When push comes to shove: Does AT take too much pride in its high AP enrollment?

As students dive deeper into a difficult semester of AP classes, debates remain over whether AT’s secure focus on AP creates too strong of a push on students. Despite having lost its standing in the top six percent of schools nationally for the number of students taking AP classes, AT has seen its numbers rebound this school year after a stark drop from last year. 

Assistant principal Michael Warren cited that out of just under 2,000 students, 727 are enrolled in at least one AP class. The school has 1525 total enrollments in AP classes and expects 1049 tests to be taken in May.

Warren said that this was an increase from 2020, in which AT’s AP numbers had taken a tumble. In addition, he said he foresees an increase in the rate of students receiving a three or higher on the AP test, which is the score needed to earn college credit at Illinois universities and considered passing.

 “I’m expecting a rebound,” he said. “We had a rebound in enrollment as well. Our enrollment numbers dipped in AP last year too and they’re higher.”

Warren described the AP program in District 88 as a positive asset to the school.

“I think we offer a really robust catalog. For the most part if there’s student interest we run it,” he said. 

As a former AP biology teacher, Warren discussed the vast benefits of AP from an ethical appeal.

“I was an AP teacher for 18 years, and I know that AP offers a lot of positives. There’s skills it gives kids; at the end it gives kids confidence about being able to tackle that difficult curriculum, and helps kids figure out time management and executive functioning before they go on to college and they’re paying for it,” he said.

Guidance counselor and AP coordinator Sofia Daly also mentioned confidence as an important part of AP.

“We do want to encourage them [students] to challenge themselves,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just the fear of the unknown and we’re hoping that they are gonna take a chance on themselves.”

Despite the staff’s affirmative praise of the school’s handling of the AP system, many students have reported facing struggles with taking AP classes. Many have cited feeling shoved into difficult classes without being able to handle them. 

“I took APUSH sophomore year, without knowing what I was getting into,”said senior Emilee Groer. “I was behind in class, while the upperclassmen knew all the answers from taking previous AP classes. I was told to enroll in that class by my freshman teachers.”

In addition, students who have been struggling to the point of failure in these classes reported that when they went to the counselor’s office, they were unable to drop them.

“The process to drop an AP class is extremely hard,” said Groer. “When I wanted to drop APUSH, I had to wait until second semester, and my counselor told me I had to talk to my teacher. Then my mom needed to email my counselor and talk to the deans because they would not allow me to drop it. The process was extremely long,” she said.

Warren did not feel that failure in AP classes was as present as many students described.

“While I don’t have explicit data for AP classes, I will tell you that my hypothesis is that 95 plus percent of the students are likely passing those [AP] classes just based on trends of overall failure rates. AP classes tend to have a lower failure rate,” he said.

Daly said that while she doesn’t ever force AP on students, she will give them encouragement to stay in difficult classes. 

“We feel a sense of responsibility that our students should be successful in all of the classes that they take and that we as counselors have guided them in the best direction,” she said. “I don’t think that my colleagues force students to take AP classes. I certainly do not. If a student is nervous, I could see a nudge. I wouldn’t say pressure, but just a nudge.” 

She added that students may oftentimes not know what’s best for them.

“I know that this is the time of the year where there is a lot of student burnout, and I want to make sure that they’re not making that decision based on how they feel at this moment, but rather on whether this is going to be the long term decision that they’re most comfortable with,” sai Daly.

Warren stressed that decisions are always made with students in mind.

“The priorities of the district are to get kids college and career ready,” he said.

However, students like Groer suspect other motives are in play.

“I feel like AT cares more about having more kids in AP classes than having them actually succeed. They continue to push more kids to take harder classes without the child fully understanding what they are getting themselves into,” she Groer.

Warren, a first year staff member at AT, responded to news of these claims by saying that he has not encouraged anybody to prioritize reputation in his time in the position.

“I think previous years versus this year might be a little different in how that was handled,” he said.  I don’t. [try to make AT’s numbers look better]  I can’t  speak to the past, but my message will be to appropriately pace kids to meet their personal and family goals while pushing college and career readiness.”

Daly agreed.

“I mean, I don’t make the decisions. I don’t think that would be fair. It wouldn’t be beneficial if you’re keeping a student in [an AP class] who is not being successful,” she said.

Daly described her general process for trying to help kids take challenging classes without doing too much as a system heavily based on teacher recommendations. She also mentioned that students receiving As and Bs in core classes are typically encouraged to bump up while students receiving Ds in AP classes are typically encouraged to take core.

Daly also stated that teacher recommendations are a big part of the decision of where to place students, but the counselor’s office maintains the standard practice of letting students have the final say.

Ultimately it’s their decision,” said Daly. 

For students like Groer, the push may feel more like a shove.

“I feel like the school pushes the child sometimes to take it and goes a little over the line at times. The school doesn’t always handle it the right way when they get the answer ‘no’ about taking an AP class.”

Warren wants to uphold the strong AP program in the future by continuing to uphold its goal of giving kids a chance to try difficult curriculum.

“We more or less have open enrollment,” he said. “We’ve removed a lot of barriers to AP. If you profess interest in it, we’re gonna give you a shot.”

He added that colleges see a positive difference in GPA for students who took AP classes in high school, even for kids who took a one or a two on the AP test, and that these scores still lead to greater success beyond high school.

 “85% of selective colleges say AP impacts enrollment favorably. Even for kids who struggle through the class because it’s tough and may not get a three or higher on the test, according to the college board, a score of two or higher is actually ready for college work and that a three shows the greater academic success,” said Warren.

Daly said she could foresee improvement by following the successes of other high schools through the implementation of new options, such as an honors level track for classes which only offer core and AP. 

“I feel like the AP teachers here do a really nice job of making their class accessible to everyone but I think there would be some benefits to having those three options but I think the school has thought about it and opted to keep it this way for whatever reasons.”

AT will look to analyze processes and numbers after this AP season to continue to improve the program.

+ posts