12/29/13 AP courses more popular locally

AP courses more popular locally
Student enrollment up 23 percent in four years
By Isaac Groves, The Times-News 12/29/13  
Reprinted with permission.      

There are more students taking Advanced Placement classes in the Alamance-Burlington School System, but they don’t all have the same opportunities to take them at every high school.

“It’s a significant improvement in some of the schools, so I’m very pleased about that,” Alamance-Burlington Board of Education member Patsy Simpson said. “But I’m having significant issues with there being more AP classes at some schools than others.”

AP classes can give a great advantage to college-bound students since those classes can raise a grade-point average higher than 4.0, award students college credit and even let them skip some freshmen-level classes when they get to college.

The numbers of AP courses ABSS students are taking rose steadily from 2008-09 to 2011-12, increasing by 23 percent, and bumped up nearly 17 percent between 2011-12 and last year, according to ABSS documents.

Kent Byrd, secondary education program director for ABSS, said it looks like students will take more AP classes in this school year. So overall, the picture is good.

But the differences in AP classes from one high school to another reflect the differences in end-of-grade tests and other academic measures.

For example, Williams High School offers the most AP classes in the district — 16 — while Cummings High School offers five classes in school and two more online.

“We have some schools that are in a building phase,” Byrd told the school board at its December meeting. “These principals are keenly aware of this challenge.”

Simpson also asked ABSS staff to look into whether students do better with AP classes in the classroom than online.

More than three times the number of students at Williams took AP classes than at Cummings last year. And 5.5 percent of Cummings students completed their AP classes last year, while nearly 37 percent of Williams students did.

Western High School last year had the best completion rate in ABSS: 52 percent.

Schools, of course, can offer classes only when enough students sign up for them, Simpson said, so there can be a limit on how many classes a school can offer.

Students can take classes at other high schools, Byrd said, when the principals at the two schools make arrangements. But students cannot transfer from one school to another to take higher-level classes.

Simpson said she thinks students should have better access, whether through transfers or transportation. “If we can do it for career training, we should be able to do it for AP classes,” Simpson said.

Students leave their high schools during the day to take classes at the Career and Technical Education Center. It offers one AP class in computer science.

Another challenge Byrd talked about was getting more students to take the AP tests that bring the college credits.

While more students are taking AP tests, going from 889 in 2010-11 to 1,017 last year, the percentage of students taking the tests actually dropped a little, from more than 60 percent down to nearly 55 percent, over the same years.

While more students are taking the classes, not all of them are necessarily prepared for the harder work and harder tests, Byrd said.

Preparation for this kind of coursework really starts in middle school, Byrd said, so part of the fix is having middle and high school teachers work together to make sure students are prepared. Although, Byrd said, there are challenges to that as well.

Parents, Byrd said, also should encourage their children to read more starting as early as middle school, go to science camps and participate in science, technology, engineering and math programs in schools.

The $89 cost of taking an AP test should not be a barrier, said Steve Achey, director of accountability services at ABSS, since assistance is available for low-income students.

The College Board, which oversees AP classes and tests, will knock $26 off the price for qualifying students, according to its website, and the state receives grants for students to take tests in some subjects, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction website.

There were reduced fees last year for 30 percent of all the tests students took, Achey said.