Incentives paying off for students in AP program in Harford

It was an uncommon partnership for a Maryland school and an aerospace company.

In 2012, Boeing agreed to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into one Harford County high school to improve Advanced Placement achievement in hopes that students — many the children of military and defense contracting families — would pursue science and math courses in college.

Aberdeen High School teachers and students were paid $100 for every passing score on an Advanced Placement test. The number of science and math classes increased, and teachers underwent intensive training during the summer.

A year later, the school posted remarkable gains on the college-level tests. Even as enrollment in the classes rose, so did the pass rates. Last year, 64.7 percent of students enrolled in an AP class passed the tests, up from 43 percent the year before.

On Tuesday, the College Board released scores that showed Maryland is No. 1 in the nation for the eighth consecutive year for the percentage of its high school graduates who passed at least one test. Boosting the state's high ranking are schools like Aberdeen that encourage strong students to take more Advanced Placement courses.

Aberdeen High accounted for 12 percent of the entire state's math, science and English increase in AP passing scores for 2012-2013 school year and also accounted for 9 percent of the increase in AP passing scores in math and science for girls.

Aberdeen is one of hundreds of schools across the country taking part in the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit that aims to get more students prepared to take rigorous college courses in math and science. Aberdeen was the NMSI's school of the year in 2013.

Boeing made a contribution to the Texas-based nonprofit, which was looking for schools that served a lot of military families and were enthusiastic about implementing all aspects of the program.

Aberdeen was never a struggling school, but educators believed students there weren't living up to their potential.

"We wanted to open the door for kids to push themselves academically. Believing in themselves was the first step," said Principal Michael O'Brien.

Some students said getting $100 for a passing score was not as much a motivator as the prospect of getting college credit if they earned a high score. But others, like senior Marcos Colon-Pappaterra, 17, said the money helped motivate them. The program paid for half the $89 test fee, and so Colon-Pappaterra could net $55 for each one he passed.

Colon-Pappaterra said he also "decided I wanted to work hard for my future." He earned all passing test scores, including two scores of 5, the highest score possible, in calculus and English.

"I think the kids are a lot more serious now," said another student, Delaney Todd, 17, a senior who has taken one AP class a year.

In addition to Aberdeen High, Havre de Grace High, also in Harford County, recently joined the NMSI program with a $25,000-a-year contribution from the Department of Defense. NMSI has spread the AP program to 550 schools in 22 states, with contributions from benefactors.

Boeing and the Department of Defense set aside money for the program because it is also designed to lessen the stress on military families who are making frequent moves by ensuring that their schools have similar programs.

"The stress the many moves they have to make is mitigated because they are going to a NMSI school," said Gregg Fleisher, NMSI chief academic officer.

Boeing and the Department of Defense were given the option of investing in schools in several states, but chose Aberdeen and Havre de Grace because the administrators and teachers there had embraced the program, according to Fleisher.

As part of the program, Boeing agreed to invest about $150,000 to $200,000 a year for three years in Aberdeen, according to NMSI. The amount of the investment depends on the number of students who earn a passing score.

Last year, 558 students at Aberdeen took an AP exam, up from 294 the year before.

About 20 percent of the donation goes to the financial incentives, but perhaps as important, Aberdeen students said, was tutoring paid for through the program. Students received extra help every other Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

While the Saturday sessions were voluntary, O'Brien said they have been well-attended. Students said they are useful because they get lessons from college professors and other faculty who aren't their teachers but have a deep knowledge of the subject.

Students said hearing a concept they are struggling with explained in a different way by another teacher helped them better understand the material.

In addition, their teachers were available to give them help for four hours each week before or after school. Teachers were paid more money for the extra hours they worked, and they received in-depth AP training for a week each summer.

Amber Milnes, who taught her first AP biology class at Aberdeen last year, said the training taught her how to set up labs in her classroom. "It was extremely helpful to me," she said.

Milnes received $2,600 for the exams her students passed. She said she appreciated the money but stressed that wasn't the chief reason she put extra hours into teaching the high-level classes.

"We are probably getting 10 cents an hour in pay for extra work," she said, laughing.

Aberdeen physics teacher Nathan Sloan got an additional $7,000 for helping students to pass the test, and he said the money was something of a motivator. The grading of AP homework takes far longer and is more involved, he said.

Havre de Grace also showed an increase in passing rates. In 2013, 73 students passed an AP test out of 156 test-takers, or 47 percent. That was an increase over the previous year, when 41 percent passed.

"All of our teachers are increasing the rigor in our classrooms," said Havre de Grace Principal James Reynolds. "It is opening a lot of doors for students who have the potential to take it."

In addition to paying for passing scores and holding Saturday sessions, the Havre de Grace program paid for a portion of the AP exams and allowed students to take a practice exam to prepare them just weeks before the test.

In Maryland, the percentage of graduates who have passed at least one AP exam has increased each year for more than a decade. The percentage was 29.6 percent for the Class of 2013, up from 28.1 percent the year before.

Maryland's No. 1 ranking comes in part because so many students take the courses and exams. Nearly half of all Maryland graduates are taking the exams. And far more than half of graduates will have taken a class, though about 20 percent take the courses and never sit for the exams.

Some critics have said pushing AP courses for high school students has had mixed results.

According to a Baltimore Sun analysis last year, in some schools around the state, the majority of students who get As and Bs from their teachers in AP classes are then failing the exams. And there is no research that suggests that students who do better on the exams will perform better in their freshman year of college.

Moreover, there is a pronounced achievement gap. African-Americans represented 36 percent of Maryland's graduates in 2013, but only 12 percent of the total who had passed at least one AP exam. And low-income students represented only 14 percent of the passers.

Kristin Klopfenstein, executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado, who has studied Advanced Placement, said at least one rigorous analysis has shown the NMSI program to have a positive effect on student achievement.

But, she said, the program is complex, and it is difficult to say which portion of it works to improve scores.

"My understanding is that the student and teacher incentive pay constitute a relatively small fraction of the total program costs, and I doubt they are an important piece of the program among students traditionally underrepresented in higher ed," she said.

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