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Mary Lyon Foundation Updates

Accessibility in Advanced Placement

As is standard in schools across the country, students at MTRHS have always been assigned to Advanced Placement (AP) level courses based on teachers’ assessments of their abilities – but, what if this perceived aptitude and ability to succeed has taken an opportunity away from students that could’ve benefitted? MTRHS Director of Curriculum and Instruction Sarah Jetzon shares an initiative that has allowed students to self-select into higher demand courses, with positive results in both scores and student participation.

Beginning in 7th grade, students in West County can opt for advanced coursework that seamlessly integrates with their existing curriculum, paving the way for AP class enrollment. Primarily, this manifests as open-ended, collaborative, inquiry-based learning with multiple entry points and destinations. This can also look like different problem sets, writing prompts, or assessments. All benefit from this new structure, with peers pushing each other to achieve a higher level of understanding. Students can freely select between different levels of curriculum and assessment without being locked into one path for the entire year. With this in mind, students are able to try more demanding work with little risk, often surprising themselves and having more to celebrate when they succeed.

Once they reach 9th grade, students in every academic class can opt for more rigorous work and earn an “honors” designation, while all students continue to learn together and from each other in the same space.  Students have the opportunity to experience the course for a few weeks before opting into honors work. The curriculum is structured to be rigorous for all, with options to personalize learning for different students. This model allows students to learn from a more diverse peer group and removes barriers, such as teacher recommendations, perceived ability, social factors, or scheduling, that might otherwise impede students’ access to honors classes.

Later in their educational journey, many students now feel empowered to take an AP level course that previously might have felt out of reach. In selecting these courses, students are taking the initiative in showing confidence in their abilities, which they can always fall back on when the work inevitably gets difficult – they chose this because they knew it was within reach. Under the older method of assigned AP participation, classrooms often ended up being unintentionally tracked by socioeconomic status, but this new strategy removes many barriers. These AP classrooms offer a substantial and solid introduction to college-level instruction, with more continuous support and benchmarks in a smaller class size than colleges can offer.

To be clear, while these AP courses remain as rigorous as ever, by equipping students for success from an early stage, test scores remained steady even with increased accessibility. AP scores at MTRS continue to surpass the national average, and more than two-thirds of exam scores are 3+, the typical benchmark for college credit. A common misconception is that making AP courses open to more students has lowered the previous level of instruction, when in reality, students have risen to the challenge these rigorous courses present. These classrooms are now much more aligned with the demographics of the whole student body. The data has shown encouraging results in both educational equity and student achievement, and the educators at MTRS continue to develop this model along with other opportunities for students to define their own academic journeys.

Perhaps the most significant benefit Ms. Jetzon has seen for students goes far beyond a test score; the soft skills that students develop through these rigorous courses cannot be overstated. Hard skills, such as the ability to calculate a derivative or conjugate a verb, are enhanced by the daily skills of communication, complex thinking, organization, and the ability to operate under pressure. These AP level courses give students the tools to succeed in all areas of their lives.

Ms. Jetzon’s advice to all students is regardless of the course label on your transcript, be proud of your accomplishments. AP courses are one path that may be a good fit, but there are many ways to get to the same destination! Above all else, remember that some days will be easier or more difficult than others, but pushing yourself to accomplish more is always worth the risk. Good luck to all students taking AP exams this month, and we can’t wait to see what next year’s class will bring!