AP scores at Heights are on the rise

The CH-UH City School District is addressing long-standing issues of academic disparities head on. 

In 2015, Heights High took a hard look at its 21 Advanced Placement (AP) courses and discovered that, in a building where the vast majority of students are Black, the most rigorous classes were almost entirely white.

“We need high expectations for all our students,” said Alisa McKinnie, an assistant principal, “regardless of their background.”

The school partnered with Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS), an organization based in Seattle, whose mission is “to ensure that students of color and low-income students have equitable access to America’s most academically intense high school programs and succeed at the highest levels.”

The wheels were thus set in motion for a systemic change at Heights High that has resulted in two years of positive results. 

Last fall, Heights High was one of nine schools in Ohio to be named to the AP Honor Roll, which recognizes buildings that increase AP participation without a significant reduction in scores. With the 2020 AP results released this month, Heights High boasted a nearly 20% increase in the number of students earning a score of 3 or higher, the standard for earning college credit.

It took the concerted effort of administrators, teachers and students to reach this point. Heights High leadership worked with EOS to create a roadmap with three main objectives: accessing opportunity, experiencing success and extending equity.

First, they had to delve into the cultural mindsets of both students and teachers through the use of three different surveys.  

The results were eye-opening. Some students didn't know that AP courses existed, or how they were beneficial. Some had never been encouraged by teachers, guidance counselors, or their parents to assume a more-challenging course load. Some teachers wanted to teach the higher-level courses, but felt that those courses were assigned to an elite few.

After many workshops and focus groups, McKinnie received teacher recommendations for 392 students to enroll in AP classes. School staff sent letters to parents explaining what AP courses entail, invited students to an ice cream social, and launched a series of workshops to prepare students for success in AP classes. 

As enrollment in AP classes increased from 182 students in 2015 to 343 in 2019, scores did indeed drop, though not enough to be considered “significant” by the College Board, which administers the tests.

Nationally, between 56% and 59% of students earn a score of 3 or higher; at Heights High, that percentage went from 51% to 38% in those four years. This was not surprising, considering the rigor of the coursework and the fact that Heights High enforces an AP contract that requires every student enrolled in an AP class to take the AP exam, unlike many schools, where students can opt out. 

McKinnie and her team knew they could do better. Through continued focus on achievement and providing individualized support and motivation to AP students, those test scores have risen.

In 2020, 58% of students earned a 3 or higher, virtually equal to the national average. 

McKinnie believes that even more Heights students can do at least that well, saying, “It’s not our job to be gatekeepers.”

Instead, McKinnie aims for the school to “provide experiences and exposures early on," and "keep equity at the center of all we do.”

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, a graduate of the Heights schools, and a former Coventry School teacher. She is a freelance journalist under contract with the CH-UH City School District.

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Volume 13, Issue 10, Posted 10:57 AM, 09.30.2020