Black and Latino students in Dallas high schools pass the Advanced Placement exams at the highest rate in the country. The story of how Dallas became the national leader in getting underrepresented minorities to pass these classes is a bright spot for the urban school district.
At W.T. White High School in North Dallas, Rachmad Tjachyadi’s AP chemistry class is balancing redox reactions. About 25 students are sitting forward in their chairs, waiting to be called on.
“Patrick, I know you were absent when we were covering this,” Tjachyadi says to a student in the back. “Do you have any problems?” Patrick confesses to being confused.
Tjachyadi asks another student to put on his glasses. He reminds another about a study session after school.
Three-quarters of the students here are Latino, and another 12 percent are black. They do exceptionally well on the AP exams.
For one student, five AP tests
W.T. White senior David Davila is taking five AP courses this year -- chemistry, government, economics, and two courses in English. That means he will take five AP tests this spring. They cover college material, graded on a scale of 1 to 5. A passing score of 3, 4 or 5 lets him earn college credit.
David says he’s not confident that he can pass the exams in every subject.
“I definitely feel that my teachers are preparing me as best as they can, but I understand that it’s also about the resources being there. And they’re definitely there,” he said.
These resources come mostly from a Dallas-based nonprofit called the National Math and Science Initiative. NMSI offers Saturday study sessions, pays the hefty exam fees for students, gathers teachers together for professional development and even gives teachers better books or lesson plans if they need them.
Exposing more students to STEM
Gregg Fleisher, the NMSI chief academic officer, is trying to get more students ready for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- sometimes called STEM fields.
“There are plenty of studies that show that students who take these exams have a greater likelihood of matriculating into a STEM field and graduating from a STEM field,” Fleisher said.
He gets his money from sources as varied as Exxon, Texas Instruments and the Gates Foundation -- groups that want the U.S. workforce to be educated and competitive.
Fleisher has been working in Dallas high schools since 1996. The first year in the pilot schools, 75 black and Latino students passed the AP exams. Last year, 1,270 students passed.
“Here’s a chance to know what a true college course is like under the nurturing of a high school teacher, versus an informal lecture hall,” Fleisher said.
Handing out cash incentives
A generation ago, only the top students took AP courses -- the ones who were likely to pass the exam. In Dallas, a much larger percentage of students take the exam. So while the percentage of kids who pass is lower, the overall number of passing students is higher.
This is just how Fleisher wants it. He says he’d much rather see 20 out of 40 students pass an AP physics exam, for example, than 10 out of 10.
“What is better for our country -- to have twice as many proficient and 20 more who tried it?" he says. "Quite frankly, I think 12 out of 40 is better than 10 out of 10.”
NMSI offers another perk – cash. NMSI gives $100 to each student who passes a math, science or English exam, and $100 to the teacher for each passing student. That means that if all 55 of Tjachyadi’s students pass the chemistry exam, he’ll get a check for $5,500. Last year, he got a nice $2,600 for his passing students—right at Christmas time.
“The way that NMSI helped us grow the program is by opening to doors to everybody -- if you want to take this class, you can,” Tjachyadi said.
'We're not going to drop the standard'
However, there’s no getting around how difficult these classes are.
“We’re not going to drop the standard for students who have gaps in their preparation," he said
Some might think it’s a bad idea to put students in an AP chemistry class if they’re going to struggle all year and aren’t going to pass the exam. Tjachyadi’s former student Grace Knott got a 1 on the chemistry exam, after taking a pre-AP class as a sophomore and AP chemistry as a senior. However, she says the experience prepared her for chemistry in college, when half of her classmates failed out.
“I was one of the students who was able to keep up. The only reason I was able to keep up was because of the backing that I got in Mr. T’s class,” she said.
Knott is in her first year of teaching biology at Grady Spruce High School in South Dallas.
Hundreds of school districts across the country, from Connecticut to Alabama, have signed on to the program. Many more students will be balancing redox reactions on AP exams this spring, with Dallas students leading the charge.
Learn more about NMSI's college readiness program.
NMSI says: "The Program increases dramatically in the number of students taking and passing AP math, science and English exams, and expands access to traditionally under-represented students."