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Wilson Receives NMSI Grant


Big money is at stake with the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) grant to Wilson for its Advanced Placement program.  Announced on June 7, the grant aims to increase Wilson’s AP pass rates by providing students and teachers with monetary incentives and additional learning opportunities and support.

Beginning this year, students will receive $100 for every passing score (a three or higher) on any AP English, Math, or Science exam. Teachers will be awarded $1000 bonuses for meeting a predetermined goal of the number of passing students, and $100 additionally for every passing student. Administrators will receive $3000 bonuses if the goal is met.

The school itself will receive $5000 annually plus $25 for each student enrolled in an AP course. Last year, 602 students took AP courses.

The grant will also go toward administering two days of professional development and training to AP teachers, and to start Saturday study and support sessions that students will be expected to attend.

In addition, Hardy Middle School will become a pre-AP school, where students who will eventually feed into Wilson will be trained to handle AP courses.

Why AP?  Wilson’s director of Academic Programming Alex Wilson said that the effort is driven by a national need for engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. English is emphasized in addition to math and science because of the need to be able to write and communicate in any field.

According to the NMSI website, “The AP curriculum is the best indicator available of whether students are prepared for college-level work.  Students who master AP courses are three times more likely to graduate from college. For minority students, that multiplier is even greater: African-American and Hispanic students who succeed in AP courses are four times more likely to graduate from college.”

The program focuses on public schools with large populations of disadvantaged or minority students, and it appears to be working. From 2011 to 2012, African American students in the program more than tripled their number of qualifying scores, Hispanic students doubled theirs, and girls nearly doubled. Mr. Wilson said Wilson was invited to apply last spring, and was the only DCPS school to receive the grant.

Wilson offers 12 AP courses that fall within the NMSI grant program. Thirty-five percent of Wilson students took at least one AP class last year.

“I have taken AP’s in my time at Wilson not because I wanted to pass the exam and get college credit,” senior Todd Allen-Gifford wrote in an email, “but just because I wanted to be challenged to work hard for the duration of the school year itself. I think just the fact that the coursework is more rigorous than other classes is attractive to many students.”

“I think that anyone who goes to school to learn and excel will not need any bribing. As a student, it is your job and responsibility to come to school, pay attention in class, and do your work; not do the bare minimum,” wrote junior Graciela Barada. “I don’t understand why we’d be rewarded so highly for fulfilling the usual expectations.”

However, not all students are as intrinsically motivated as Barada and Allen-Gifford. Mr. Wilson said, “A lot of kids were destined to take APs from the get-go. But others walk in the door and think ‘AP, that’s not for me.’” Wilson hopes the incentives will sway these students.

Already, the grant is beginning to change students’ attitudes towards AP; junior Andrew Baskerville, who is not signed up for any AP classes this year, said the $100 incentive may lead him to try taking an AP course next year.

From 2008 to 2013, the number of AP exams taken per year rose from 952 to 1318. However, pass rates remained roughly the same, fluctuating between 45% and 47%. Mr. Wilson hopes the grant will boost the school’s pass rates, by encouraging students to study harder, combat senioritis, and take the exams more seriously.

“Right now, I think a lot of students might not care that much about their AP scores since they don’t affect your grades and aren’t required by many colleges,” said Allen-Gifford. “$100 is a lot of money for just about any high school student, and I think that will give more students a reason to desire success on these tests.”

But Barada believes that incentivizing the exams may harm the learning environment at Wilson: “By handing kids money so they’ll achieve higher test scores, you’re telling them that learning is singularly about being able to answer standardized questions and that knowledge is measured by how many you get right.”

AP Physics teacher Angela Benjamin called the grant “a temporary fix.” She said, “It’s here to stabilize this particular school. They [NMSI] build a culture that will leave success in its wake.”

While she believes the incentives will motivate students to do well and expects teachers will benefit from the additional training, she said the monetary incentives will not increase her motivation, since she has always been motivated to improve her students’ exam scores. Instead, the teacher bonus is “a reward for hard work that has been going on for years.”

“I think it’s an interesting experiment,” said Benjamin. “The school stands to gain from it because there’s a financial reward for the school, the teachers stand to gain from it substantially, and then each student. So it seems like it’s a win-win-win for everyone involved.”

as appeared in the August 30 issue of The Beacon