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Statistics show AP courses boost success

By LIZ SWITZER, The Daily News, lswitzer@bgdailynews.com/7833240

With advanced placement courses becoming increasingly important in college admissions and preparedness for Kentucky students, more high schools are expanding course offerings and more teachers are getting the training they need.

This week at Western Kentucky University, 465 secondary high school teachers are taking part in The Center of Gifted Studies’ AP Summer Institute to boost the college success rates of their students, as statistics now show that college students who have not taken an AP course have only a 33 percent chance of completing a bachelor’s degree.

College students who have completed one AP course have a 59 percent chance of completing a four-year degree, while students with two or more AP courses under their belt have a 76 percent chance of completing a bachelor’s degree, according to the center.

Not only do AP courses serve as predictors of college success, they have become essential to college admissions.

“About half of all Kentucky college students fail their freshman year,” said Vicki Schmitt, who has taught AP English and literature at Greenwood High School for the past 12 years. “That’s an alarming statistic, but by taking an AP class, you are almost guaranteeing your success in college. If you take two, it is astronomical how the success statistic increases.”

Greenwood High School now offers 14 AP classes, as will South Warren, said Schmitt, a program participant and who will begin teaching at the new South Warren High School this fall.

“AP helps teachers teach kids how to think,” she added. “Students tell me there was not a class in high school that prepared them for college except for their AP classes.”

Any student can benefit from taking AP classes, as many university admissions offices stress the number of AP classes on an applicant’s transcript more than the actual grade that is earned, Schmitt explained.

“Even if you make a C in an AP class, there is value in having been in the class,” Schmitt said.

The WKU AP Institute is endorsed by the College Board and is only one of three offered in Kentucky. This week’s session has drawn teachers from 17 states, Mexico and Morocco, said Julia Roberts, director of The Center of Gifted Studies at WKU, which has offered the teacher training for 27 years. Morehead State University has had a program for seven years and the University of Louisville just added one.

“Advanced placement teachers benefit greatly from spending a week with other successful AP teachers,” Roberts said. State law mandates that public high schools have at least four college level classes, but more schools are expanding their offerings, Roberts noted.

Bowling Green High School and the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky were recently recognized by Newsweek’s 2010 America’s Best High Schools list, based on their offerings of advanced placement college-level courses and tests. This year, just more than 1,600 schools, 6 percent of all the public schools in the U.S., made the list. Bowling Green High ranked 594 nationally and eighth in Kentucky, while the Gatton Academy made the list of the nation’s most elite public high schools.

Kentucky has in recent years been the beneficiary of grants that have allowed public schools to greatly expand their advanced courses, Roberts said. In 1995, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices awarded matching grants of $500,000 to six states to improve disadvantaged students’ access to, and success in, college-level Advanced Placement Programs, including Kentucky.

In 2007, the National Math and Science Initiative awarded Kentucky an intensely competitive grant to fund training and incentives for advanced placement courses. The grant, one of seven awarded by NMSI, provides $13.2 million over six years to a nonprofit organization, Advanced Placement Enterprise of Kentucky, for the extensive training of teachers.

The grants and training programs have helped a lot, but Kentucky still has a way to go toward improving academic standards, said Randy Nantz, who teaches AP English at South Laurel High School in London and attended the WKU program. Many kids in the public school system have not had the chance to take rigorous classes, especially classes that require critical thinking skills, he said.

“The position in education so much has been to make these courses accessible that sometimes the rigor is lost,” he said, adding that the recent development of national standards for AP classes has helped to address that.

“In Kentucky schools, I think to some extent it came down to not expecting a lot of our kids to be able to think on that level,” Nantz said. “We have always lagged behind in education in the U.S. in what we are giving our kids and what the world demands. These classes are not just a nice bonus to have, they are essential.”

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