Few area students taking Advanced Placement tests to earn college credit

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Maybe it's cost or lack of confidence. Whatever the reason, students at Central High School are enrolling in Advanced Placement courses but only a handful are taking the tests.

Students that complete the rigorous, college preparatory courses can earn college credit if they score high enough on voluntary exams at the end of the year. Research shows that success on AP exams can be a predictor of success in college.

Central plethora of AP classes are among the most offered in the region. More than 10 courses were offered last year, and AP American history, French and Spanish have been added this year. But recent data shows that only 39 students— out of about 1,380 — took one or more AP exams this spring.

Student success rates are rising; State data shows 64 percent of tests were scored a 3, 4 or 5, equal to the Missouri average. Last year, 62 percent of Central tests were scored a 3 or higher, according to principal Dr. Mike Cowan. Most colleges require at least a score of 3, on a scale of 1 to 5, for credit.

Still, Cowan wishes more students were attempting the test. He has arranged a meeting with AP teachers this week to discuss ways to encourage students to participate.

"It may be a confidence issue. They may not feel as if they are going to do as well as they would like to do," Cowan said, also citing the $86 exam fee and varying degrees of credit offered by colleges as reasons students may be deterred from taking the exams.

The number of students who took an AP class was unavailable Monday but are generally about the same size as a regular class.

Central's situation is not unique. In Jackson, about 4 percent of students took an AP exam (out of 91 tests taken, 74, or 81 percent, were scored a 3 or higher). Poplar Bluff and Sikeston, Southeast Missouri schools with comparable demographics to Central, had similar participation rates: 2.2 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively. Their success rates were 47 percent and 24 percent.

"I'd always like to see more students take it," said Vince Powell, principal of Jackson High School. "We put a put a pretty big emphasis on AP ... Increasing our rigor in all our classes is something we're working on."

The number of students participating in Cape Girardeau and Jackson far exceeds those in rural districts, where AP programs are nearly nonexistent.

No students took an AP exam last school year in Chaffee, Delta, Leopold, Oran or Zalma. Sixteen students took an exam at either Kelly, Meadow Heights, Oak Ridge, Perryville or Woodland, but only one student, at Meadow Heights, scored a 3 or higher.

Small schools simply don't have the resources for such programs, counselors said.

"I wish there was more to offer. I've talked to kids from bigger schools, and they came in with 18 hours," said Lacy Welker, Meadow Height's 2008 valedictorian and a freshman at Southeast Missouri State University. "I only came in with seven hours of elective credit."

Welker took a dual credit biology class in high school, which cost her nearly $500, she said. But Southeast only counted the class as an elective because she plans to enter a science field.

"With our school being so small, there wasn't a whole lot of choices," she said.

Instead of AP classes, most rural or small schools offer dual credit courses, where they pair with a university to offer college-level curriculum. In some cases, students are bused to a college campus, in other cases a trained teacher offers the class on-site.

In Zalma, students can take online classes during the school day through Three Rivers Community College or Southeast. In Delta, a correspondence course with the University of Missouri is offered, along with dual credit classes at the Sikeston Higher Education Center. High-performing Chaffee students are bused to Southeast for two hours each morning.

Dr. Douglas Christiansen, dean of admissions at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said graduating from a school without an AP program does not automatically put students at a disadvantage. Extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, test scores and other variables are all considered. The key is to take the most rigorous curriculum offered, he said.

For Mandy Tucker, Oak Ridge's valedictorian, that meant taking more science courses than required instead of elective courses. Tucker is now a freshman at Southeast.

"It's not that the magic word is AP. It's do they have the initiative, experience and knowledge to be successful." Students should be asking themselves "Can I take an online course or can I take a course at a community college?" he said.


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