English Learners and Advanced Placement Courses

by Carmen J. Melendez-Quintero
Manager of English Learners Programs, Worcester Public Schools, Worcester, MA

English Learners Should Not Take Advanced Placement Courses

I knew I would get your attention with this statement!  Now that I have your attention, please continue reading. 

Not only do I think English Learners (ELs) should be given equal access to rigorous coursework like Advanced Placement (AP) courses, I know it from years of experience! When the proper scaffolds and supports are embedded,  coupled with sound instructional practices, English Learners succeed and thrive in these courses.

Changing the Mindset

We need to change our way of thinking! We must stop equating language proficiency with the ability to process rigorous instruction in AP courses. Many believe that ELs are unable to participate in higher order thinking, take on problem solving, and engage in deep conversations about academic topics  because they still need to develop the academic language. Teachers need to realize that even students who are emergent bilinguals have the capacity to process information. We should not prevent ELs from participating in advanced coursework because they will learn English whether they are in level 1 courses or AP courses. The key for success is to create an environment where supports are given without sacrificing the rigor of the course. (Seidlitz Education, Using Sheltered Instruction to Drive AP/Advanced Classes, May 29, 2019, Fleenor, S.)

Ultimately, ELs deserve equal opportunities of academic challenges that peak their interest!  In 2015, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education released a “Dear Colleague” Letter’ informing school districts that English learners need to be given equal access and opportunities to accelerated learning, which includes AP courses. “School districts may not categorically exclude EL students from gifted and talented education (GATE) or other specialized programs such as Advanced Placement (AP), honors, or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. Unless a particular GATE program or advanced course is demonstrated to require proficiency in English for meaningful participation, schools must ensure that evaluation and testing procedures for GATE or other specialized programs do not screen out EL students because of their limited English proficiency”(Dear Colleague Letter, pg 21, 2015). This presents a compliance concern for districts. They must ensure equity, excellence, and access in all schools and provide the support students need to access advanced curriculum.

Nicauris, an EL from the Dominican Republic, took her first AP courses as a junior: AP Human Geography and AP Spanish Language. She loved the challenges of the AP courses. She admits that the vocabulary was difficult but to that she responds, “No one is really prepared for an AP course. You just have to take the steps and do your best. You have to have confidence”. Her Human Geography teacher, Mr. Stell, described Nicauris as “the most hard working student in all my classes”. Like Nicauris, many ELs want the challenge of AP courses but may not feel they have this option available to them.

Basic Action Steps to Start Making the Shift 

There are many practical ways schools and districts can make the shift necessary to allow ELs the same access and opportunities that AP courses bring:

1. Look for ways to increase enrollment for the AP Spanish Language course. This is one of the easiest, “low-hanging fruit” options that schools have for Spanish-speaking ELs. This may involve changing policies that create barriers for participation. For example, many schools only offer AP Spanish courses to 12th graders. Allowing students who are native speakers to enroll in AP Spanish as early as 10th grade will give students the opportunity to develop self- confidence and skills. These students, although younger, will work to match the expectations given to them. The earlier you give EL students the opportunity to participate in AP courses, the more likely they will branch out to other AP courses at the later grades and achieve success.  
Santos, a student from Guatemala, took both AP Human Geography and AP Spanish Language as his first two AP courses. He said, “I know I am smart, why can’t I take an AP course?  I realized if you put your mind to it, you can do it”. As a 12th grader, he wished he had taken them earlier. Santos now thinks he would have taken many more AP courses if given the opportunity earlier.

2. Another way of increasing enrollment in the AP Spanish Language course is to create a pathway as early as middle school where students can take higher level language courses. These courses could be designed with heritage speakers in mind, to allow a feeder pathway to the AP Spanish Language and Literature courses.

3. Think outside the box a little. AP Human Geography, although dense in language, includes topics that are very relatable to many English learners and gives them opportunities to contribute to class discussions based on personal experiences. Knowing the level of the language demands of this course, it is imperative that we allow additional instructional time to support the language needs.
Yruen came from Vietnam and took AP Human Geography and AP Physics. At the beginning, she requested to drop the classes because they were “too hard”. We encouraged her to get extra help from the teachers before deciding to drop the classes. With time and support, she did not drop the classes. Regarding the Human Geography course, she stated: “The more I got used to the course, the more I liked it. It was a lot of fun”. She also felt she learned a lot of new vocabulary in the classes and felt better prepared for college.

4. ELs will not only need scaffolding embedded in the classroom instruction but also additional support to continue building their skills and confidence while closing the background experience gap. Examples of those supports may include: 

  • A summer AP Bootcamp where students can learn not only what to expect from the courses, but the skills they need to be able to do the work successfully.
  • For the AP Human Geography course, an extra period with the teacher that provides support with the language-based activities that ELs need more time to process and complete. With the extra period, the teacher can provide more individualized support to ensure success. 
  • After-school tutoring from ESL teachers and college students is a very easy strategy to implement in schools. Pairing ESL teachers with college students to support ELs in AP will reinforce skill development and comfort with the course.
  • Allow students to use dictionaries. Although dictionaries are not allowed on the AP exams, this support prior to the test will allow students to initially access the content. An AP Physics teacher shared with me that she was nervous about her AP class because in group projects, her class looked like the United Nations. She explained all the students spoke their native languages and used dictionaries to do the assignments. . I assured her that it was okay, and that she would notice a shift as the class progressed – and she did! As the students acquired vocabulary in English, they relied less and less on their dictionaries.

