MBUSD students’ AP scores confound expectations
by Mark McDermott
Mira Costa High School students are pulling off an unlikely academic feat, according to a report given to the Manhattan Beach Unified School District Board of Education last week.
More students are taking Advanced Placement coursework, which usually means a lower percentage score well on AP testing. But since 2009, Mira Costa has seen increases both in the number of students taking AP courses and in the percentage of those scoring a passing grade.
Dr. Chad Mabery, MBUSD’s director of data, assessment, and professional development, gave a report on Advanced Placement exams at the school board’s Aug. 16 meeting that showed growth across the board. In 2009, 1,278 AP tests were taken at Mira Costa with 75 percent scoring a passing rate. Last year, 2074 AP tests were taken and 82 percent passed.
But what board members and Superintendent Mike Matthews were most enthused about was another set of numbers. Since 2010, the year Matthews arrived, the number of students taking AP coursework has jumped from 669 to 986 last year.
“So we are getting more kids to take [AP classes], and more kids successful,” Mabery said. “Those are incredible numbers over that time span.”
Among the board’s goals has been to have every student who goes directly from Mira Costa to a 4-year college to have taken at least one AP class. According to data from the National Clearinghouse, nearly 64 percent of Mira Costa seniors enroll in a 4-year college within one year of graduating. Last year’s data shows the number of students who successfully took an AP course (meaning scoring a 3 or higher on AP exams) was 64.5 percent — up from 47 percent in 2011. It was the first year the goal was achieved.
“I think the point we made early on when we set this goal is it’s not so much we want students taking more AP classes as that there was this big crunch of students who didn’t want to try it,” said board member Bill Fournell, who later added that the increased pass rate was a somewhat unexpected bonus. “We would have been okay if the pass rate had gone down if more students were taking AP, because it’s putting them in a college setting.”
Matthews said school counselors discourage students from taking three and sometimes four AP courses due to the stress it causes.
“Three is a full time college load,” Matthews said. “Four is more than a college student takes…We are discouraging that, and some students aren’t listening, and we respect that, too, and we get it — we know it’s a weird world out there and the competitive nature of college…We know that exists.”
Matthews wasn’t speaking hypothetically. In fact, he was looking, somewhat playfully, right across the dais. Student board member Keeli Hartley had earlier admitted that she was enrolled in four AP courses this upcoming year.
“I’m feeling like dropping one of those,” she said, laughing.
The uptick in student participation in AP coursework since Matthew’s’ arrival isn’t a coincidence. As a 2010 Easy Reader story showed, encouraging AP studies has been part of his mission as an educator throughout his career. As a history and government teacher at San Lorenzo High School in the late 1980s, Matthews launched that school district’s first AP courses, AP U.S. History, and AP Government.
“I considered them to be classes on learning how to write, how to think, how to read critically, and while you’re at those things, learn some fantastically interesting history,” Matthews said in an interview this week. “AP courses prepare students for college by helping them develop the skills and knowledge that will propel them not to just get into college, but to thrive there.”
One of his most reluctant students in those first classes, Nicole Lusiani Elliott, now teaches the AP classes that Matthew’s started at San Lorenzo.
“I didn’t feel I was smart enough for AP,” she recalled in 2010. “But he said, ‘I’m not letting you leave here until you try for the AP course.’”
“The first student from our school ever to go to Stanford — which was a first for any school like that — was from that first AP class,” Elliot said, noting that half the first AP class passed. “It was just so exciting to be a part of something like that and knowing that my life would be better than my mom’s.”
When Matthews launched his AP classes in 1989, only two percent San Lorenzo School Unified District students went on to attend 4-year colleges. Over the next five years, Matthews began mentoring other LSUSD educators to teach AP classes. By 2010, more than 50 percent of San Lorenzo’s students attended college after graduation.
MBUSD’s challenge is different because there is no shortage of high achieving students. The board’s goal is meant to broaden AP’s appeal. Matthews told the board that though the increase in MBUSD’s student participation in AP is worth celebrating, he still sees room for improvement.
“My take on that is I feel more strongly about more students trying these classes, and I actually think we are still underselling it a little bit,” he said.
Part of the board’s strategy has been to broaden the type of AP class work, such as the new Environmental Science AP class that has proven to be the third most popular (after Psychology and Biology), with 176 students enrolled last year.
Mabery said students who take AP classes are more likely to excel in that field in college and to major in it, particularly if it’s a STEM subject; and students are more likely to graduate college in four years.
“At the heart of this is students get a chance to take a rigorous class, and it prepares them well for college,” Mabery said.