The number of Arlington students who took Advanced Placement tests last year increased by nearly 7 percent and has more than doubled over the past six years, but the amount of students receiving a satisfactory score dropped by three percentage points to a record low.
During the 2004-05 school year, 1,432 students took one or more AP test, up from 1,341 the previous year and 687 in 1998-99. The total number of AP exams students completed grew from 2,424, in 2003-04, to 2,642.
The proportion of high school students taking one or more AP classes has risen from 20 percent in 2000-01 to 28 percent last year.
“We have been encouraging kids to stretch higher,” said Elaine S. Furlow, one of the five members of the Arlington School Board. “This shows that both families and students are hungry for more rigorous classes.”
The school board has made student participation in AP classes one of its top priorities in recent years and has strongly encouraged younger students to begin taking more challenging courses.
The proportion of eighth-graders who have completed Algebra I with a C average or better has jumped from 22 percent in 1997-98 to 48 percent last year, said Arlington School Superintendent Robert G. Smith.
“We believe this increase is due to more students taking advanced classes earlier on and better positioning themselves to take AP classes.” said Smith.
The percentage of students who received a score of three of higher, the minimum needed to attain college credit, dropped from 62 percent in 2003-04 to 59 percent last year, the lowest score on record. AP tests are scored on a scale from one to five.
Though school officials said they were disappointed by the decrease in test results, they said they were not surprised. Some saw it as a positive sign that the student body was pushing itself to take more chances than in past years.
“This shows we are reaching kids who might have been afraid to take such a class before,” Furlow said. “If you are somebody who is not real sure about taking the course but gets up the gumption to do it, that is what we want. So I’m pleased.”
During the 2000-01 school year, the school board passed a directive that required all students who enroll in an AP class take the ensuing test at the end of the year. The ruling also mandated Arlington Public Schools to pay for every AP test, which can run up to $80 a piece.
Though the measure was costly, it proved to parents and students alike that the school system was taking this objective seriously, Furlow said.
BESIDES PERSUADING STUDENTS to take challenging classes at a younger age, the added encouragement from teachers and counselors is the other main factor for the rise in the number of students enrolled in AP courses, Smith said.
Furlow points to an initiative at Yorktown High School several years ago as an example of how teachers and administrators are making a difference: The Yorktown principal asked each teacher to identify one student who they thought could handle making the leap to an AP course. The principal then gathered those students, challenged them to switch into the college-preparatory classes and paired them with a mentor to help guide them through the process.
Wakefield High School implemented an AP Network program last year with the aim that every student in the school will have attempted an AP course by the time they graduate.
Last year 264 students took a total of 470 AP tests, compared with 253 students who had taken 443 tests the previous year. Wakefield also offered four more AP courses than they have in prior years.
“The bulk of our kids who withdraw from AP classes have not received any special training,” said AP Network coordinator Mike Grill.
To help counteract that problem, the school has established a pre-AP program for freshman, and lunch labs and study seminars throughout the year for students enrolled in AP courses for the first time.
Wakefield also conducts a summer program for those new to AP classes, during which students participate in workshops on how to write essays, take better notes and plan for college.
The school runs an additional program for African-American and Hispanic males who have a C average or better at the conclusion of their freshman year. It is an umbrella support group where participants can openly discuss the challenges they face as they begin AP classes, and can receive emotional and academic support and college guidance.
“We are going out and actively seeking kids for these advanced courses beginning as freshman,” said Grill, who is also an AP government teacher. “It is directly attributed to the increase in their performance.”