More students taking Advanced Placement classes

March 2, 2014
Advanced Placement biology teacher Lisa Foglia helps students Maddy Foster, left, and Kirsten Miller with a project recently at Bentworth High School. - Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

In an effort to better prepare high school students for college, area school districts are attempting to increase the number of Advanced Placement courses available.

Washington and Greene counties are part of a growing trend across the country, as the number of public school students taking AP classes has nearly doubled over the last decade. The class of 2013 took 3.2 million AP exams, according to a recently released College Board report.

Advanced Placement exams, which started in the 1950s, offer a way for students to earn college credit while still in high school. AP exams are offered in 34 different subjects, and are designed to be rigorous. In order to earn college credits, students must score a three out of five points or higher on the exam.

Although the interest in AP classes varies among districts in both counties, many high schools in Washington and Greene Counties offer similar Advanced Placement courses leading up to the exam, including biology, calculus, physics, English literature and either U.S. or European history. Larger schools offer more selection, while smaller schools may offer just one class.

The College Board points out there’s room for more expansion: About 40 percent of public U.S. high schools don’t offer any AP classes. And nearly 300,000 students who were identified by standardized tests as having potential to succeed in AP graduated without taking the classes. It is reaching out directly to students identified as potentially ready for AP classes to encourage them to take them and teamed with Google to get more female and minority students into AP science and math classes.

Bentworth High School Principal George Lammay said he regularly encourages students to enroll in AP classes. Regardless of whether the student passes or fails the AP subject exams, Lammay said AP classes offer numerous benefits for students and teachers alike.

“It challenges teachers to improve … They can use the components in other ways besides their AP classes,” he said.

Lammay said Bentworth students are required to take the AP exam if they enroll in an AP class. Districts vary on this, with some requiring students to take the exam while others do not. Each exam costs $89.

Bentworth senior Matthew Vickless is looking forward to taking his first AP exams. Vickless is currently enrolled in AP chemistry and AP English. So far, Vickless said he is excelling in the courses and expects to do well on the exams.

“I feel that I will be successful,” he said. “I will have a pretty good understanding of the coursework to succeed.”

Vickless said he chose to enroll in AP classes to better prepare himself for college.

“I now know what to expect,” he said.

While Lammay would love to see each student who takes the exam score a three or above, he said some students just don’t test well. Roughly 50 percent of the students at Bentworth who take the exam receive a passing score, he said. On average, Bentworth offers one section for each AP class, and class sizes vary from four students to 18 or more. Lammay was unable to provide specific statistics on Bentworth’s success rates.

“But we have seen improvement,” he said. “AP chemistry is out front, and we’ve seen some excellent scores there.”

Other districts within the county are experiencing similar results.

Kerri Bauer, a guidance counselor at tiny Avella High School, said class sizes tend to be small for their AP classes with maybe 10 students per class enrolling.

Bauer said students are given the option to take the exam at the end of the course, and that roughly half of those who enroll decide to take the exam. She believes the cost deters additional students from taking it, as parents are responsible for paying for the exam.

“Some feel that if they aren’t going to perform well, it’s not worth taking the test,” she said.

Bauer said she doesn’t keep track of students scores, but said last year went fairly well.

According to the College Board, students who successfully complete an AP course and earn college credits will perform well in subsequent courses within the same discipline, tend to earn higher GPAs and are more likely to graduate in four or five years from college.

Currently, students enrolled or eligible to participate in the Federal Free of Reduced Price Lunch Program qualify for the College Board fee reduction on all AP exams they take.

At some districts, like Charleroi Area, students who receive a three or above on the exam are reimbursed for the testing fee. Patricia Mason, Charleroi Area High School principal, said students can even choose to take an AP exam for courses the district does not offer.

“They just have to prepare on their own,” she said.

Janet Toth, a counselor and AP coordinator at the high school, said roughly half of the student who take the exams pass.

At Peters Township High School, assistant principal Emily Sanders said they provide their students with 19 AP courses to choose from, a huge jump from the five or six classes Avella offers.

“We don’t run a class unless there are more than 10 students,” Sanders said. “We run multiple sections of each course and a class fills at 28 seats.”

Last year, Sanders said 316 students took 643 AP exams. She said students who take the classes are not required to take the exam, but that the district offers a nice incentive if they do.

“If they take an AP exam, they are exempt from the end-of-the-year final,” she said.

Sanders said the majority of students receive a passing score, and that each year, the number of AP exams taken increases.

“We’ve been consistent,” she said. “It grows every year.”

Sanders said the district takes the students’ interests and requests into consideration when adding courses. The next possible AP course the district is looking to add is AP art.

“We want to give our students the opportunity to maximum their learning,” Sanders said. “Ninety-eight percent of our student body goes to college.”

After four, intense nine-week periods, students take the AP exams in May. The test takes several hours and focuses on a variety of concepts touched on throughout the course.

Corey VanSickle, the AP coordinator and a guidance counselor with Carmichaels Area School District in Greene County, said the district’s limited staff only allows it to provide students with one AP course per year. VanSickle said the district rotates between AP U.S. and European histories, with AP European History being offered this year. VanSickle said there are 11 students enrolled.

“The amount of kids fluctuates,” she said. “European History is more difficult, so less kids take it.”

VanSickle is hopeful that the district can offer additional courses in the future. Currently, there are 336 students at the high school, VanSickle said.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to have if they want it,” VanSickle said of AP courses.

At West Greene School District, counselor Kim Hunter said the high school offers its roughly 350 students six different AP courses to choose from. Hunter said the class sizes are small, between four and 10 students, and about half of the students who take the exam pass.

“Smaller class sizes are always ideal,” she said.

Hunter said the district picks up the fee for one exam. If students choose to take multiple AP courses at once, they are required to pay the additional fees.

While some classes have greater success rates than others – Washington School District has offered AP Spanish for three years and so far only one student has scored a three or above – Lammay said it’s important to ensure that students will always have the opportunity to take them.

“We have to keep these courses in the curriculum,” he said. “I’ve had to defend AP courses before. “

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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