More local, Georgia students taking AP exams

acastillo@macon.comNovember 26, 2012 

In the atrium of Howard High School, pictures of students who have received passing scores on Advanced Placement exams during the nearly five years the school has been open hang on a wall. It’s known as the AP Wall of Fame.

The effort has received plenty of attention from current and former students, said Suzanne Spaid, Howard’s performance learning coach.

“We wanted to recognize everybody,” she said. “We do that with athletics. We need to bring the same level of recognition for our students who perform (academically).”

AP participation at Howard High School is on the rise, mirroring statewide and national trends.

Through the AP program, students can take college-level courses while they’re in high school. If students score a 3 or better (out of a maximum of 5) on the exam at the end of each course, they can earn college credit.

In Bibb County, more than 1,100 students took 1,681 AP exams in 2012, according to data provided by the district. The year before, almost 970 students took 1,309 exams.

In Houston County, participation in AP courses has increased significantly over the past six years, according to information from Jan Jacobsen, the system’s director of gifted education.

In 2006, Houston County students took 400 AP exams. By May 2012, they had taken 1,364 exams.

Houston’s pass rate on AP exams is above the national average. While 53 percent of the AP exams administered across the nation in May 2012 earned passing scores, 63 percent of the exams taken by Houston County students did.

“We attempt to maintain a rigorous and consistent program,” Jacobsen said by e-mail. “We have well-trained teachers who are thoughtful about their students and interested in their success.”

State data shows 69,495 Georgia students took AP exams in 2012, a 38 percent increase over the past five years. In 2012, more than 55 percent of the 116,703 AP exams received scores that could earn college credit, up 13.5 percent from 2011.

Test scores tend to go down as student participation goes up, but a more rigorous Georgia Performance Standards curriculum, as well as teacher preparation, may have contributed to the success of students in AP courses, among other factors, said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

For nearly 10 years, Bibb County has tried to boost enrollment in AP classes, not only by recruiting top students, but also college-bound students making average grades overall but who might show aptitude or interest in certain subjects, said Tandi Pressley, Bibb County’s director of gifted education.

Every year, Bibb County also offers its students a summer AP academy, where students are exposed to the skills they need in different courses with activities such as analyzing poetry or completing a biology lab.

Regardless of whether students pass their AP exams, going through the rigor of an AP course gives students an edge, Pressley said.

“Even if you don’t get a 3, 4 or a 5 on your exam, we know you’re going to be better prepared for college than if you had not taken that AP class,” she said.

The boost at Howard specifically comes, in part, from a three-year National Math and Science Initiative grant, which has gone toward providing training for teachers, mock exams for students and Saturday study sessions.

In the 2010-11 school year -- before the grant went into effect -- 34 of 133 Howard students received passing scores in math, science and English AP courses, said Spaid, who administers the grant. The next year, the number of those who took the exams rose to 363, with 87 passing.

While participation in AP courses has climbed in Bibb County in recent years, the rate of students countywide passing AP exams remains low. In 2012, just more than 14 percent of the AP exams taken by Bibb County students received passing scores.

One factor likely hurting Bibb’s pass rate is its schedule in high schools, where students may take an AP course in the fall and not take the exam until May, Pressley said.

Plans in the Macon Miracle -- the school system’s effort to improve the school system -- to switch to a seven-period day would mean students would take an AP course all year. That may help improve scores, she said.

Pressley points out that with the state’s new College and Career Ready Performance Index, AP participation and test scores will be two of many factors considered in the measure of a school’s success.

“It’s not going to be to a system’s advantage to return to a system of cherry-picking students for AP,” Pressley said.

AP courses teach students to consider different points of view and analyze documents, said Mike Davis, who teaches AP psychology at Veterans High School in Houston County.

In the course of his career, Davis has evolved his approach to teaching AP classes. At first, Davis said, he focused on teaching the facts, but he’s found the learning process itself is just as valuable if not more valuable to students.

“I think what I’m able to do is help students see the value of the process,” said Davis, whose classes have consistently achieved AP exam pass rates of more than 90 percent.

He also credits the success of Houston County students to training and support for teachers, as well as communication with parents about the program’s benefits.

“I honestly don’t know how to better prepare a student for university or college than an AP class,” Davis said.

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331.

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