The Importance of Rigorous Coursework for All Students: A Teacher’s Perspective

Patrick Kelly, a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, begins his eleventh year teaching Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics.

Patrick Kelly, a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, begins his eleventh year teaching Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics.

This week, I will be starting my 11th year teaching Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics, and I have seen during that time the importance of a rigorous high school experience in preparing students to succeed in college. That’s why I was excited to see the U.S. Department of Education’s recent announcement of $28.4 million in federal grants to help students access AP classes. These grants are used to help pay for low-income students taking advanced placement tests administered by the College Board, the International Baccalaureate Organization, and Cambridge International Examinations.

As the College Board noted in its 2014 AP Report to the Nation, students who experience success in an AP course are more likely to graduate college on time and earn higher GPAs. Beyond the numbers, I have seen the positive impact of rigorous coursework in the stories of my students.

One of my greatest joys each year is to receive emails, calls, and visits from former students, and they frequently note how well their AP coursework in high school prepared them for a collegiate learning environment. In addition, an overwhelming majority of my students have performed well enough on the AP exam to receive college credit, which, in turn, has given them increased freedom and a leg up in their collegiate studies.

I also know my students are uniquely fortunate, as my home state of South Carolina pays the fee for each student in an AP course to take the exam. The cost to take an exam is nearly $100, and, while the College Board provides a reduced fee for students with financial need, the cost for these students is still over $50. As a result, this fee becomes a major obstacle to accessing a rigorous curriculum for many students in the 38 states that don’t pay for AP exams.

Currently, over 20 percent of our nation’s school-age children come from households living in poverty, and, for these children, paying the fees to take even one AP exam is simply not financially possible. However, this inability to pay does not mean these children lack the ability to thrive and succeed in rigorous coursework. I have taught numerous students who were in poverty or homeless, and they excelled in their coursework and earned college credit via the AP exam just like their more advantaged peers.

By distributing The Advanced Placement Test Fee grants announced last week, the Department of Education is extending opportunity to thousands of students around our country.

In the 21st century, student access to rigorous coursework is an essential right to prepare students for the workforce, and programs like this one are an important step in the right direction. There is still more work required in order to provide students from underprivileged backgrounds with the types of academic supports and systems necessary to succeed in challenging coursework, but eliminating barriers to accessing rigor is an essential first step. The Department of Education’s efforts to provide that access to more students is exactly the type of initiative that will help us reach our nation’s common goal of producing “college- and career-ready” students.

Patrick Kelly is a teacher in Richland County School District Two in Columbia, SC and has been selected as a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow.