Take Tough Class But Not The Test?
Board member: Make exams for college credit a requirement

Las Vegas Sun
September 19, 2008

By Emily Richmond

Clark County high schools are among the best in the nation in boosting their enrollment in Advanced Placement courses, challenging classes that are seen as key to improving student achievement. But at least one member of the Clark County School Board says students aren't getting the full benefit of the courses.

Students who complete the courses and score well on exams administered by a private national organization can earn college credits. Studies show those students are better prepared for the rigors of college than their peers.

But a third of the Clark County high schoolers who enroll in AP courses never take the exams.

School Board member Carolyn Edwards has proposed requiring the students to take the exams, which cost $84 each. She also wants to penalize students who don't by revoking the extra credit on their grade point average that comes with an AP class.

"We should be telling our students we expect them to try their best," Edwards said. "That means on every test, including the AP exams."

Advanced Placement courses, which are offered in a number of subjects, are based on college-level curricula and some colleges offer credit to students who score at least a 3, out of a possible 5, on the AP exams.

About 70 percent of Clark County students in AP classes take the corresponding exam, administered by the College Board. That's close to the national average of 74 percent, according to the College Board's 2007 data.

(The percentage of Clark County students scoring a 3 or better on the exams has been declining - to 47 percent last school year from 56 percent four years ago. Nationally, 60 percent earned a score of at least 3.)

A study last year of more than 200,000 students attending universities in Texas concluded that students who took an AP class and the exam were more likely to graduate on time, and with a higher GPA, than their peers who took the class but skipped the exam. Students who received low exam scores still showed greater overall academic success.

Two earlier studies found students who scored well on AP exams do better in college than their classmates.

However, there's reluctance among some district officials to make the exams mandatory because of the cost, and the possibility that students might opt out of the AP program altogether.

AP enrollment has increased sharply. In the 2007-08 school year, the district filled 12,904 AP seats, up from 4,863 in 2000-01. That has led to crowded classrooms, with 40 or even 50 students per teacher for some of the more popular courses.

Because students earn extra credit on their GPA for their first two AP classes, Edwards thinks some students enroll to improve their chances of being valedictorian, or decide early on they won't take the exam and don't give the class their full effort.

If the exam were a requirement, Edwards said, students would pay closer attention in class. Nationwide, some school districts already require AP students to take the exam, while others leave the decision up to schools. In Nevada, Washoe and Douglas counties make the exam mandatory.

AP students disputed Edwards' claim that the extra credit is a motivating factor.

"You have to really want to be there," said Daron Willer, a junior at Green Valley High School enrolled in three AP classes. "It's too much work otherwise."

Homework for the classes takes about three hours a night, she said.

School Board member Ruth Johnson disagrees with Edwards' proposed changes, saying "one test, two hours of their lives and $84" shouldn't determine a student's academic ranking.

The cost appears to be the biggest hurdle to making the tests mandatory. The district has funds to help low-income students pay the exam fee, but the pot isn't big enough to meet the need. If the district had covered the cost of every AP exam last year, the bill would have topped $750,000.

Jeri Roberts, who has taught AP classes in Clark County since 1986, said the district shouldn't make the exam mandatory unless it shoulders the cost.

"Some of my children take four, five, even six AP classes. That's a huge chunk of money," said Roberts, who has been at Green Valley High since it opened in 1991.

Green Valley Principal Jeff Horn said each year he spends about $3,500 in school funds helping students pay for their AP exams. The Henderson campus has one of the district's highest exam participation rates.

Clark County's AP students may be shortchanging themselves in more ways than one by skipping the exam, said Steve Goodman, a college admissions adviser based in Washington, D.C. Twenty years ago, an AP class on a high school transcript carried a "wow factor," but with 15 percent of the nation's high school seniors earning at least a 3 on an AP exam in 2006, "it's not the calling card it used to be," he said.

"Having a lot of AP classes without taking the exams is going to raise a lot of eyebrows in a college admissions office," Goodman said.

Making the exam mandatory, however, could discourage some students from signing up, which means they would miss out on the benefit of being exposed to more challenging curricula. Districts have to find ways to increase exam participation without scaring off the very students most in need of encouragement, he said.

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