Advanced Placement courses prepare high school students for college – Sue Newbry Haynie

Last year, the College Board released a wholesale revamping of AP biology. The goal was to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking. In biology, a host of more creative, hands-on experiments are intended to help students think more like scientists. The changes, which took effect this school year, are part of a sweeping redesign of the entire AP Program


In 1970, only 26 percent of the workforce had a college diploma; in 2012, 61 percent of the middle class does, according to “The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm,” a report produced by Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute .

Forty years ago, a high school graduate could exchange a higher wage later for a wage right now, and the trade might work out. In the current recession, the economy has seen losses for both men and women at the blue-collar level, and the only jobs available require postsecondary education, often a bachelor’s degree.

The unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma is 24 percent. The unemployment for all college graduates is 4.5 percent. The unemployment rate for recent college graduates is a bit higher, but it does not approach the rate for those with no postsecondary education.

High school students must prepare for college if they hope to have a middle-class income. Many parents and students are unsure what constitutes adequate preparation.

The best standard for preparation for college is a good working knowledge of the subject matter earned in challenging courses during high school. For further definition, one of the tools recommended for college preparation is the Advanced Placement Program, administered by the nonprofit College Board, which also administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

The Advanced Placement Program began in 1955 as an attempt by a group of high school and university instructors to bring more rigor into high school courses. The group wanted a test at the end of the course to prove what the students had learned.

The program has continued improving and expanding . High school and university instructors cooperate to write curriculum for new courses, review course material, train new instructors and grade exams.

The obvious benefits for a Clark County student taking an AP course are a better teacher, more committed students in the class and a mathematical boost to the student’s GPA. Teachers request these classes and are given additional training upon getting the assignment.

Students must have a history of good grades to take these courses or fill out paperwork to “challenge” the course. Thus, the environment in an AP classroom is more conducive to learning. And as long as a student passes the course for credit, the GPA boost applies.

In Clark County, a 0.025 boost per semester is added to the GPA of a student who passes an honors level class in any subject for credit. There is an added bonus for taking up to two AP classes, which doubles the GPA boost since the AP class is considered even harder than the honors class. This bonus is added until the student has taken up to 14 classes. A student in Clark County may graduate with up to a 4.8 GPA if he or she takes all of the higher level classes offered and gets A grades throughout high school.

The AP Program is not, however, a panacea for college readiness. Many high school students take the courses hoping to get a top spot at an Ivy League university or hoping the score on an AP exam will allow them to opt out of freshman-level courses at their chosen university. Some students even talk about the scores as if they were credits at a university, because the test is scored on a five-point scale, with three as a passing score.

Many universities will allow a student with a high score on an AP exam to opt out of the freshman-level course, but they will require the sophomore-level course instead. In other words, the university is still going to require the student to prove himself qualified in the subject area.

Some universities don’t accept the mathematically boosted GPAs. Some accept the GPA based on “core” classes only, with electives left out of the calculation. Many universities are unwilling to compare students based on how many AP classes are taken, but prefer to look at the highest level course a student took in each core area. It is wise for a student to look online at the admissions requirements for the various universities he or she is considering before deciding where effort is best spent.

According to the eighth annual AP Report to the Nation, produced by the College Board , more than 900,000 students took at least one AP exam in 2011. About 540,00 students passed the test with a score of three or higher. This means nationwide, just under 60 percent of students who take a course and pay up to $89 for an exam (fees are sometimes supplemented) actually have something besides experience to take away.

A telling statistic is that more than 600,000 high school graduates arranged for their scores to be reported to colleges and universities. A third of test-takers either were not confident they would attend college or were not confident enough in their potential scores to arrange for the free reporting service, which is done in advance of taking the test.

Longtime Nevada residents may be tired of hearing negative results for test scores. For the most part, however, Nevada is in good shape with regard to the AP exam. The national average for percentage of all students graduating and passing at least one AP exam is 18.1 percent. The College Board states that this number is an indication that more students are in need of this more rigorous education.

