AP Tech Courses Provide Head Start for Minority Students

Photo courtesy of the College Board

WOODSTOCK, Georgia—Students at River Ridge High School tinker with 30 Honda engines and use computers lined against the walls to study the engines’ mechanics.

At first glance, this might look like shop class. But it’s much more sophisticated than that. It’s an Advanced Placement course in physics, and it’s brand new this fall, part of a privately funded, nationwide drive to increase the number of girls and nonwhites ready for college-level work in science, technology, engineering, and math.

“They seem to be pretty excited to be doing this,” says Darrell Herring, the school’s principal. “The kids are excited, and the parents as well, that we’re looking at these classes and saying, this is what you’re going to need” for a job in technology later.

This AP physics class—River Ridge High has also added two AP chemistry courses, one in calculus, and one in environmental science—is among hundreds in science, technology, engineering, and math starting up this fall at 533 schools nationwide with $5 million from Google for textbooks, classroom equipment, and teacher training.

The schools were chosen because they did not previously offer AP courses that, standardized test results indicate, female and nonwhite students were perfectly qualified to take and pass. All are in low-income communities, or have large proportions of racial minorities or students who qualify for subsidized meals.

These kinds of schools are far less likely than those in affluent suburbs to provide AP courses, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math. That’s one reason more than 630,000 high school students who have a likelihood of passing an AP class were it offered graduate each year without ever taking one, according to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The problem is particularly acute among blacks and Hispanics. Only one in three take AP math, for example. Only about 7,000 black and Hispanic students pass AP calculus each year, but 123,000 would be predicted to pass if the classes were available to them. More than six percent of white kids pass AP courses in math or science, versus fewer than two percent of blacks and Hispanics.

Meanwhile, boys outnumber girls by two to one or more in the AP courses that cover physics and differential and integral calculus, and by four to one in computer science, the College Board says.

Some students “just don’t have the opportunities that other kids have,” says Herring, whose school on the outskirts of Atlanta is 26 percent nonwhite. “It goes back to support. If you have a teacher of a kid who’s doing well in class, that’s the one that gets recommended for AP courses. But what about the kid who has the same potential, but hasn’t had the support, just from the nature of where they live and what’s available to them?”

That void results in a torrential leak from the pipeline of future technology workers. About 60 percent of students who are good at science decide by the time they’re in the eighth grade not to pursue a STEM career, the president’s council reports.

“There are hundreds of thousands of talented students in this country who are being left out of the STEM equation,” says Jacquelline Fuller, director of giving at Google.

Students who take AP math and science in high school are more likely than those who don’t to go on to degrees in physical or life science or engineering, research shows. Passing scores on AP tests can also be applied for college credit, saving money on tuition.

Already, he’s heard several students enrolled in River Ridge High’s AP classes talking about careers as “imagineers” at the Walt Disney Company, Herring says.

“That to me is a big step,” he says. “Kids this age usually say, ‘I don’t know what I want to do.’”

Still, many of the 800 high schools invited to apply for the Google money didn’t take it.

“When you start talking about Advanced Placement classes, what do kids and parents think? They think, ‘Can I pass that course? Can I still get a scholarship?’ They think it might hurt their grades,” Herring says.

“Then you’ve got to get a buy-in from your teachers that any kid should be able to take Advanced Placement classes if we get them there. The culture has to change.”

Even if it does, he concedes, a system that pays, in part, for schools by cashing in cereal box tops seems unwilling to increase the availability of challenging science courses.

“There’s a level of frustration there. But I’ve always been one to say, ‘Here’s what we need. How do we get it?’ We need to go barking up some trees to see if people want to help. And if you ask, you’ll find there are lots of people who want to help.”

Photo courtesy of the College Board

About Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus is a writer based in Boston and a contributor to newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, and the Times (U.K.) Higher Education magazine.
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6 Responses to AP Tech Courses Provide Head Start for Minority Students

  1. engineer says:

    I hope this advanced physics class is not restricted to women and minorities. If it were, it would be the ultimate in sexism and racism.

  2. Mark Smith says:

    I’m not sure where the idea that a degree in a STEM field leads to economic nirvana comes from. I have numerous friends who hold degrees in Biology, Math, etc. and many are working in jobs which don’t even require a degree. I hold degrees in English and Library Science, and did post bacc teaching certification programs in Special Ed and English Ed. (English in particular is the polar opposite of STEM) I make over 70k as a special ed. teacher, have a defined pension plan, and receive a great benefits package. I put the personal economic worth of a STEM degree in the same category as a Psych or Communications degree.

  3. Fran says:

    Our country needs more compentent people with STEM educations as STEM is the backbone of a good career and a strong economy. As a college administrator I see too many students who can not write coherent sentences have a difficult time with 3rd grade math. Some students do not have basic skills others do not have capacity. Neither of these students belong in college and would not have been there 15 years ago let alone 30 or 50 years ago.

    • Mark Smith says:

      I agree with Fran. I have dealt with these students both as an Intervention teacher and as a High
      School English teacher. (I hold 3 Ohio teaching licenses and have taught in all 3 areas). A big part of the problem is the No Child Left Behind mentality, which utterly denies individual learning differences, as well as decades of empirically based research on human intelligence. The reality is half of the population is on the left side of the intelligence bell curve, and that many of these people probably are not best served in a college classroom. I’ve had numerous high school students who read at a 3/4 grade level, and that is probably the best they will ever do.

      I still agree with my original contention that STEM degrees are overrated. I see holders of Biology, Engineering, etc degrees on a daily basis working as substitute teachers making 15-20K per annum, max. On the other hand, many holders of an Elementary Ed degree (hardly a glamorous major) earn between 50 and 70K per year. (most Ohio teachers earn between 40 and 80 K a year–the commonly cited base salaries are literally that, and quickly increase)

      • S.Evans says:

        Now get rid of the Ohio teachers union and you’d see less well paying jobs for worthless education majors and more high paying education jobs for people with degrees in technical subjects. The problem is that the teachers unions in Ohio get to decide what a tenured teacher should look like (including the later career Masters in Education, which my mother got without many of us even noticing until she was done).

        If you have a broken school system then naturally the numbers are going to favor the broken people running it, and the Ohio school systems under the domination of the public service unions for decades are rotted to almost the point of uselessness.

        That’s why Texas is refusing the federal standards program and the money that goes along with it. We want those who can do teaching and try to incentivize it by offering alittle more than they’d made with an undergraduate degree, get our schools more math and science centered now that we’d no longer need to have the students spend weeks of every semester memorizing lists of useless factoids they’ll never need again, and given the ability to look it up online, shouldn’t be wasting their time memorizing. The Federal Government is mandating 20th century education standards to a 21st century world, and that isn’t going to benefit ANYONE in the long run. Except, of course, Texas.

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