Ju was an EL from China who took the AP Physics class just a year and a half after arriving in the United States. When asked, he stated, “The AP course was helpful and very interesting.”

5. Get to know your ELs and the academic strengths and skills they already have. Use that information to guide them to the type of rigorous courses they may enjoy and do well on. Provide alternative assessments that don’ rely heavily on language proficiency to identify ELs’ knowledge and academic readiness.

Hector came from Colombia at the beginning of his senior year. When reviewing his previous school record, the guidance counselor noticed he was in an engineering school. The counselor suggested he take AP Calculus, suspecting the other math courses would be too easy for him. But there was one pondering question, how would he do in the class if he didn’t know any English?  After the AP teacher reviewed Hector’s notebooks from his previous school, she agreed with the recommendation. Language was the main challenge in the AP course for Hector, so the teacher paired him with other Spanish-speaking students, gave him a dictionary, and asked him to stay after school weekly for extra help for language support.

6. Don’t let students quit too soon. It is not unusual for ELs to “panic” in the first few weeks into an AP course. It is a new experience, especially with the language demands. However, with the right support, students will be able to come out afloat. Don’t hesitate to connect with families to see how they could support at home by rearranging chores and other responsibilities to allow plenty of time to study.
Erika Santana was born in the Dominican Republic. She took all college level courses until the opportunity arrived for her to take AP courses. She was reluctant at first, but realized that this was the pathway she needed to take. She made her decision to take three AP courses: AP Psychology, AP English Language and AP Spanish Language. She spent three hours a day doing homework. She wanted to drop the AP English Language class at the beginning of the year. After a meeting with her parent, counselor and the teacher, she stayed and expressed that she found it very helpful and was glad she was not allowed to drop the class. She successfully finished all three courses.

7. Teachers need support as well. First, teachers need to know they will be supported by their administration. The administration needs to make a commitment not to use AP scores against teachers that welcome ELs into their classes. Teachers that welcome more ELs in their AP classes may have more 1s and 2s  on the AP exam (although many ELs score 3 or higher), but those scores should not be seen as failure, as we have seen that ELs gain so much more than what is captured in the AP scores. Besides, an EL may score a 2 on their first AP exam, but if they take a second one, chances are that they are in a better position to score a 3 or higher. 
Professional development is key to help AP teachers understand that there is no need “to water down” the curriculum for ELs – it’s all about the SEI strategies and scaffolding provided. Building vocabulary is essential for students’ access to the curriculum and to ensure they are fully engaged with the content. Helping teachers navigate the various language needs in an AP course setting is new for the majority of AP teachers, so we need to make sure we don’t leave them to figure things out on their own. Pairing AP teachers with ESL teachers for additional support may be beneficial. If the district has ESL coaches, that could be another way of supporting AP teachers; they could get help with lesson planning, creating alternate assessments, and pre-teaching vocabulary.  

Where to Start?

The first place to start is with the data. Review district and school data to see what story the data tells.  What are the trends? Which students are underrepresented? Secondly, engage administration with the “why” you need the change. Be prepared to back up your “why” with data to highlight the urgency. Third, once the administration agrees that change is needed, meet with teachers from various disciplines, including AP teachers, to discuss ideas and a plan of action that makes sense for your school community. Some ideas you may consider are already outlined above. Bring allies from the district’s administration if possible. Lastly, follow through with the ideas you generate as a group, even if it’s only one step at a time.

A Check on Our Values

In conclusion, if we truly believe in equity, then we have to live by that principle and ensure all students have access to rigorous instruction, not just to meet federal compliance mandates, but because it is the right thing to do. Let’s honor the “all students” that is often embedded in districts’ and schools’ mission statements. It is not up to the students to figure out how they could take advantage of all of these opportunities. It is up to us, as educators, to create these opportunities and various entry points for diverse learners, and to be intentional and proactive in bringing students in. Make AP participation part of the culture of your school and not something associated with a select group of students. According to the College Board, in AP courses “students learn essential time management and study skills needed for college and career success. They dig deeper into subjects that interest them and learn to tap their creativity and their problem-solving skills to address course challenges.” (https://apcentral.collegeboard.org). ELs, like any other student, deserve to learn, achieve, and be propelled to tap into all of their potential. The conversation needs to start with the adults, the decision-makers for the students. The students need to see that teachers have faith in them, that they can also do the work of AP courses successfully. Change can be made, and you will not be disappointed as the testimonies of the students included here clearly show.
Changing the landscape of your AP program may appear challenging, but it’s actually easier than it seems. It does require a commitment to equity and faith in your students. I won’t deny, the most difficult part is having conversations with the adults who may challenge these concepts. But if you persist, I promise you it will serve as a platform that will catapult the culture and climate of your school for ALL students to learn and achieve.

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