College Board cool to AP course in African-American history

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The Pittsburgh Public Schools has a proposal for addressing the chronic under-representation of minority students in Advanced Placement courses, but the group that runs the college-credit program isn't warming to the idea.

Linda Lane, deputy superintendent for instruction, assessment and accountability, wants to create an AP African-American history course, believing it will help awaken minority students to the black community's tradition of scholarship and fuel their interest in traditional advanced placement courses, such as calculus, chemistry and physics.

"I know the College Board is not on board yet, but we'll keep the conversation going," Dr. Lane said, noting she's received enthusiastic responses when she's mentioned the idea to counterparts in other urban districts.

The College Board, the New York-based nonprofit group that operates advanced placement, said it has no plans to develop an African-American history course.

Advanced placement courses enable students to earn college credits while still in high school

Trevor Packer, vice president in charge of the program, said the vast majority of the organization's 5,200 members want the board to continue focusing on basic courses that many students face as college freshmen. Members are mostly colleges, universities and high schools and include Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Dr. Lane called that a "narrow view," saying, "The College Board knows as well as we do in Pittsburgh that they have some data that is not very positive about diversity of student enrollment in AP." To reverse the trend, she said, "We may have to look at some things we haven't done before."

John Deasy, superintendent of Prince George's County Public Schools, Maryland's second-largest school district, said he, too, is interested in an advance placement African-American history course. Dr. Deasy said he wants to give students the opportunity to explore an interest in African-American history the way they do traditional advanced placement subjects but won't push hard for the course right away.

"This would have to come after we've seen success in basic AP," said Dr. Deasy, who's planning a major expansion of the program in his predominately black district.

Even if the board accepted the idea, the new course could be years away.

Developing a curriculum and an exam takes extensive, costly research and consultation with institutions of higher learning, Mr. Packer said. Schools may use the board's curriculum as a model for their courses, but the schools' offerings must be approved by the board before being labeled advanced placement. All schools must use the AP exam.

The AP program now offers courses in 37 subject areas, including math, science, the arts, English, social studies and foreign language. If they do well on the AP exam, students get credit for the course at many colleges and universities, giving them immediate entree to higher-level courses on campus.

That isn't the only benefit. According to research cited by the College Board, students who did well on an AP exam take a greater number of advanced courses in the same subject area once they're on a college or university campus, and score higher on those courses, than peers who did not go through advanced placement -- important considerations given concerns about America's overall performance in math and science.

Black students represented 13.7 percent of the nation's graduating seniors in public high schools in 2006 but accounted for only 6.9 percent of those who took AP exams last year, according to figures cited by the College Board. The board says Native Americans also are under-represented nationwide, with Hispanic students under-represented in some states.

But progress is being made, Mr. Packer said. Since 2002, according to data he provided, enrollment growth has been higher among groups of black, Hispanic, Asian and low-income students than among white students.

The Pittsburgh district has 10 high schools, with the proportion of black students ranging from 35 percent at Carrick to 99.6 percent at Westinghouse. The schools offer varying numbers of AP courses, with only one at Westinghouse.

While the district has provided conflicting numbers on advanced placement enrollment, Superintendent Mark Roosevelt cited the following figures when he unveiled his "Excellence for All" plan last year: Of the 361 district students who took AP courses in 2005-06, only 62, or 17 percent, were black.

He set a goal of about 150 black students in AP courses by 2008-09.

The district has long had an African-American history course, but the district is retooling it and Dr. Lane sees advanced placement status as one improvement. If black students like the course and do well in it, she said, they might be inclined to try the traditional AP courses.

She acknowledged that the district must take other steps to boost minority-enrollment in advanced placement, such as middle-grade curriculum improvements to better prepare students for AP courses.

Alvin Thornton, associate provost at Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the nation's historically black universities, agreed that an African-American history course alone wouldn't have a lasting increase on minority enrollment in AP.

A former chairman of Prince George's County school board and the Maryland Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence, Dr. Thornton said a district must have broad outreach to minority students, helping them understand long before high school that they are "intellectual beings" expected to excel in rigorous courses.

The College Board says it has helped districts take that approach by offering pre-AP materials to get students geared up for the program.

The board's other efforts to boost minority enrollment include "fellows grants" to train teachers from low-income, predominately minority schools; start-up grants for AP programs in such schools; the AP Arts Initiative in six urban districts nationwide; and the "National Equity Colloquium" to offer teachers, counselors and principals recruitment strategies.

Dr. Lane said the district has not implemented pre-AP materials and does not believe the district has received teacher training or start-up awards from AP.


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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