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Advanced Placement courses connect UCPS students to rigorous college preparatory classes

Piedmont High student UCPS student participation in Advanced Placement exams, and the passing scores earned on those exams, have boomed in recent years, largely thanks to a districtwide focus on enrolling more students in rigorous courses designed to prepare them for college.

Widely known as beneficial for high school students, Advanced Placement (AP) courses help students develop college-level academic skills and increase chances for college-specific merit aid.

But the benefits don’t end there: many colleges and universities also grant credits for certain courses based on AP test scores of a three or higher – a move which saves students money on college tuition while potentially helping them to graduate earlier.

Those far-reaching benefits have been the driving forces behind the district’s goal of expanding access to the rigorous college introductory classes in every part of the county.

"Fundamentally, research has proven that the level of rigor of coursework in an AP class will prepare students for college. From an access and equity standpoint, that's why we have been so big on pushing AP courses throughout the district," said UCPS Superintendent Dr. Andrew Houlihan. "Passing the exam is great, but even if you don't pass it, the experience you have greater prepares you for college and life after high school. Just the experience of venturing through an AP course, given the challenges and level of rigor that a student is exposed to, makes them well-rounded students."

Five years ago, UCPS students participated in less than 4,000 exams in 26 subjects. Some schools offered as few as eight courses while others offered as many as 24 courses.

Thanks to creative scheduling at the school level, expanding the number of AP subjects and courses offered in schools, teacher training and support, those numbers have steadily increased each year.

A combined 5,309 Advanced Placement exams were administered during the 2018-19 school year, which was a 32 percent increase from five years ago. Additionally, every high school now offers at least 10 AP courses in 31 high-demand subjects that include psychology, human geography, research and computer science principles.

More exams administered during the 2018-19 school year earned a passing score of a three or higher than at any point in UCPS history, and student participation among underrepresented populations experienced double-digit percent increases (36.5 percent among black students, 27.1 percent among Hispanic students and 27.1 among first-generation students) as compared to 2016.

Sun Valley and Parkwood high schools experienced some of the district’s largest growth regarding the number of AP exams administered since 2016 (133 percent and 69 percent, respectively).

The number of students participating in AP exams at Sun Valley and Parkwood high schools also increased (an 86 percent increase at Sun Valley High and a 64 percent increase at Parkwood High) and both schools posted impressive gains in the percentage of students earning a passing score of a three or higher on AP exams.

Parkwood High Principal Carole Alley attributed this growth to a shift in mindset among students and staff.

“Students who are not in the top 10 of their class are being successful in these courses because they work extremely hard. You don’t have to be a straight A student to participate in AP classes, and it was a shift in mindset to have students understand that,” Parkwood High Principal Carole Alley said. “We’re offering a lot more variety in subjects that students are interested in and we talk to the students a lot to really encourage them to participate.”

Even as more students throughout the district are connecting to the rigorous introductory college courses during high school, the momentum is not ending there.

Through the district’s offering of the PSAT to all sophomores during the school day, schools are now able to identify which students may have potential to succeed in AP courses. That data is just one of the ways schools are recruiting students who otherwise may not have considered enrolling in the courses.

“Another option could be inviting groups of friends and encouraging them to band together and take the courses, because sometimes letting them know that they have potential is what it takes,” Garner said. “We’re not done. Our goal is to continue to work with schools on specific strategies to recruit students because these courses can be so beneficial to them.”

For more information about AP courses, please contact your student’s school or view the 2019-20 Program of Studies handbook.

Posted: Nov. 6, 2019