About five years ago, news reports indicated that students from Hopewell Valley Regional School District passed AP exams at the highest rate of any high school in New Jersey. While many applauded our district, the Board of Education’s Education Committee, or EdComm, viewed the news with mixed feelings and questions.
Could our sensational AP scores suggest that only top students took AP exams? Perhaps it was an indicator that strict prerequisites or other factors were limiting the larger population of students from an opportunity to take AP coursework. And indeed, further research revealed that only 26 percent of graduating students had taken an AP course.
The board set aggressive targets to expand AP and Honors opportunities to students who were motivated to take more challenging coursework. We were warned that casting a wider net could result in a dip in the pass rate.
After a couple years, the district increased the number of unique students taking APs to 32 percent, or almost a third, with only a slight change in the AP pass rate. And for the last couple years, HVRSD has been named to the College Board National AP Honor Roll for expanding AP access to over half of our students achieving these honors with a 92 percent AP pass rate.
While proud of the accomplishment, EdComm once again proceeded with caution.
It is no secret that students attending competitive, high-performing schools are experiencing record levels of stress. Our objective was to expand AP/Honors course access without significantly increasing student stress levels. The key would be finding the right balance.
Throughout the period that district staff undertook the challenge of increasing AP/Honors access, they were simultaneously implementing our homework policy designed to get a handle on student work outside of school hours. AP coursework presents a unique curricular challenge given that the rigor and quantity of material covered is standardized and set nationally by the College Board. AP classes move at a quick pace and require independent research time. Our homework policy acknowledges and adjusts for increased AP course workload.
EdComm wrestled with the possibility that simultaneously expanding access to high-level courses that often require increased workloads, while also implementing procedures to get homework under control, might present a mixed message. We concluded that a thoughtful implementation of both initiatives would offer the best of both worlds.
We believe it sends the wrong message to restrict AP/Honors access for fear of increased workload stress. Rather, we offer as many student opportunities as possible while guiding families to prioritize interests.
District opportunities go beyond a wide array of AP choices. We are one of the few remaining comprehensive high schools offering curricula that promote exploration in every discipline. Examples include auto shop, home maintenance, marketing, engineering, world language, service learning, visual and performing arts. Our co-curricular choices are equally vast, and include not only top ranked athletic teams and awarding winning performing arts, but also service oriented clubs and selections for any interest imaginable including Student Council, debate, ping pong, sign language, Model UN, environmental clubs, global connections and even boat building.
With such an overwhelming number of alternatives to consider, we support students pacing themselves and choosing quality over quantity. That advice is especially true for AP course selection.
We often found that parents reporting excessive time spent on homework were the same families opting to enroll students in five or six AP courses. We recommend narrowing AP class selection based on passion for the subject matter.
Underscoring the efforts of our administrators and staff, the measurable results bear out the strategy.
For each of the last 5 years, the number of unique students taking an AP course has increased at a furious pace, while the total number of AP tests taken has increased at a modest pace.
From 2015-16 to 2016-17, we experienced a 20 percent increase in the number of students taking one or two AP courses and a 7 percent decrease in the number taking three to six.
Our conclusion is that record numbers of students take AP coursework while self-moderating the total number undertaken. Homework survey responses indicate improved comfort with workload and life balance.
High school graduation rates remain high, with 92 percent of students continuing on to college. Our university matriculation rivals most public and private area schools.
Enjoy your summer break and use it to recharge. We are mindful that students are easing into their AP summer work in preparation for the upcoming school year and look forward to seeing everyone next month.
Lisa Wolff is president of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education.