By Kara Grant and Carter Johnson
At 5 a.m. one morning in February, seven teenagers seemed surprisingly awake as they waited in front of Queens Information, Research and Technology High School for their teacher to arrive. Students from a variety of classes were ready to travel 170 miles by bus from the Far Rockaways to upstate New York and back again. They were going to Albany to ask lawmakers to pay for more Advanced Placement exams for high needs kids.
By 2016, the city’s AP for All program introduced 119 new courses across 63 public high schools. By the fall of 2021, the initiative hopes to provide all of New York City’s high school students access to at least five AP courses plus exams.
To reach that goal, more money is needed to cover the cost of the AP exam, which is $96 per test. Up until now, the state has subsidized the fee, in order to bring the cost of the exam down to $5 for low-income families.
The trip was paid for by the College Board, the private non-profit that administers the AP curriculum, the cornerstone of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s AP for All initiative. The key aim of the program launched in 2015 was to bring these high-level exams and courses to more underserved New York City public high school students.
Like many other schools in New York City, QIRT has received waivers to cover the costs of their AP tests.
Students from 13 other schools across the state participated in the February 12th lobbying excursion. As each student entered the Albany Room in the Legislative Office Building one street over from the state capitol, College Board executives applauded and cheered. Students helped themselves to bagels, muffins, and juice.
At circular tables, each seat came with a navy blue fleece scarf embroidered with The College Board’s logo. Julie Harris-Lawrence, senior director at the College Board and host of AP Day, urged teachers and students alike to wear the scarves all day long.
“I want you guys to share the good news about AP,” Harris-Lawrence told the roomful of students. She was preparing the students for the long day ahead of them, one that would be spent knocking on the doors of Assembly members and asking them to vote for the proposed increase in College Board funding.
“You keep smiling until all the cameras are down and all the microphones are off, even if you don’t see any cameras or microphones,” she added. “Plan what you’re going to say and practice it.”
The QIRT students instinctively turned to their de facto captain, Alicia Luna, a gregarious and outspoken high school junior. It was a natural choice. Last year, Alicia took AP Spanish and AP Computer Science, along with other honors classes. This year, her workload has intensified. She’s taking AP Psychology, AP U.S. History, and other college-level courses offered by her school in partnership with the State University of New York.
Alicia would have never been able to take her AP exams without state-funded waivers. She comes from a single-parent household; her mother is a housekeeper, originally from El Salvador, and has to support both Alicia and her younger brother. While she was pregnant with Alicia, she tried to cross the border several times, finally succeeding on her third attempt.
Alicia’s classmates share a very real stake in broadening AP access. The trip to Albany was junior Joseph Miceli’s first time leaving New York City. Known as Joey to his classmates, Miceli is originally from Flushing. But after spending time in a Bronx homeless shelter, he ultimately found housing with his family in the Rockaways.
An audience of state legislators represented an opportunity for students like Joey to speak to lawmakers about their own experiences and challenges within and outside of school.
He is open about the difficulties he has faced in getting people, students and adults alike, to understand his experiences. “With everything that happened, getting evicted from Flushing, going to a homeless shelter in the Bronx, and then getting a house and coming here, that’s just nuts,” Joey said, “I’ve been through trial and error, through debt and through death, through many things. The issue I see is that people only see face value. No one tries to get under and ask did this person grow, or whatever.”
Joey is currently enrolled in AP Computer Science and he plans to take the exam at the end of the school year.
But the success of the AP program at QIRT, one New York City high school in a system of over 400, belies a greater truth: Four years after the introduction of AP for All, Advanced Placement access and pass rates for the city’s students of color still lag far behind those of their white and Asian peers.
In 2018, for example, the latest year for which the Department of Education released AP testing data, white students in New York public high schools were twice as likely to take at least one AP exam and five times more likely to pass an exam than their black peers.
Hispanic students, who have seen the largest increase in AP enrollment and pass rates since the implementation of AP for All, still lag behind white students by 11 percentage points in both AP enrollment and test passing rates.
And while College Board efforts like AP Day — and the city’s AP for All initiative — are specifically designed to address such participation and achievement gaps, some say that they are also the result of political maneuvering to emphasize AP curriculum in high schools across the nation.
“It’s part of a two-pronged strategy to get political results,” said John Moscatiello, the CEO of Marco Learning, an AP test prep company based in Princeton, New Jersey. “The first is to get states paying for the exams, and the other side of it is getting colleges to accept the credits.”
It can be difficult to quantify what having access to advanced coursework means for teenagers like the QIRT students. Comprehensive data on the APs are not publicly available. The College Board, not the state, owns and administers the AP curriculum. Teaching an AP course requires separate teacher certifications and a familiarity with The College Board curriculum.
Akil Bello, the executive director of a non-profit called PASSNYC that works to bridge educational gaps among New York City’s students, questioned whether this places the College Board in a disproportionately powerful position.
“Is it worthwhile to lobby to increase access to the gatekeeper rather than remove the gate?” Bello asked.
It’s a doubt echoed by Moscatiello, who said that even if he’s not sure he agrees with the sentiment, he feels “a growing groundswell of doubt about the AP program, a sense that the AP program is taking over American education.”
But other students and teachers, including those at QIRT, say that even just having expanded AP offerings at the school raises the quality of education students receive.
QIRT AP U.S. History teacher David Poplinger noted that the success of his students in advanced classes varies, in large part based on the level of instruction they received before entering his class. “The challenge is that a lot of kids don’t have the background, coming into this country,” he said.
But Poplinger is confident that even just having APs in school provides students something to which they can aspire. “They find successes, if not with me then with AP Environmental Science or Psychology,” he said. “It’s not something they’d normally see growing up where they do.”
In Albany, a quiet moment onboard the bus ferrying students back to Queens afforded a quiet moment for Jeff Kaufman, QIRT computer science teacher and chaperone for the day. He noted that, despite the College Board enlisting low-income students to lobby for more funding, he felt like it was a worthwhile opportunity.
On the one hand, students from low-income backgrounds came to Albany to lobby the government for their own education when they could have been sitting in the very AP classes for which they were advocating.
But on the other hand, it was an opportunity for Kaufman’s students to see the machinery of state politics first-hand. The students felt seen and heard, even if they didn’t get to interact directly with the people they came all this way to see. None of the state assemblymembers or state senators on the student’s schedule were available for a meeting.
This spring, Alicia and many of her fellow juniors will be taking at least three major standardized tests administered by The College Board: two AP exams and the SAT. But despite the workload, she says that the access to APs have made her feel more hopeful about her future.
On the bus, Alicia recalled a time in elementary school when one of her teachers told her that “since we’re from Far Rockaway, we would never make it in life…Hearing that from a young age, that’s discouraging.” Still, she has held onto her goals.
“I want to be an OBGYN, but let’s see,” Alicia said. “I know it’s a lot of hard work, so let’s see where I go.”
Note: On March 15, New York City public schools were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, with online classes beginning March 23. As of the date of this article’s publication, AP exams will still take place virtually this spring with modified testing schedules. As the situation continues to unfold, the fate of the exams could be subject to further change.