In 2009, approximately 7,000 Tennessee students with the academic preparation necessary to pass Advanced Placement (AP) exams entered high school. Four years later, only half of those students had succeeded on an AP exam, and the rates were even lower for economically disadvantaged students. Why?

AP courses are one of several early postsecondary opportunities through which students can experience college-level curriculum and potentially earn college credits while still in high school. These types of opportunities include dual enrollment and dual credit courses, as well as the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. By studying the AP pipeline in the state, we hope to identify the existing barriers and potential solutions that would expand student access to these types of rigorous courses.

When we first set out to understand the state of Advanced Placement in Tennessee, we knew that our high school students graduate having taken and passed fewer AP exams than their peers across the nation. What we didn’t know was why and how to begin thinking about solutions. The first step in the process was to identify the students who are likely to be successful on an AP exam. We found that high-achieving eighth-graders have a very high potential to earn a three or higher on an AP exam. Following this group of students, we then examined whether they had access to AP courses in their school, whether they enrolled in these courses, and whether they actually sat for the AP test.

We also looked at how these problems differed for economically disadvantaged students compared to their non-economically disadvantaged peers. At the state level we saw issues at every step along the pathway. Which led us to ask, do all schools struggle with all of these issues? Not surprisingly, the answer is “no.” Schools, like students, experience different problems that require differentiated interventions. The Office of Research and Policy’s latest research report, Advanced Placement Strategy: A Framework for Identifying School-Level Barriers to AP Success, details the issues schools encounter when moving academically prepared students along the AP pipeline, from access to success. Student-level data are used to highlight specific issues that schools face: (1) low preparation, (2) low access, (3) low enrollment, (4) differential enrollment, (5) low test-taking, and (6) differential test-taking.  The paper lays out a framework to identify where schools are experiencing difficulty moving students predicted to succeed on AP courses through the pipeline to AP success.

We know that these problems are solvable and are encouraged that many schools are succeeding at moving students through the pipeline at various points. But we still have work to do. The Tennessee Department of Education is committed to expanding early postsecondary opportunities for high school students. This is directly aligned with one of the priorities in SCORE’s 2013-14 State of Education in Tennessee report. As the report points out, “too few Tennesseans graduate high school prepared for success in college and career.”  The report also identifies that a priority for 2014 should be to “increase and expand opportunities for high school students to participate in rigorous coursework, including Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, dual credit, and dual enrollment courses.”  It is important to ensure that students have access to a diverse portfolio of early postsecondary opportunities, so they can enroll in rigorous courses that best meet their educational needs.

You can read more details in the Office of Research and Policy’s research report, Advanced Placement Strategy: A Framework for Identifying School-Level Barriers to AP Success:

This blog post was written by Emily Carter and Mary Batiwalla.

Mary Batiwalla is a Policy Analyst in the Office of Research and Policy at the Tennessee Department of Education. She has been a high school Spanish teacher in schools in Arkansas and Georgia.  Prior to her current role, Mary assisted in education research at the National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools, SCORE, and a project funded by the National Science Foundation studying the effectiveness of mentoring for beginning middle school math teachers. She completed a Master of Public Policy at Peabody College of Education, Vanderbilt University.