TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Defying Expectations: The Right Teacher Can Help Low-Income Students Go Above and Beyond

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What makes the difference in how well low-income students perform on Advanced Placement (AP) exams?

A recent study published in Urban Education investigated over a dozen characteristics of students, teachers, and schools to identify common trends among students who beat expectations on AP Biology and AP Chemistry exams. The study, which included nearly 12,000 students in high-poverty schools, focused on students who earned higher AP scores than predicted based on their Preliminary SAT Qualifying Test (PSAT) results.

Student characteristics (in particular, whether a student speaks English as a second language) had the greatest impact on AP scores. Certain school and teacher characteristics also pushed the needle—but not always in the right direction. Teacher quality, teacher professional development, and school screening practices each add pieces to the puzzle.

Teacher knowledge and experience: A quality teacher can make the difference

Unsurprisingly, teacher knowledge and experience had a substantial, significant impact on student performance. When a teacher had more years of experience teaching a subject (especially teaching that specific AP course), stronger participation in professional associations and conferences related to their subject, or experience serving as an AP reader or consultant, the difference showed up in student scores. One of the best ways that schools can help their students earn higher AP scores is ensuring those classes are taught by teachers who really know their stuff.

Professional development: An inconsistent factor

For the best AP teachers, current professional development offerings just aren't cutting it. Teachers whose students beat expectations on the AP tests reported the lowest satisfaction with their PD activities. All teachers need the opportunity to continue their professional growth, and this study provides a prime example of how great teachers can feel left out of development opportunities that may not be differentiated for top-performers.

Student screening: High scores with a high cost

Of the schools in the study sample, 55 percent limited enrollment in AP classes using a screening process, which might be based on previous achievement or teacher recommendations. This selectivity created the single greatest AP score gain over expectations of any school or teacher variables. However, we know that student screening, particularly when it involves subjective judgments, tends to leave out students of color who could benefit from and succeed in challenging academic settings. Screening might produce a higher pass rate on AP tests, but if the end goal is to create a culture of high expectations for all students, more inclusive enrollment practices may win the day.

Other factors, such as greater per-student funding and a longer school year also led to better student performance, but the effects were fairly small. Students cannot change where they come from, the income-level of their parents, or their native language, but their schools (and teachers!) can provide them with opportunities to perform well on AP exams and beyond.