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Advanced Placement for all

How one school district ensures all its students can access—and succeed!—in AP courses.

5 min read




Long Beach Unified School District offers an “open access” Advanced Placement program. This is an important initiative at Jordan High School where 80% of students receive free or reduced lunch and many of our students are among the first in their families to go to college. We have also made it a goal for 50% of our 11th- and 12th-grade students to take one AP course before graduating. We move closer to that goal each year.

I work closely with students, our school team and the community to build awareness and foster support for students who might not otherwise participate in AP courses. I organize practice test sessions, run professional development for teachers, and provide information and support for parents. I also actively recruit new students by visiting classes to give presentations about the program and inviting teachers to see the work we are doing.

The program is not without its hurdles. Common challenges include students juggling after-school jobs, family responsibilities and heavy AP workloads; limited parental engagement; and lack of internet access. We combat these issues by creating an ecosystem that promotes AP course participation. Here are some of the key tools and strategies we use:

The AP Café is a dedicated student space at our school with flexible seating, whiteboards and computers. No coffee is served but the café gives students a place where they study, get tutoring, complete make-up work, sign out a Chromebook or print out an assignment. Or, they can decompress and play some Uno. The goal is to foster a sense of community and let students know they have a place to get help if they need it.

Digital learning resources are a good way to augment classroom instruction and help students prepare for the AP exams. Some of our favorites include:

  • Shmoop. This tool has been key in helping us boost AP test pass rates. All AP students have access to Shmoop’s premium AP course content which includes diagnostic tests and skill drills. Working through these exercises helps students build confidence. Some have earned a 3 out of 5 on the practice test after just the first semester—that goes a long way toward helping them believe they can succeed on the year-end AP exam. We use Shmoop’s points calculator to increase motivation. The more time students spend on Shmoop, the more points—or “Shmoints”—they can win. Shmoints can be used to buy “Shmerchandise” such as stress balls, pens and earbuds.
  • Khan Academy. AP Calculus and AP Computer Science teachers have integrated Khan Academy into their curriculum, assigning sections for classwork and homework. They also use it for tutoring and to provide extra help when students are stuck on a concept. Some teachers also use it for growth mindset lessons.
  • Quizlet. We use Quizlet to support our AP English and AP History students. We use the free version to help them study vocabulary and key terms and the paid version for AP practice and test prep tutorials. This year, many teachers have elected to put students in need-based groups for test prep tutorials. They are using Quizlet to manage the groups and post assignments, such as quizzes and drills.
  • Google Classroom. Some teachers use Google Classroom to differentiate instruction, assign work and provide resources. Our technology teacher helps other teachers integrate additional resources, such as Flipgrid and Nearpod, right into Google Classroom while also providing teacher training for all the digital tools that support our students.

Technology access, in the form of computers and Wi-Fi, is a must. Not all students have these tools, though, so we have to get creative. At school, we have Wi-Fi available across campus and computers available to students in the AP Cafe. English language learners can sign out laptops to take them home and we are looking to expand this to more students in the future. Our local library, located near the school, also offers broadband and computer access.

Affordable exams ensure all students have opportunity to participate. LBUSD covers the majority of the exam costs. AP exams typically cost $94 each but students pay just $5 per exam, for an unlimited number of exams. This means that a student who takes five AP exams over the course of high school will pay a total of $25 instead of $470.

Creative reward programs reinforce student confidence and let the community know what great work our AP students do. Students who pass the exam with at least a 3 receive a white yard sign with the “Advanced” Panther on it; the panther is our school mascot. Those who score a perfect 5 get a blue sign that says “High Five from Jordan High School! I got a 5 on my AP Exam!”

We’re proud of our progress. From 2013-2017, the percentage of students in grades 11 and 12 that enrolled in one or more AP course increased from 34% to 46%; the number of AP exams taken increased by 87% over that same period. And several of our district high schools rank in the top 20 among California traditional high schools, for the number of African American and Latino students who pass certain AP exams.

Sondra McNair is the AP Coordinator for David Starr Jordan High School in Long Beach, Calif. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who has taught English for 20 years. You can connect with Sondra on Twitter @McNair_AP_Life.


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