Shrinking the gap... (Part 1 of 3)

MARSHALL COUNTY — A cautionary historical tale: Susan makes her way through high school taking required courses for graduation, but not really thinking about her future. Upon graduation, not being motivated to go to college, she searches for a job requiring only a high school diploma. After successfully working for two years, she realizes she wants something more, and enrolls in a nearby college. To her dismay, she discovers that her dimly-remembered high school experience and her new college atmosphere are worlds apart. She experiences the feeling of starting all over again in college. To complete her angst, her high school classmates have already begun their first career, and seem to have flowed smoothly from high school to college or the workplace.
That scenario is seen today with great ramifications. An Indiana Public Radio report last Wednesday indicated that going forward, two-thirds of future jobs in the state will require post-secondary education — either a two or four-year college degree or a certification in a technical field. In addition, post-secondary expenses have risen dramatically, creating a dilemma for most students and parents.
In an effort to help students be successful and to create a more seamless transition from high school to college, educators and the Indiana state government have taken steps in that direction. This series of articles will explore three programs which strive to blend high school with college. Today’s installment will explore Advanced Placement classes. Next, the Dual Credit option will be presented. The final segment will introduce the cutting-edge Early College High School model under construction at Triton Jr./Sr. High School. In addition, current practices in all Marshall County high schools as well as problems with each model will be addressed.
Advanced Placement classes began after World War II. The College Board, a not-for-profit organization based in New York City, has run the AP program since 1955. In it, the College Board develops and maintains guidelines for the teaching of higher level high school courses in certain disciplines which are required for entry into the same field in college. The curriculum for each course is established by a panel of college-level educators in each subject. Each prospective high school course is audited by the College Board before it is allowed to be listed as AP. If the course is approved, the high school may use the AP designation and list it on the AP Ledger.
Students may choose not to take the AP course but still receive AP credit because the entire approval is based on a single comprehensive exam covering the course material taken toward the end of the course. This allows home-schooled students to get AP credit without attending class at a high school. It is noted, however, that statistically, students score higher on the exam who have taken the class.
Advanced Placement exams are graded on a system from one to five. A student must score at least a three to be considered by a higher education institution for advanced credit. Scoring a four or a five is better, of course. Students who take the class but do not score high enough on the exam to receive AP credit still receive the regular high school credit upon passing the course.
There are at least 34 courses and exams currently available through the AP program, although each high school chooses which, if any, courses it will offer. In 2014, two additional courses will be added: AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2. Most high schools offer at least one or two AP courses.
A huge plus with AP courses is the dramatic savings to families in college costs. Any AP credits awarded by a college are that many credits applied to the student’s degree requirements which do not have to be paid to the college in tuition. High School AP classes are free to the student except for the cost of the AP exam. In Indiana, the legislature has decreed that math and science AP exams will not be charged to the student.
While the AP program is widely accepted and attempts to give the student an early start on college curriculum, it has its share of problems also. A score on the AP exam does not guarantee credit in college. Each higher education institution makes its own decision regarding accepting and awarding credit. A certain college which does not believe that the AP course meets its requirements as a prerequisite for the next course in a series does not have to accept the AP course in place of its own on-campus version. Also, the college decides what type and how much credit to award, and what score is necessary for such awards. For example, a student who scores a three on the exam in a math class may be offered three credits in a corresponding math class at the college designed for non-math majors. A score of four or five might receive credit for a course that applies to a math major.
Furthermore, there is a fee to take the AP exam, which is used to maintain the program nationwide. The possibility exists that the student may not score high enough on the exam to receive AP credit, thereby forfeiting the fee paid. Although the fee changes from year to year and with financial aid available for students who qualify, in any case the fee is less than $100 per exam.
Considering all of the above factors, general school and educational wisdom says that it is better to take an AP class, if qualified academically, than not to take it. The only risk is the test fee, and many colleges (about 31 percent) consider AP experience when making scholarship decisions. In addition, the curriculum mirrors what the student will encounter when reaching college. An exception to this view occurs when the same class may be taken either for AP credit or Dual Credit. In that case, dual credit might be the better option because it is not solely dependent upon the one AP exam.
High schools in Marshall County make their own decisions about which system to recommend based upon the particular needs of the students involved. Culver Academies, a private high school, maintains a “robust program of AP offerings,” according to Academic Dean Kevin Macneil. The chart indicates the 21 AP courses offered by the school — far more than any public high school in the county. Culver Academies offers no Dual Credit classes, however, and does not plan to do so in the future. The six public high schools all offer Dual Credit classes and are working to expand their offerings. Why the discrepancy? The answer is because of individual student needs.
Apparently, some colleges, especially in the East, prefer the AP system and use it heavily to inform admissions and scholarship decisions. Many Academies students will not attend college in Indiana, and so prefer to devote energy to the AP system which will likely best prepare them for further education. Roughly 280 students will take approximately 580 AP exams this year at Culver Academies. The public high schools, by contrast, feed extensively into Indiana public and private post-secondary institutions. Pair with that the fact that a dual credit course is not dependent upon a single comprehensive final exam and Indiana has enacted legislation requiring state-supported colleges to accept Dual Credit courses credit-for-credit, and the advantages to that system become obvious. Guidance counselors in both the public schools and at the Academies strive to best meet their students’ needs.
Although Advanced Placement is a venerable and accepted system for giving students a jump-start on their higher education, other methods have been introduced in later years, such as Dual Credit, which will be explored in the next article.