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Spreading the A.P. Gospel to Nurture Scientists and Engineers

The original New York Times article can be found here.
PITTSBURGH — Even before the first day of class in August, Maura Fritzley had second thoughts about taking Advanced Placement physics.
Although she got good grades in a mainstream physics class, Ms. Fritzley, an 18-year-old senior at Brashear High School here, had no intention of becoming a physicist, and A.P. classes, after all, are hard.
 She decided she wanted to drop it, then changed her mind and stayed. And she struggled, a lot.
 A.P. physics proved far more difficult than the earlier class. “Turns out that I’m not that good,” she said in November.
 But Ms. Fritzley is exactly the sort of student Brashear administrators want in A.P. math and science classes — not just the brainiest top achievers, but also the average and above average.
Next week, she will take the advanced placement exam in physics, part of an annual two-week ritual for high school students. The goal is to score 3 or higher on the 1 to 5 scale, which many colleges will reward with course credit.
Brashear’s goal is even higher.
 The school is in the first year of a three-year push to greatly expand the reach and success of its A.P. classes, collaborating with the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 to help improve education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields. The backers of NMSI (the acronym is pronounced NIM-zee) include ExxonMobil, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Lockheed Martin, and the organization won a federal $15 million grant in 2011 to set up similar efforts in Colorado and Indiana.
 Brashear has offered A.P. classes in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, calculus and statistics, but few among the school’s 1,400 students excelled. Last year, of the 159 enrolled in those classes, nearly two-thirds did not even take the tests, which normally cost $89 each. (Because of subsidies by NMSI and the school, the fee this year is as low as $9.)
 Just 10 students accounted for the 13 passing scores of 3 or higher. No Brashear student has passed the chemistry exam since 2010, or scored higher than 1 in statistics in the two years that course has been taught.
 NMSI expects to change that. Deploying a combination of teacher training, student study sessions and encouragement that includes cash incentives, it has worked with 560 high schools in 22 states since 2008, and the results have been impressive.
 In the first year of NMSI’s help, the number of passing scores on science and math A.P. exams jumps by an average of 85 percent, according to data from the College Board, which administers the A.P. tests. By the end of the three-year effort, the number has nearly tripled, on average.
“I’ll call it an unusually large effect,” said Daniel R. Sherman, an economist at the American Institutes for Research, which is independently evaluating NMSI’s Colorado and Indiana schools, part of the grant requirements. “Most education programs, they’ll increase something at 10, 15, 20 percent, you’re happy with those. To get something close to this sort of doubling is pretty good.”
At Brashear, the goals are ambitious: 55 passing scores this year, up from 13; and at least 116 by 2016. (This year’s test results will come out in July.) Gregg Fleisher, NMSI’s chief academic officer, said the program “almost never” failed to reach its goals.
 Pittsburgh school officials are generally pleased so far. “Maybe I’m an eternal optimist, but I have a good feeling about scores this year,” said Jaclyn Castma, the A.P. project manager for the citywide district. Compared with last year’s performance, she added, “I am pretty hopeful we’re going to blow that out of the water.”
But getting to the goals is not easy. For Ms. Fritzley, months of befuddlement accompanied the problem sets. The teachers, some of whom were learning the A.P. curriculum as they taught it, needed to teach broader, perhaps less prepared classes of students than in the past. For the administrators, the challenge has been to lift academic expectations.
“We’re asking everyone to take a leap of faith with us,” said Mort Orlov, the NMSI official directly overseeing the Brashear effort, “to jump off the cliff together.”
NMSI’s Results
 For decades, a recurrent refrain is that American students are mediocre at science and math and that soon technology companies will not be able to find qualified job applicants.
 Many public schools in well-to-do suburbs continue to excel, and success stories of individual teachers and schools abound. But scaling individual successes to a broad range of schools has been more elusive, especially in poorer districts.
 At NMSI, “what sets us apart from other programs are the results,” said Mr. Fleisher, a former actuary who became a Dallas math teacher and then led a public-private partnership in Texas that served as a template for the program. “We replicate what has been proven to work.”
Research cited by the College Board has found that students who take A.P. classes get better grades in college and are more likely to graduate.
 NMSI officials are particularly proud of the even greater gains among black and Hispanic students, for whom the numbers of passing scores have typically more than doubled after one year and more than tripled after three.
 The program also supports A.P. English classes, the rationale being that good scientists and engineers need to know how to read and write well. In addition, A.P. English classes, often taken by juniors, can serve as a sort of gateway to A.P. science and math classes the following year.
 In El Paso, a city with high poverty and a large Spanish-speaking population, “a lot of the kids didn’t even know what advanced placement was,” said Mary Ann Clark, director of advanced academic services for the school district. “They thought it was only for kids who were gifted.”
There, the two high schools working with NMSI hold pep rallies to recognize students in A.P. and pre-A.P. classes. “It’s not often you walk in a school and see this huge pep rally over math, science and English classes,” Ms. Clark said. “And that’s a good thing. It’s amazing.”
The big gains, especially in urban schools, caught the attention of the Heinz Endowments, a philanthropy based in Pittsburgh. Stanley W. Thompson, the education program director at Heinz, called educational equity a priority for his organization.
 He praised the NMSI effort for expanding A.P. participation without watering down the curriculum, which has to be approved by the College Board. The Heinz Endowments is providing nearly $1 million to finance NMSI’s work at Brashear and a second school, the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy.
