A political cartoon, one depicting the labor-capitalist struggle of the Gilded Age, has the attention of an Advanced Placement U.S. history class at Metro’s Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet School on a recent afternoon.
“What is the cartoonist’s message?” asks teacher Mary Catherine Bradshaw, as her 25 high school juniors give their best guesses. “Is he promoting labor or is he promoting the life of a tycoon, an industrialist, a capitalist?”
Synthesizing primary sources like this 1870s-era sketch carries huge weight in the written portion of the upcoming AP history test, taken each spring. Stakes are high: If students score a 3 or above on the 1-5 scoring rubric, college credit and more attractive college resumes are rewards. Practice is the only way to get there.
Queen Stevenson, a student in this MLK class, said her AP teachers hold her to a level of “maturity and responsibility” she doesn’t find in less rigorous honors or traditional classes. And here, at this top-tier Metro high school, taking the AP test in May is an expectation. For these students, eyes are set on scores.
“I’m hoping to get a 5 on all three,” said student Guangze Zheng, whose portfolio of AP classes also includes English and calculus. “But a 4 would be fine, too.”
Based on the school’s history, there’s a good chance these MLK students will earn the lofty scores they covet. Last year, MLK students produced a total of 526 scores of 3 or above on their spring AP exams, second only to Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School, which generated an impressive 852 scores at that level.
But at Metro’s other comprehensive high schools, the story is dramatically different when it comes to AP, a program the national College Board oversees, widely recognized as a key indicator of higher-education performance.
Pearl-Cohn and Stratford high schools produced just one AP test apiece with a score of 3 or higher. Whites Creek High School generated four such test scores; at Maplewood, there were five; Cane Ridge, 12; Antioch, 17; Hunters Lane, 21. John Overton, Hillsboro and McGavock highs schools performed better than most, with students producing respective totals of 132, 81 and 77 scores of 3 or better on AP tests.
Comparing the performance of Nashville’s traditional high schools with Metro’s two academic magnet schools — which accept students based on GPA and TCAP scores, and a lucky lottery number — is inherently unfair, of course. Division is a part of the system.
Nonetheless, the sheer disparity in AP success, an achievement gap that seems to be widening, has caught the attention of members of the Metro Nashville Board of Education, who pressed school officials on the matter in January. Concerns come at a critical time for AP in Nashville, as Metro school officials ramp up a college dual-enrollment option, which they say will take the place of AP for many students.
“My main concern is I don’t think you should have to go to a magnet school to get a high academic education,” said school board member Kay Simmons, whose district includes affluent neighborhoods in West Nashville. “I think there are people who do not get into magnets, and they feel like they need to go to private schools. I think we’re doing those students a disservice if we can’t offer high-quality academic programs in zoned schools.
“I don’t believe that’s indication of the ability,” Simmons said of the disparity in AP scores based on particular schools. “I believe that’s an indication of the student expectations. We don’t offer as many AP classes, for one thing, and we don’t encourage students to take AP at certain schools.”
Increasingly, many are asking whether Metro’s public schools give equal opportunity for high-performing students to succeed. Apart from actual AP test performance, advanced students have few options at several comprehensive high schools.
Hume-Fogg offers an assortment of AP classes totaling 25, and MLK boasts 22 such courses. But at Pearl-Cohn, the school’s brightest students only have five AP courses to choose from. Stratford and Whites Creek high schools offer seven AP courses. At Maplewood, there are nine AP courses, and at Hillsboro there are 11.
Jay Steele, the district’s associate superintendent of high schools, told school board members that enough of students at a given high school have to be interested in a particular AP course to make it cost-effective to offer it. AP offerings are based on surveys that evaluate need and interest at each school, which changes annually.
“It’s difficult to run a class of five students,” Steele said. “You just can’t do that with today’s budgetary environment.”
If a school doesn’t offer a particular AP course, the district is beginning to instruct the subject online, he said. “Our first AP computer science course ran virtually this year with students from all over the district, and it was a great success,” he said. “We hope to continue that and add to that catalogue of Advanced Placement courses.”
But Steele also said “AP is not for everyone,” adding that he expects more and more Metro students to turn to college dual enrollment, which Metro school officials are aggressively pushing as an alternative “accelerated option.”
Partnering with area community colleges and universities, the district’s dual-enrollment program lets 11th- and 12th-grade students take college-level courses — sometimes taught by college professors — during the school day, online, in evening hours or in the summer. Students must maintain a grade of C or better to obtain college credit at state universities in Tennessee.
Metro has dual-enrollment agreements with Nashville State and Volunteer State community colleges, Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee Technical Center. The district is in discussions with Fisk and Austin Peay State universities, according to Michelle Wilcox, the district’s executive director of high schools. Classes are tailored to be financially affordable.
“I think you’re going to see in the next two or three years a decrease in the number of kids taking AP courses and an increase in the number of kids taking dual-enrollment courses,” he said.
Steele’s projection would reverse a trend, however. AP coursework is popular.
Metro’s participation in AP mushroomed in 2011, with 7,074 students enrolling in an AP class, up from 4,838 students in 2008. But school officials are finding it more difficult to get students to actually take the test at the end of the year. Only 56 percent of 2011 AP students took the AP test. Seventy-three percent of AP students took the final exam four years ago.
Sharon Chaney, Metro’s coordinator of advanced academics, said for the first time the district created a “contract” in which AP students — and their parents — pledged to take their relevant AP test in spring. The contract isn’t binding.
Part of the issue in getting students to take the test is cost. Students are required to pay $87 to the College Board to take each test, but a $30 waiver is available to low-income students. Many students also opt out of the test if they don’t believe they will score well, school officials say.
Research underscores the importance of offering AP courses or other advanced work. According to a recent study in the American Educational Research Journal, rigorous coursework improves college readiness, especially for economically disadvantaged and minority students. But in Nashville, the schools with the fewest AP courses have large populations of both demographics.
Steele, who arrived in the school district in 2009, said Metro is trying to do a better job informing students of their accelerated options: AP, dual-enrollment, and International Baccalaureate, which is available to students at only three high school clusters, Hillsboro, Hunters Lane and Hillwood. He said Hunters Lane students have launched a “marketing campaign” to increase awareness of academic options to their peers. That there’s a disparity in AP success among Metro’s schools is something Steele pins largely on the academic-magnet system. Still, he seems to recognize it’s a problem.
“Unfortunately, some of the most focused, cream-of-the-crop students choose to go to the magnets, and we understand that,” Steele said. “That leaves a culture at a lot of our schools that’s not a college culture. So, that’s why we’ve put it as a priority this year to build that college culture and raise aspirations and awareness of all the students in those zoned high schools.
“It’s not fair to those students,” Steele told school board members. “They’re not getting the same opportunities.”