Block scheduling of advanced placement classes can work well with careful planning

iStock_000016940545XSmallStudent achievement in Advanced Placement (AP) classes increased at Mayfield High School in Las Cruces, New Mexico following restructuring that included block scheduling. Three educators recently presented findings of five years’ experience with block scheduling in their AP classes. Del Hansen teaches math and physics and was the administrator responsible for implementing block scheduling. Marilyn Gutman teaches AP calculus and was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching. Jim Smith teaches AP history and wrote Ideas That Shape a Nation, a supplemental text for AP U.S. History.

Previous studies of block scheduling have pointed out particular problems with AP courses. Parents, students and teachers report difficulties fitting the courses
into busy schedules, covering an entire course in just one semester and remembering coursework taken in the fall for AP tests given in the spring. Hansen et al. attempted to solve each of these problems. They report that their efforts have resulted in more students taking AP classes and increased numbers of passing scores on AP exams.

Mayfield’s 2 X 4 Block Schedule

The 2 X 4 schedule adopted at Mayfield means that each student takes eight courses during the year, four each semester. Under this system, each faculty member teaches three courses and has one planning period per day. Classes are 87 minutes in length and the entire school of 2,300 students has one common lunch period following the first two blocks of the day.

The loss of class time – down from 152 hours to just 125 hours per course – represented the most serious problem faced by AP students and teachers. In addition, the fact that AP tests are administered just once a year in the spring, means that students in block-scheduled schools either have not had a full semester to cover the material if they take an AP course in the spring, or have to wait several months after they complete their fall course before they are tested on the material. Students also found it difficult to fit all the AP classes they wanted to take into the new block schedules.

Scheduling AP classes

After much discussion, the staff at Mayfield restructured their AP program in the following ways to better fit the block format:

1. AP classes can no longer be used to meet graduation requirements. AP classes are considered electives that demand a prerequisite. Students must complete graduation requirements with pre-AP classes. For example, students take all their math requirements as well as an introductory calculus class, before taking AP calculus. This allows students to test whether they are suited for AP-level coursework and it enables teachers to go well beyond what they might have been able to cover previously in AP classes.

2. To accommodate the AP testing schedule, AP classes are now scheduled in the spring semester only. This means that students desiring to take several AP classes may need to schedule them in both their junior and senior years.

3. Administrators assigned to the AP program work out scheduling conflicts. Two teachers at Mayfield work together to create a schedule that seeks to reduce
scheduling conflicts. For example, if large numbers of students sign up for AP Calculus and band, these classes would not be scheduled at the same time. Although schedules are complicated to create, the number of scheduling conflicts for AP students is now lower than it was under the old six-period schedule.

AP Test Results

Over the last five years, as Mayfield teachers alleviated problems that originated when they restructured their curriculum and adopted block scheduling, student achievement has increased. Their data demonstrate that the overall pass rate (a score of 3 or better on the AP exam) has increased by 33 percent, while the number of students taking AP classes has risen by 37 percent. In some subjects, the increases are much greater. In U.S. History, for example, scores of 3 or higher are up 110 percent and the number of students taking the exam has doubled. In the AP calculus classes, the number of students scoring 3 or better is up 71 percent and the number of students is up 21 percent. And while AP English enrollment and scores are unchanged, the number of students in AP German is up 125 percent and passing scores are up 100 percent. Hansen et al. conclude that careful planning and monitoring of their block schedule
has led to an enhanced AP program. Mayfield teachers continue to monitor their students’ performance to determine the long-term results of their restructuring.

“Scheduling AP Classes in a 2 X 4 Block Schedule” Phi Delta Kappan Volume 82, Number 3, November 2000 Pp. 209-211.

Published in ERN December/January 2001 Volume 14 Number 1

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