AP Annual Conference 2023

A Special Education Playbook: Expanding AP to Reach All Students

For AP U.S. History teacher Jeff Rainer, the biggest thing he discovered when he switched from Special Education to the AP® classroom was that accommodations can help every student be successful.

“By the time our students get to the AP Exam, they have done more writing than they have in most of their classes,” Rainer said, during his presentation at the AP Annual Conference last week in Seattle. Rainer, who teaches at Streetsboro High School in Ohio, presented a session on including special education students in AP courses.

The reality is that the strategies I used for years in teaching special education students—the foundational skills of helping them plan their work and assignments—helped our other students in the class who technically didn’t need them.

Jeffrey Rainer, AP United States History/Government and Politics Teacher, Streetsboro High School

In 2019, Streetsboro High School began recruiting its special education students to take AP U.S. History, using individual evaluations of students’ readiness by looking at PSAT-related test scores and classroom grades, teacher recommendations, and direct conversations with students. “We wanted to be very methodical about our process for this,” said Kelly Simmons, School Counselor at Streetsboro. 

The first class included 18 special education students (11% of the sophomore class); by 2023 the class included 49 students (31% of the sophomore class). In each year, 100% of the AP U.S. History students took the exam, and scores averaged a 3 each year.

Rainer, a 30-year teaching veteran, said there aren’t many differences between the typical AP student and a typical special education student. “They all have to access difficult curricula, they all express anxiety and need, they all have individual learning styles, and all need repetitive practice.”

Techniques like graphic writing, vocabulary quizzes on key concepts, and writing prompt prewriting have helped Streetsboro special ed students develop a strategy for tackling their assignments and eventually the exam. Rainer also produces a daily video note to remind students of what they covered in class and as a support for homework assignments.

“Once we were able to move beyond our traditional thinking about who is able to access this coursework,” Simmons said, “we realized that there is a very thin line between special education and traditional students.”