How Do You Grow a Rigorous AP Program?

The easy answer to this question is great curriculum and great teaching.  In practice, though, as many of us have experienced, it’s not so simple.  When students enter high school, most of their teachers know very little about the schools and teachers they came from, much less the ever-changing curricula and programs cycled through over the years.  This makes it really difficult to diagnose students and identify all the blind and bright spots walking into the door on day one of an AP course.

As a charter, we have the autonomy to have more control over our curriculum and the size of our schools, so creating change on our smaller scale was easier than it might be for some schools or districts.  At the same time, we have far fewer resources than larger districts and we now have over 8,000 students and almost 500 teachers, so growing a rigorous program while maintaining quality have been quite a challenge. 

Here are the principles we’ve followed that have helped us not only maintain, but increase our AP success as we grow:

  • Alignment to AP from 6th grade on – We wanted everything that was covered in 6th – 12th grades to be aligned to AP exams.  Our math and social studies departments did this first and it’s a task that took about 7 years to put in place for all content areas.  This has been critical to our students’ success in AP courses as well as in college.  Before we aligned the curriculum to AP, students that passed Pre-Calculus were not necessarily ready for AP Calculus the next year.  With all the alignment and standardization in place, passing Pre-Cal now tells the student and the teacher that they are ready for AP Calculus.  This reliable readiness level now holds for many of our courses as our curriculum continues to strengthen.


  • Teachers own the curriculum – We’ve found a lot of success having the teachers be the ones hashing out the curriculum, creating the assessments, and revising both regularly, in order for them to be truly effective and responsive to student learning.  For example, in some middle school math units we found that students were mastering certain skills, but not necessarily the concepts behind them.  Armed with that information, our course and content leaders were able to rally the teachers to revise the curriculum and assessments to emphasize discourse and critical thinking and discourage the use of step-by-step methods of solving problems.


  • Transparency with the data – AP results tend to get buried by schools. This is in part because AP results usually look depressing.  For example, 30% of seniors passing AP English doesn’t sound so great even though it’s actually an outstanding statistic.  Once we started sharing the data openly and everyone knew the numbers, it was easy to get people to rally around specific goals.  We also correlate every common assessment score to an AP equivalent score so that even 6th graders know if they’re on track.  Even if the numbers don’t always look pretty, we know what we’ve achieved in the past so we can set realistic, rigorous targets to hit each year.


  • Prioritizing collaboration – Each of our courses has a Course Leader (a full time teacher who supports & coordinates their content team) and regular content team meetings where teachers collaborate, walk through curriculum, create materials, and score assessments together.  There is so much alignment on what happens in every AP class through this collaboration that even a brand new teacher is able to teach the AP class similarly to a veteran teacher.  This collaboration / alignment / standardization has allowed us to have a ‘floor’ for the success of AP at every campus.  No matter who teaches the course, we know a certain percentage of students will pass the course and exam because we know they’ve been properly prepared in all grade levels and we know that our AP course content is comprehensive and reliable.  And as teachers gain experience, they are able to raise the ‘floor’ of their students’ success every year.


  • Strategically scheduling students in AP courses – We’re neither 100% open enrollment nor very restrictive on whom takes an AP course; we’re a strategic in-between.  We have enough data now that we could limit enrollment in AP English, for example, to only students that will pass for sure.  This would make our passing rates look outstanding but it would mean that many fewer kids would have the opportunity of passing the course.  On the other hand, we also do not encourage 100% of the students to take AP because that leads to the tendency to water down the curriculum.  This leads to many students passing the course but not the exam – not a good experience for anyone.  So, we purposefully encourage students that have shown potential but aren’t necessarily guaranteed to pass the exam.  Our passing rates may not look as high, but the total number of students preparing for and passing AP exams is much higher.

Here are our recent results, based on these principles:

In 2013, YES Prep had 67% of its graduating seniors pass at least one AP exam. This places YES Prep as one of the top school districts in the entire state of Texas.  For comparison, across Texas 5% of African-American, 16% of Hispanic, 46% of Asian, and 21% of white graduating seniors passed at least one AP exam, according the to 9th Annual AP report to the Nation. 

This table provides our own data and analysis:

In order to determine if our AP program is more successful now than in the past, we devised a new metric called “AP Exams Passed per Grade Level 10-12”. This metric normalizes the results by accounting for the growth that the district is experiencing; it assumes most students take AP exams in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade.  As we can see from the table, in 2010 we had 15 AP exams passed per grade level, while in 2013 we have 30 AP exams passed per grade level. 

We also look at the data with and without our AP Spanish results.  Since many of our students are native speakers, we have a lot of success on those exams and so we have to look at the passing rates without AP Spanish in order to get a realistic view of our success. Overall, this data suggests that our success in AP is outpacing our literal, physical growth at YES Prep.  We’re also excited that we had over 1,000 qualifying scores this year!

Our challenge now is to stay true to these principles as our current schools grow to capacity and we open 6 more schools in Houston as well as schools in Memphis starting in 2015.  It will definitely mean prioritizing our curriculum and teacher leadership as we grow and we think we're ready for that challege!

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