Building an A.P. Culture
 In appearance, Brashear does not match what many would expect for a high school in an urban area like Pittsburgh. It is housed in a large, well-kept building on a hill in a woody section of the city, not far from Mount Washington and its famed views of the Pittsburgh skyline.
 But more than three-quarters of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Performance on standardized tests is middling. In November, one student was charged with shooting three others near the school.
 Yet Brashear, whose student body is 35 percent black and 44 percent white, with a mix of other races and ethnicities, had potential, and the principal, Kimberly Safran, was enthusiastic about the NMSI program. “I believe that we are slowly building an A.P. culture,” she said.
 At the suggestion of NMSI, Brashear added an A.P. environmental sciences class, which has a broader appeal than traditional physics, chemistry and biology. Only eight students are enrolled this year, but Mr. Orlov, the NMSI official overseeing the high school’s program, saw that as a key to expanding A.P. enrollment.
 When a student who had not been regarded as A.P. material achieves a passing score, “that trickles out to whole another group of students,” Mr. Orlov said. “A.P. courses at Brashear will eventually begin to look like all of Brashear.” Brashear A.P. teachers attended training sessions run by NMSI. Mr. Orlov connected the calculus teacher with a mentor. The Brashear teachers also have access to online resources that NMSI has developed.
 NMSI has gained a measure of notoriety for its cash rewards — $100 to the student and $100 to the teacher for each passing score. In addition, an A.P. teacher who reaches a target number of passing scores takes home a $1,000 bonus.
 For Sean Regan, Mr. Orlov set a target of four passing scores out of a class of 23.
 Mr. Regan has been a chemistry teacher at Brashear for two years. He had never taught A.P. chemistry.
 Still, he undertook the assignment with determination. In the fall, he thought perhaps 10 of his students could reach the scoring threshold of 3, which would bring him a $2,000 windfall. In less optimistic moments, he notes that even one passing score would be progress over last year.
 The reality of the challenge became apparent when he gave his class a mock A.P. test in March. Two students got a 2. The other 19 scored 1, the lowest possible.
“I would have liked to have gotten some passing scores,” Mr. Regan said.
 Worse, a few of his students had already given up, including an honors student he had taught the previous year. “It surprised me that that’s happening,” he said.
 Ms. Safran, the principal, turned down most requests to drop A.P. classes. “I have had many difficult conversations with parents this year about A.P.,” she said. “Parents are beginning to understand that the rigor of the course and having the tenacity to complete the course are important for success after high school.”
In recounting their successes, NMSI officials never highlight the percentage of students who achieve passing scores. They say that is the wrong number to focus on, because the easiest way to increase the passing percentage is to kick out the students who are perceived to be weaker. With more A.P. students, the number of passing scores increases, but so does the number of 1’s and 2’s.
 For NMSI, more is better.
“We think 20 out of 40 passing physics is better than 10 out of 10,” Mr. Fleisher said. “What typically happens is our pass rate usually stays the same, but the kids that were in class that were passing at 30 percent, now they’ll pass at 50 or 60 percent. And the kids who were never given an opportunity would pass at 20 or 30 percent.”
‘Still Struggling, but Better’
One of the study sessions for the A.P. science classes at Brashear was held on the last Saturday of March. “You are awesome for waking up on a Saturday morning,” Ms. Castma, the A.P. coordinator, told a student trudging into the school just before 8:30 a.m. While earlier sessions for the English and math classes had been well attended, this one was not.
 Ms. Fritzley, the A.P. physics student, was there. “Still struggling, but better,” she said. For a while, she did not even want to take the test. “Now I do,” she said.
 NMSI had imported experienced instructors — a biology teacher from Massachusetts, a chemistry teacher from Virginia, a physics teacher from Ohio — to run the study sessions, not just reviewing the material but also offering test-taking strategies. John Gill, the physics teacher from Ohio with experience writing and grading A.P. physics test questions, explained that even if part of the answer was wrong, graders would still give points if the student demonstrated knowledge of how to solve later sections of the problem.
 Only one student from Brashear’s A.P. biology class showed up, and she received a daylong one-on-one tutoring session. Several students in the physics session left after lunch, for baseball practice. “It really is a culture change,” Ms. Castma said, adding that more work was needed to make academics a top priority.
 Mr. Regan guessed that three to six of his chemistry students would achieve passing scores. He expects to be a better teacher next year, and he has been recruiting students. “I’m hoping for 40,” he said, up from 23 this year.
 Enrollment in the A.P. science and math classes is expected to jump again to more than 240, from 174 this year. That includes 30 students for environmental sciences, Ms. Castma said. But Steven Scoville, the popular teacher of A.P. physics, is leaving at the end of the school year for Maine, where his wife has a new job.
 Mr. Orlov and Mr. Fleisher said that they would adjust — and that the example would spread, and not just to other students at Brashear and Pittsburgh Science and Technology. “We expect to show such tremendous results in these two schools,” Mr. Fleisher said, “that it’s going to drive not only Pittsburgh, but it’s also going to drive Philadelphia.”
Ms. Fritzley was at the last study session Saturday for one final round of preparation. She thinks she has a shot at getting a passing score and the $100 reward.
 But even if she falls short, the year of struggling was “definitely worth it,” she said.
“I realize I can do better than I thought,” she said. “I know I have the ability to basically learn a ton.”