February 24, 2016
ExxonMobil Gives $13 Million Grant to Louisiana to expand AP Classes at High Schools

Louisiana’s efforts to expand students taking Advanced Placement classes got a $13 million shot of adrenalin Wednesday from ExxonMobil.

The energy giant is seeking to dramatically increase the number of high school students in the state who take and pass college-level courses in math, science and English. Despite recent growth, Louisiana still lags behind all but Mississippi in the percentage of its graduates who pass AP exams.

At the announcement ceremony Wednesday, which was held at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, ExxonMobil’s Mark Northcutt said that boosting Advanced Placement is a logical outgrowth of the company’s operation. Workers skilled in science-intensive fields are in steady demand in his industry and the skills demanded keep growing, he said.

“Around the country there are good jobs going unfilled,” said Northcutt, who is manager of ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge refinery.

Almost 2,800 graduates of public high schools in Louisiana passed AP exams last year, or about 8 percent. That’s more than twice the percentage of public school graduates who passed AP exams in 2010. The College Board, the creator of Advanced Placement, reported earlier this week that Louisiana has the second-highest AP growth rate in the nation.

Louisiana, however, is well behind its goal of reaching the national average on this measure by 2016; that average currently stands at 22 percent.

State Superintendent of Education John White, a former AP English teacher himself, has been a big proponent of the college-level courses since taking over in 2012. He said ExxonMobil’s generosity will provide a big boost to the state’s efforts.

“If I were to design a grant, it would look like this,” said an appreciative White.

The plan in the first year is to expand AP in 18 schools in Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Iberville, Vernon, West Baton Rouge, West Feliciana parishes, as well as in Zachary, targeting an estimated 2,775 students. More than 15,000 students are expected to benefit over the five years of the grant.

The Dallas-based nonprofit National Math and Science Initiative has been tapped to spend the ExxonMobil money. The group, through its College Readiness Program, already works in more than 800 schools in 30 states. Four of those schools are in Louisiana. Bossier and Parkway high schools in Bossier City launched the program in 2014. Baton Rouge Magnet and McKinley high schools joined last fall.

After their first year, Bossier and Parkway high schools more than doubled the number of students in those schools who earn a passing grade of a 3, 4 or 5 on an AP exam. It’s too early to tell how well it’s working in Baton Rouge high schools, but Baton Rouge Magnet Principal Nan McCann said she’s seeing increased student interest in the program this year.

NMSI, which began the College Readiness Program in 2007, touts big gains in passage rates on Advanced Placement exams for all students, particularly noting the gains made by female, Hispanic and African-American students. The initiative offers a variety of help for participating schools: a summer training institute, mentors for teachers new to AP, three Saturday help sessions for students at participating schools, and extra money for schools to buy additional AP instructional materials.

The program also pays $100 per passing AP exam score that it gives to both students and teachers. That has sparked criticism from opponents of such financial incentives who argue that it impairs students’ intrinsic motivation.

NMSI Chief Executive Officer Matthew Randazzo said on Wednesday that the program believes its student and teacher incentives work, but it is participating now in a large research project to tease out to what extent the incentives, as opposed to other parts of the program, are improving student achievement.