BY CLAIRE PARKER, CO-EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
Normally-lethargic seniors snapped back to life last week when they received their much-awaited NMSI checks. Students who passed AP math, science, and English exams last spring received $100 per exam as part of the National Math and Science Initiative program, which the school thought was supposed to last for three years. NMSI’s money for this program ran out, so it is not continuing this year. The Wilson community is expressing disappointment for a variety of reasons.
“I’ve been here for 15 years, and I see lots of things come down the pipe,” said Academic Coordinator Alex Wilson, tasked with implementing the NMSI program last school year. “We have [many] reform initiatives or models come through. So this program was to be three years — sure, right — until it’s not.”
NMSI is a nationwide program dedicated to advancing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education by improving AP exam performance in math, science, and English. It is made up of three main components: Saturday study sessions taught by outside instructors, mock exams graded by outside graders, and monetary incentives for students and teachers.
“The program’s high costs beg the question: did it work”
“The idea of the stipends is hugely expensive,” Mr. Wilson said. “I mean it’s fifty-something thousand for teachers, $32,000 for students. It’s weird money.” The program’s high costs beg the question: did it work?
“Opinions abound as to what impact these incentives had on performance,” wrote Principal Pete Cahall in his weekly note to parents. “However, there is no disputing the good news that a record number of scholars took a record number of AP courses last year.”
In spring, 2013, 602 students took 1318 exams, compared to 661 students and 1471 exams in 2014. And 708 students are scheduled to take 1691 exams in the spring of 2015.
AP English Language teachers saw higher pass rates and more students in their classes. Pass rates also improved in biology, chemistry, computer science, and Physics C.
“Pass rates also improved in biology, chemistry, computer science, and Physics C”
“Based on the data that we have seen coming out of Wilson with the one-year partnership, it definitely seemed like [NMSI] had some impact in helping to raise the AP passing rate at Wilson and also expand the number of students in the AP program,” said Matthew Reif in DCPS’ Office of Teaching and Learning. “I would temper that by saying that Wilson already has a strong record of increasing AP scores and the number of students taking AP courses.”
Teachers were divided over what caused improved pass rates. “I’m not entirely sure if I had kids pass because of NMSI or because they put in the time and effort to get prepared,” said AP English Language teacher Molly Ramos.
However, she said “There are some kids that really benefitted from two main things: the Saturday sessions and the mock exams graded by outside graders.” Teachers said they found these two components helpful to both their teaching and students’ performance. Mr. Wilson calculated that the study sessions added up to an additional four weeks of instruction.
“The presenters at the Saturday study sessions were outstanding. The resources were incredible. All the pieces were there,” said math teacher Elaine Smith.
Students were divided over whether money was a motivator. Junior Asa Canty said, “I don’t have a lot of motivation to study for those tests because I don’t even understand what they really do for you even if you get a 5, so at least if I knew money was coming I would know there’s some type of reward.”
“I would’ve taken [AP courses] anyway, but I feel like some of my friends would’ve dropped them if there wasn’t an incentive,” senior Ahotep Holder said. “I feel like its a nice gift for people who put a lot of work in either way.”
English teacher Belle Belew is worried that most of the students who profited from NMSI were kids who would have done well on the exams anyway. “There were a lot of resources for kids who didn’t need it, and not a lot of resources for kids who did need it,” she said. And the fact that the study sessions were held on Saturdays prevented disadvantaged students from attending them, she said.
Belew teaches a combination class made up of both AP English Literature and English Four students, which in her opinion is exactly the environment where NMSI is beneficial.
“I think the purpose of NMSI was to work with kids who were struggling to meet AP standards, and I think that was really useful [in that class] last year,” she said. However, her class is the only one of its kind at Wilson.
“The program is not being implemented this school year, and confusion still surrounds the question of why.”
Students, teachers, and administrators were under the impression that NMSI was a three-year program. The program is not being implemented this school year, and confusion still surrounds the question of why. “I don’t think anybody in this building has clear answers,” Ramos said.
“I don’t know the decision tree,” Mr. Wilson said. “I do not know what happened to year two or three. I always had the sense it was supposed to be a multi-year program.” Neither the school, NMSI, or District offices ever announced to teachers that the program would not be continued. NMSI did not respond to requests for an interview.
Reif wrote in an email to Mr. Wilson that the NMSI grant was funded by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, mainly with money from George Washington University. “Ideally, NMSI likes to partner with individual schools for a three-year basis. However, going into this, they knew that they only had guaranteed funding for one year,” Reif told me. “The hope had been that they would find funding for an additional year or two, so they applied for another grant from OSSE. However, they didn’t get that grant.”
“I’m just concerned that we don’t get a second chance,” Smith said.
Wilson views NMSI as a learning experience, and is hopeful that DCPS and the school can replicate some of its components. Reif however, said that monetary incentives are cost-prohibitive for DCPS, but DCPS is looking into budgeting for other components, such as study sessions, next year. For now, though, no remnants of the program remain.
AP Physics teacher Angela Benjamin said, “I wish the grant had lasted for three years so that it would have a chance to change the culture and not just be a one-time fluke.”
GRAPHIC BY JANE MARTIN