The Advanced Placement U.S. History classroom was adorned with presidential posters that students have earned working on campaigns over the years. Teacher Kyle VanderWall challenged his students to consider why Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation (to free slaves who would fight for the British crown) was a turning point in the War of Independence.
“Take three minutes at your tables and brainstorm how Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, could turn loyalists – those who remained loyal to the crown – into patriots,” said VanderWall, providing students with the kind of AP rigor that earns them college credits.
The AP Program — part of the nonprofit College Board organization that administers the SAT and PSAT — offers academically rigorous and challenging college-level courses to high school students.
VanderWall is one of 17 trained AP teachers at the high school, creating a new AP culture that is more participatory, inclusive and ambitious than ever before. Grandville decided to essentially open all AP courses to any bright, hardworking students who are up for the challenge.
“It really boils down to what do we want our students to know and be able to do?” VanderWall said. “And how do we facilitate their growth in being able to demonstrate their understanding of the skills and content associated with the course?”
The numbers tell the story. In short, AP classrooms at Grandville have become tremendously successful.
From 2013 to 2017, the number of students taking the AP courses increased by nearly 100 – from 367 to 461. AP Exams are based on a five-point scoring, with 3 indicating a passing grade and 5 being the highest.
During those years, passing test scores of AP students sitting for the spring exams increased from 85 to 90 percent.
More Students, Better Scores
A few highlights:
- All but three of the 100 AB Calculus students scored 3 or higher.
- All 30 students taking the BC Calculus scored 3 or higher.
- Psychology had a nearly 100 percent pass rate, with 106 of 107 students scoring 3 or higher. This is according to data from Laura Vrba-Carrick, district AP Psychology teacher.
“It’s been a goal of our high school to increase the number of kids that take part in this opportunity,” said Scott Merkel, assistant superintendent of curriculum. “What’s so exciting is that we have more kids participating and better outcomes. We’ve always had good, solid AP proficiency (of) around 85 percent of the kids taking AP classes. But in the last five years we’ve spiked to 90 percent, which means that 90 percent of our kids taking AP classes — and remember, these classes are as challenging as classes get – are excelling.
“It speaks to raising the bar and having high expectations that all kids can succeed.”
By participating in classes and exams through AP, junior Keaton Hamilton will rack up more than 28 college credits by graduation in 2019, which could fast-track him to sophomore standing on Day 1 in college or university. That’s good news, considering he wants to become an orthopedic surgeon, which could take 12 years of post-secondary training.
“I’m following in the footsteps of my brother, a junior at Purdue, who took a lot of AP classes,” Keaton said. “I like the challenge and the chances it gives me to get college credits. I feel a certain freedom that I can do more, and know more.”
Filling in the Blanks
Grandville’s high-achieving AP proficiency can be directly traced to teachers like VanderWall, who decided to strengthen his AP comprehension by applying eight years ago to become an AP reader — those who grade the essay portions or free responses of the AP exam.
“What you really glean from this experience and what we can pass on to students is an understanding of the expectations for the AP Exam,” said VanderWall. He has been promoted to table reader, overseeing and guiding eight college professors and high school teachers at the readings of AP history exams.
Eight more Grandville AP teachers signed on to become AP readers. They fan out across the country to hand-grade with other teachers and college professors a portion of the exams. They are Kelly Stouten, calculus; Linda Berlin, literature; Elizabeth Ungrey, biology; Chris Groenhout, environmental science; Aaron Rigterink, statistics; and Assistant Principal Mike Kennedy, who taught AP Language last year.
From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for six straight days at locations from Tampa Bay, Florida to Kansas City, Kansas, the AP readers grade alongside like-minded teachers and college professors.
“College professors are there because they want to make sure that if we are giving college credit to high school students for their work, that it is worthy of college credit,” said Stouten. A Grandville graduate, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Hope College and a master’s in secondary education with an emphasis in mathematics from Grand Valley State University.
A Culture of Excellence
Two years ago, Stouten dedicated her planning period to teach three students Calculus BC (equivalent to a college-level Calculus II). From there, the high school opened up a Calculus BC class, and 30 students promptly signed on.
Principal John Philo called Stouten and her fellow AP readers “amazing, as are all of our AP teachers – they are just phenomenal. Some of our most dedicated AP teachers in the building can’t go and grade the AP exams for a number of good reasons. But the ones who do are all over the country, doing this important work.”
For the second year, Stouten looks forward to joining the calculus grading group the first week of June — the last week of school for the district — when she grades for hours on end with other math teachers.
“Grandville Public Schools does a great job of supporting its teachers and encouraging us to do College Board work,” she said. “For a lot of schools to have their teachers out the last week of school is not possible. But our district recognizes the benefits of us being there.”
The teachers would say that the strength of the AP Program’s success lies with the students.
“Our kids are going above and beyond the expected norm,” VanderWall said. “A number of kids are in our classrooms before school, after school – they want more or they have a question, or they’re not quite sure about something.
“That is the unseen part of all of our AP work,” he added. “We have excellent students because they are willing to put in the time it takes to be successful.”