ANNAPOLIS – More Maryland high school students are taking advanced placement courses — and passing the classes’ exams to earn college credit — in an effort to boost grade-point averages, save on tuition costs and enhance college applications.
Nearly 20,000 high school students statewide took about 36,000 advanced placement, or AP, exams last year — a 15.1 percent increase in test takers from the year before, according to the College Board, the national organization in charge of AP testing. More than 25,000 of those exams received passing scores of three, four or five.
About 3,000 colleges and universities will award credit to students who pass AP exams, said Trevor Packer, College Board director of operations.
AP curriculum has become increasingly popular since the 1950s, when high schools nationwide first began offering the higher-level courses, which are designed so high school students can earn college credit, Packer said.
In Howard County, for example, AP courses have gained popularity during the last four or five years, said Tom Payne, public school coordinator of advanced programs and fine arts.
More than 1,200 students were enrolled in Howard’s AP courses last school year, up 223 students from two years earlier, Payne said.
“I think they’re (students) being better prepared,” Payne said. “They want to complete their high schools with meaningful course loads. They want to leave with a good, firm foundation in their area of interest.”
There are similar trends nationally. The number of AP test takers has increased 11.5 percent to more than 750,000 students.
“It is a good opportunity to save cost and get a headstart in college,” Packer said.
Easton High School senior Casey Cep will graduate with 11 AP courses on her transcript. Of the five AP tests she’s taken so far, the 16-year-old student from Talbot County has received scores of 5.
“I feel very confident heading to any college whether it be UMBC or Harvard,” Cep said. “I’m completing the first year or two of college at no cost.”
Montgomery County is one of the state’s leading counties in promoting advanced placement courses. Montgomery administered nearly 14,000 AP exams to students last school year, 3,000 more than the year before, said Carol Blum, the county’s director of high school instruction.
Montgomery offers all 34 of the AP courses accredited by the College Board, ranging from biology to U.S. history to art studio.
“The kids are more intent on taking rigorous courses,” Blum said. “Every high school in Montgomery County has AP courses. The numbers are growing tremendously.”
School administrators attribute the rise in popularity of AP courses to the increasingly competitive nature of college admissions.
For example, at the state’s flagship university, University of Maryland, College Park, more than 23,000 students applied for admission this fall, said Jackie Geter-Hunter, assistant director of admissions. Only about 10,000 were admitted.
Geter-Hunter said AP courses are one factor the university takes into account when reviewing applications.
“When we are looking at students, many of the students we admit have taken AP courses,” she said. “They’ve taken the most rigorous courses. I would say that they are very well prepared.”
Students also may be encouraged to take AP classes because of another strong college admissions factor — GPA. Many school systems “weight” grades earned in AP classes. Thus, an A earned in an AP course is worth more than an A earned in a regular course.
David Volrath, Harford County director of secondary education, said the GPA factor may be leading students to set a poor precedent of taking AP classes to boost their GPAs.
“Kids in top rankings want to be No. 1,” Volrath said.
But the strategy is “probably not a good focus” because a number doesn’t always represent knowledge.
Though the chance to increase their GPA causes more students to sign up for AP classes, Packer said, the bottom line is that the courses are more intense.
“A lot of the kids look for the challenging coursework and AP is where they find it,” Cep said. “The AP program is a wonderful way to distinguish yourself as a student.”