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Local high schools expand popular AP course offerings

By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / July 12, 2012
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With high school Advanced Placement classes more popular than ever, school officials in some of Boston’s southern suburbs say they are continuing to expand their AP offerings and encouraging more students to take the challenging courses.

“Our students drive the number of APs we have,” said Louise Demas, director of curriculum, instruction, and professional development for the Cohasset public schools. “We look at what they want, and we encourage any student to take AP.”

Students who took AP exams this spring started receiving their results earlier this month.

Demas said Cohasset recently added an AP statistics course and will be adding AP economics and physics in the coming school year.

“They are really rigorous courses,” she said. “The students are really energetic about it.”

A Globe review of state data shows that students at area high schools take AP exams at widely different rates. In Cohasset, 67 percent of seniors in the class of 2010 — the last year for which state data are available — took at least one AP exam during their high school careers.

At some schools, 20 percent or fewer of seniors had taken at least one AP exam, while more than 60 percent of seniors had taken an exam in Milton, Duxbury, and Sharon. Foxborough Regional Charter School had the highest number, with 74 percent of its seniors sitting for at least one AP exam during high school.

Ronald Griffin, director for teaching and learning at Foxborough Regional Charter School, said the school tries to encourage all students to take at least one AP course before they graduate high school to give them a “preview” of college work.

“We try to do what’s right for every individual kid,” Griffin said. “We’re not focused so much on percentages. We’re focused on what’s right for our students and making sure they’re prepared for college.”

Griffin and administrators at several other schools said it can be challenging to get more students to take AP courses while simultaneously maintaining good passing rates on the culminating exams.

“There’s always that challenge of balancing a student’s performance with the experience,” he said, adding that ultimately he feels it is better for students to be exposed to the rigorous coursework even if they do not excel on the culminating exam. “At the same time, we want the kids to get that credit.”

In 2010, around 61 percent of AP exams taken by Foxborough Regional Charter students received a score of 3 or higher on a scale of 1 through 5, according to state data, although Griffin said the passing rate last year had jumped to around 75 percent.

Around 58 percent of AP exams taken nationally received a score of 3 or higher, according to data from the College Board, which administers the AP program.

Students usually need to score at least a 3 to receive college credit or class waivers at universities that provide them.

Thomas Raab, principal at Hanover High School, said students receive a benefit from AP classes even if they do not perform successfully on the culminating exam.

“Certainly, I’m looking for students to do the best they can,” Raab said. “But to me the access is just as important. I want to make sure the students who want to try it have the opportunity to take it.”

Around 42 percent of seniors in the class of 2010 in Hanover took an AP exam during their high school careers. Around 49 percent of exams taken by Hanover students that year received a score of 3 or higher.

Raab said students who take multiple AP courses can sometimes become overwhelmed. School staff will talk with students who want to take more than one AP course and help them decide whether it is a good move, Raab said.

“They might have to make some decisions about what else they can be involved in if they take four AP courses,” he said.

“It’s tough to make sure that’s a healthy balance, to be competitive and position yourself for college, but also have time to be social and get enough sleep, get exercise, all those things adolescents need,” said Sean Bevan, principal at Westwood High School, where around 51 percent of seniors in the class of 2010 took an AP exam during high school.

An unusually high 94 percent of exams taken by Westwood students in 2010 scored a 3 or higher. “We’re always trying to strike a balance in scheduling for a kid that allows them to challenge themselves but also have success,” Bevan said.

Catherine Leger, head of guidance at Brockton High School, said she “can’t explain” why only 10 percent of the school’s seniors in 2010 had taken an AP exam, but said the school is working to encourage more students to participate in the challenging classes.

“The numbers are going up, even though they appear low compared to other schools,” Leger said.

Chris Lydon, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Stonehill College in Easton, said he has noticed more applicants with AP courses on their transcripts in recent years. The advanced courses show admissions officers that students are willing to challenge themselves, Lydon said.

“It does look good to take AP courses, but it’s also important to note that simply taking an AP course isn’t enough if you don’t do well in the course,” Lydon said. “If you take the challenge and you weren’t prepared for it and you don’t succeed, you don’t really have the leg up.”

Calvin Hennick can be reached at calvinhennick@yahoo.com.

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