If the same words are repeated over and over again, they begin to be taken as true. “Failing public schools” are such words. I see them written and hear them spoken by legislators, journalists, and commentators who probably have not been in a public school in the decades since they attended one or never because they were educated in private schools.
Looking at who is taking Advanced Placement courses and how those students are faring is one of many ways to bring the term “failing public schools” into question. The number of high school students taking Advanced Placement exams increased in 2016, and more of the test takers were from low-income families, according to the College Board’s annual report on the Advanced Placement program. More than 1.1 million high school students took at least one Advanced Placement course during high school, 25,000 more than in 2015. That means that of the 3.1 million students who graduated from high school in 2016, more than 20% of them earned a score of 3 or better on an AP exam. Scoring a 3 allowed them to gain college credit at most colleges and universities.
The increase in the number of test-takers from low-income families continues a trend. In 2003, just over 94,000 students from low-income families took an AP exam; whereas, in 2016, 554,500 students from low-income families took at least one AP exam. Those who believe public schools are failing probably think that increasing the number of test-takers, especially low-income students from urban schools, would lower the overall performance on the AP tests. Not so. The average scores on all AP exams have held steady. In fact, the average score was actually higher in 2016 than in 2003 when far fewer students took AP exams. As Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute said recently, “The fact that 1 in 5 public school graduates passed an AP exam in 2016 pushes back against the ‘public schools are failing’ narrative.”
So, the public schools in urban areas, where the increased population of test-takers is coming from, are doing good work in challenging students to learn. The students have performed well on AP exams and gained college credits for their efforts.
But what are those in power doing to foster that positive growth?
Those in power are working hard to end that trend.
Low-income students are in danger of not being able to take AP exams and gain college credits because they cannot afford the cost of taking AP exams now in 2017 and in the future. A federal grant program that subsidized AP exams for low income students has ended. It was replaced in the Every Student Succeeds Act by a block grant program in which the funds given to states do not have to be used to subsidize the cost of taking AP exams in the future, and the grants are not available at all for this 2016-2017 school year.
This creates a problem for cities like Worcester, Massachusetts. Under the leadership of Maureen Binienda, the Superintendent of Schools, high school students have been encouraged to challenge themselves by taking AP courses. She said that emphasizing rigorous academic course offerings has changed the culture of the city’s high schools. Last year, low-income Worcester students, utilizing the federal subsidy, took 1, 919 AP exams. The fee for taking an AP exam is $93.00; with the subsidy, students paid $15.00 per exam. This year, with no federal subsidy, low-income students will be required to pay the College Board reduced fee of $53. That College Board discounted price is still too expensive for many families in Worcester. Ms. Binienda appealed to the state legislature for funds, but the legislators could not help and suggested she try local businesses.
Appealing to private citizens and businesses is exactly what the state of Washington did. Washington state officials became concerned that low-income students, due to the removal of federal subsidies, will not be able to take AP exams so they set up an emergency fund to raise $800,000. That fund would allow low-income students to keep paying $15 per test. Microsoft, Boeing, the Shultz Family Foundations, other corporations, individuals, and nonprofits contributed to the emergency fund. The state legislature appropriated $75, 000. The result was that more than the $800,000 was raised, and low income students will take their 2017 AP exams for free.
In Connecticut, the state is picking up the costs for this one year only to provide subsidies for all of the low-income students taking AP exams but with no promise of future funding by the state.
So there we have it. One state is fully funding the subsidies. In another state, private citizens and corporations are providing the subsidies. And in a third state, low-income students currently have no funding to take AP exams and earn college credits.
That is the wave of the future. Each state for itself. Each state will decide for itself who gets access to college credits through AP courses. Each state will decide for itself what students receive services for special needs. Each state will decide for itself about providing vouchers for segregated schools.
We have a Secretary of Education who said at her confirmation hearing that she does not support equal accountability for all schools. We have a President who said that a model school, one that is worthy of taxpayer support through vouchers, is one in which the students pledge allegiance to the Bible. We have a bill proposed in Congress (HR610) which will give block grants to the states to use as each state wishes rather than for specified and uniform standards for special education, integration, or equal access to challenging courses and qualifying exams for college credit. In fact, the grants, according to HR610, do not have to be used for public education at all and will provide taxpayer money for vouchers to totally unaccountable private schools. Shame on us.
It is not the schools that are failing our children. It is the adults with political power who are failing our schools.