger, and will produce juniors who are better prepared for AP-level work.

Sitting in a circle with economics textbooks on their laps, four juniors at Renaissance said higher-level courses should be available to every student in Detroit. Without challenging courses, they worried they wouldn’t be able to meet their life goals. Two wanted to be surgeons — orthopedic and cardiovascular — and all planned to apply to selective schools like Spelman College or the University of Michigan. Among them, they planned to take more than a dozen AP courses before graduation.

“I think it should be offered to everyone,” said Madinah Hart, of advanced coursework.

“It helps a lot,” said Natasha Rice.

Caitlyn Cutler agreed: “Everybody should get the opportunity to get that step ahead.”