Nevada’s total for 2011, the most recent year for which there are statistics, is 16.1 percent. This percentage places Nevada 22nd among the states. Nevada is 15th in the nation for positive change in this percentage (increase in numbers of students taking and passing the tests) since 2001, the first year for which the numbers were calculated nationwide. If one accepts the AP exam as a measure of rigor, Nevada is improving.

According to the AP Report, when a school cannot justify offering a specific AP class because of limited enrollment, this represents an equity issue. The College Board is concerned about students who are not offered the opportunity to enroll in the more rigorous AP courses when they have tested well on the Pre-Scholastic Aptitude Test or who attend schools that do not offer the courses.

Although previous successful experience in similar courses is a good indicator of potential success, a student with aptitude, as indicated by a high score on an aptitude test, should be considered a candidate for AP classes. And a student interested in taking a particular class should be allowed to transfer if his or her zoned school does not offer it.

According to Clark County School District English teachers, a good candidate for the AP Program is one with both aptitude in the subject area and a good work ethic. Schools are interested in having high numbers of students in AP classes, because this looks good in reports they send to district officials and publish on the Internet.

“While I’m not a fan (in general) of arbitrarily trying to push more kids into AP, there are the exceptions — kids who never thought about it or were never really given the chance, who do succeed with that extra push,” said Jennifer Hiller, a Clark County School District veteran of 19 years and an AP teacher. “But AP is only for the students who are truly committed. Ability and intellect are certainly factors, but drive and determination go a long way — even in something as difficult as AP.

“In my opinion, the push to enroll more students in AP is from the top. It makes a school look like a top performer if a lot of students are taking AP. When enrolling a student in AP is best for the student, not some ranking system, then I’m in 100 percent.”

Emily Herdt, who graduated from Centennial High School as valedictorian in 2003 with a GPA of 4.7 (then the maximum students could earn), said, “I thoroughly enjoyed math and chemistry, so I really wanted to take those. I also took English literature and English composition because of the teachers. English is not my favorite subject, but the teachers were highly invested in the students. I wanted to succeed both to please them and to show I could master something that was taught with such effort.”

Herdt went on to attend the University of Utah and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and she graduated from UNLV with a degree in chemistry.

In 2011, most of the students who took AP exams in Nevada failed. According to the AP Report, just 9 percent of Nevada’s AP exam-takers got the maximum score of 5; 15.2 percent got a 4 and 24.1 percent got a 3. The total percentage of students passing the test was 48.3 percent. Most of those failing got the lowest score of 1, a total of 26.5 percent, with 25.2 percent receiving a 2.

According to the rationale given in the report, this indicates a lack of equity. In other words, the College Board would say Nevada needs to do a better job of finding the right students for the program. Nationwide, more than 40 percent of students who participate in AP do not pass.

The College Board stated that just as not all students are ready for college, not all high school students are ready for AP, and greater emphasis needs to be placed on preparing students in the pre-AP years (typically grades 6-10) for the rigors of AP.

The College Board sees a need to expand opportunities for prepared and motivated students, and it expressed dismay at the fact that American Indian/Alaska Native, black and Hispanic students with high levels of readiness for AP, especially as indicated on the PSAT, may not have been given the opportunity, encouragement or motivation to participate.

Successful former Clark County School District students indicate that AP is useful but not necessary to prepare for college.

“My opinion is that students should take AP classes in the areas where they think they will major in college,” Herdt said. “This will not only better prepare them with the format and knowledge base, but it proves to a college you will succeed in that area.”

Chris Harris, another former Centennial High School student, said he took honors-level courses in high school but chose not to take any AP classes, putting his time instead into many school activities. He feels he got a challenging, well-rounded education that prepared him for college. He is a successful college graduate.

Those who promote adding rigor to the curriculum are unanimous in saying that nothing replaces a good working knowledge of a subject. The knowledge a student takes with him when he leaves the classroom, no matter where life takes him, whether it is college or to a job, can never be taken away.