In 2003, approximately 58,000 students from low-income backgrounds took an Advanced Placement (AP) exam. By 2013, that number had more than quadrupled to almost 275,000 low-income students taking at least one Advanced Placement exam. As AP courses increasingly become “open enrollment,” more students have the opportunity to enroll in these advanced courses, including those with weaker academic skills, lower socioeconomic background, and minority status. Unfortunately, while passing rates on AP exams overall are showing an upward trend, passing rates for students from such backgrounds continue to lag. Additionally, there is a growing concern that the scope of most AP courses is too broad for a one- or two-semester course, causing rushed coverage, teaching to the test, and superficial learning. As a result of these developments, along with the adoption of Common Core Standards by most states, the College Board and other stakeholders are interested in restructuring AP courses to meet the learning needs of all AP students.
In the last few years, the George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF) has responded to these developments by supporting the creation of a curriculum that features project-based learning (PBL) for AP classes. PBL is a classroom approach that emphasizes students’ “deeper learning” through projects that promote active exploration of real-world problems and challenges. In partnership with the University of Washington, GLEF has piloted Knowledge in Action (KIA) — a PBL curriculum designed for AP classes — and piloted it in a small number of schools. The pilot showed that this PBL curriculum holds promise for improving outcomes, such as engagement and deeper learning skills, without lowering AP pass rates. In late 2014, MDRC received a grant from GLEF to lay the groundwork for future scaling of project-based learning, potentially combined with a rigorous evaluation of its efficacy compared to traditional forms of AP course instruction in the future.