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School district should study Advanced Placement expansion

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Posted: Sunday, February 14, 2010 3:43 am | Updated: 1:40 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

Alaska schools are not doing enough to challenge their top students or the young people who could be top students.

For years, our schools have operated under federal and state government policies that define educational success by the percentage of students who meet minimum standards of academic achievement.

There is good reason to address the needs of students who don’t make the grade, but we haven’t put enough effort into setting higher performance goals for those with greater aptitude, desire or both.

It’s simply not enough to try to achieve “Adequate Yearly Progress” and declare victory, but the federal No Child Left Behind law puts a priority on mediocrity, not academic excellence.

One indicator of how Alaska falls short is the level of participation and performance by Alaska students in Advanced Placement courses and tests.

These are college-level courses taught in high schools, which conclude with a difficult national examination graded by an experienced cadre of college and high school faculty. The exams are graded on a scale of 1-5, with a grade of 3 regarded as a passing score.

A College Board report released Wednesday said that in Alaska, 13.3 percent of the graduating class of 2009 took at least one AP test and earned a passing score. Nationally, the figure was 15.9 percent.

In Fairbanks, 133 students, or 15.2 percent of the graduating class of 2009, chose to take at least one AP class and scored 3 or higher.

The statistics from the College Board can be dissected in any number of ways, and this is only one indicator.

There are some high school students who enroll in college classes directly as an alternative to AP classes, but scheduling conflicts happen more often than not.

For purposes of discussion in Fairbanks, we should ask if we can exceed the public education systems of Maryland, New York, Virginia, Massachusetts, Florida, Connecticut, California and Colorado, all of which had at least 20 percent of their graduates who earned at least one AP exam score of 3 or higher.

That would be an ambitious short-term goal, but it’s not impossible.

These courses are of great value for some students, but many are not getting the preparation they need in middle school or the prodding they might need at home to set higher expectations.

Nationally, nearly three-quarters of the 3 million public school graduates in 2009 did not take any AP classes. In Alaska and Fairbanks, the percentage of students who did not take any AP tests was a bit higher, about 79 percent.

The Fairbanks students who signed up for one or more AP tests did well. Seventy-four percent of those who took one or more tests earned a passing grade. The other 26 percent should not be automatically counted as failures, however, because the material is more difficult than normal high school work.

Improving and expanding these programs is not just a matter of scheduling more AP classes and encouraging kids to enroll and pay $86 to take each test. Parents, teachers, administrators, the school board and students would have to adjust their approach and set their sights higher.

Institutional backing from the state and the district would be a place to start the discussion. The fate of these programs should not be left entirely to the efforts of individual teachers and administrators who advocate for more challenging classes out of a sense of duty.

Dermot Cole can be reached at or 459-7530.


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