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Advancing education

Hopkinton High student Dennison LaMachia delivers a talk on her project for an Advanced Placement course in US history. Hopkinton High student Dennison LaMachia delivers a talk on her project for an Advanced Placement course in US history. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2012
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Top students at Hopkinton High School have transcripts dotted with Advanced Placement courses in history, government, and literature.

At Concord-Carlisle High School, report cards instead list classes like “American Rebels and Romantics,” “Modern China,” and “African-American Literature.”

While Hopkinton is adding more AP classes, known for the rigorous college preparation they provide to students, Concord-Carlisle doesn’t plan on expanding its AP offerings into the humanities.

“The philosophy,’’ said Peter Badalament, Concord-Carlisle’s principal, “is that the courses we have in those disciplines are superior to the AP courses.”

Advanced Placement courses — and the subsequent exams that the College Board administers each spring — have steadily gained prominence as a gold standard for measuring academic excellence, and a way for students to gain an edge in the college admissions race.

Yet even as AP testing becomes more widespread — the number of exams taken has more than doubled in Massachusetts and nationwide over the past decade — some local educators insist that more does not necessarily mean better.

“If you just focus on something like AP as the end-all and be-all, you’d be making a mistake,” said Robert Maguire, superintendent of Medfield’s school district. “It’s something that’s important. It is a rigorous program. But it’s just one piece of the puzzle.”

AP participation varies widely among the area’s high schools, according to a Globe review of testing data provided by the state. At Hopkinton High, 80 percent of seniors in the class of 2010 had taken at least one AP exam during their high school careers, compared with 41 percent at Concord-Carlisle. At Bedford High School, it was just 24 percent.

The disparity shows up in “best schools” rankings that place a heavy emphasis on International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement exams, which can cover subjects ranging from environmental science to Chinese language and culture.

Hopkinton ranked third on this year’s ranking of the state’s best high schools by US News & World Report magazine. The school also placed in the top 10 in the state in the Washington Post’s “High School Challenge” rankings, putting it in the same rarified air as Boston Latin School and Phillips Academy in Andover.

Meanwhile, Concord-Carlisle ranked 32d on the US News list of the state’s best high schools, and didn’t make the Post’s challenge list at all — even though Concord-Carlisle students notched better SAT scores than their Hopkinton peers.

But do those rankings get it right?

Concord-Carlisle does offer AP courses in math, science, and foreign language, but the principal said the in-house humanities classes are beloved by students and give teachers a chance to pursue their passions.

“Based on my own personal experience being a former AP US history teacher, I can validate that the curriculum, a lot of it is about raw coverage,” Badalament said. “There’s not a lot of room for depth. I’m not sure it’s a good exercise for our students. I believe what we have is better, in that it goes into greater depth on very relevant topics.”

He noted that Concord-Carlisle ranked second in the Boston area on the most recent ratings of school districts published by Boston magazine, which took into account factors such as per-pupil spending and graduation rates.

“We have no reason to believe that not offering APs to our students in the humanities has in any way disadvantaged our students in college admissions,” Badalament added.

Hopkinton, by contrast, has made an effort in recent years to offer more AP courses. The school will offer 17 next school year, up from 14 this year.

“Ideally, we’d love to have every kid graduate from here having had the opportunity to take an AP course,” said Adelaide Greco, director of guidance for Hopkinton High. “It provides that rigor. It’s something that looks good on their transcripts.”

“Our philosophy is to try to give as many students the opportunity to take AP courses as possible,” said Hopkinton High principal Alyson Geary. She said many students are eager to take a rigorous course load to impress colleges. “It’s really more student-driven than it is teachers saying we want more kids in AP.

“They really enjoy the opportunity to engage with their teachers, who they feel are masters in these subjects,” added Geary. “They really feel like they’re getting a rigorous experience for their future.”

While AP courses and exams are typically taken by juniors and seniors, Hopkinton had 80 10th-graders taking AP biology this year, Geary said.

Still, Geary acknowledged, the curriculum for AP courses can be “pretty prescriptive,” and she said the courses are only one measure of a school’s success.

Like Hopkinton, Natick is pushing to expand its AP offerings. There, 26 percent of the class of 2010 sat for an AP exam while in high school.

“Whatever our percentage is now, it’s growing, and we’re going to continue to grow it even higher,” said Peter Sanchioni, Natick’s superintendent of schools. “The course is representative of the rigor and demands of a college-level course. Why wouldn’t we want those students to have an experience of what college is like here in Natick when they’re facing it in 12 months?”

The number of AP exams taken by Bay State students has risen steadily each year over the last decade, more than doubling from 38,790 in 2001 to 79,130 last year. Nationally, the number of tests taken rose from 1.4 million in 2001 to 3.4 million last year.

The College Board, the organization that administers the Advanced Placement program, bills the courses as college level, and students with qualifying exam scores receive college credit or the ability to opt out of introductory courses at certain schools.

In spring 2011, the Advanced Math & Science Academy charter school in Marlborough had the highest percentage of students in grades 9 through 12 sitting for an AP exam of all schools in the region. However, the school did not graduate its first set of seniors until last spring, and therefore does not show up in the 2010 numbers.

Joann Kenney, director of guidance for the Dover-Sherborn regional school district, said that while she sees value in the courses, she also thinks they can heap additional stress on already overwhelmed students. At Dover-Sherborn High, 71 percent of seniors in the class of 2010 had taken at least one AP exam during high school.

“How can we expect students to manage a full load of college-level courses while in high school, while managing other courses and doing all the other pieces that a high school student needs to do?” Kenney said. “It’s really gotten out of control.

“Kids are having to do more to make themselves stand out,” Kenney added. “I believe that goes against our whole understanding of what high school should be about for kids. It should be about development. It should be about a love for learning. It should be about making sure you’re developing a well-rounded individual that can go out into the world.”

Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University in Waltham, said that while the university does take students’ course loads into consideration in the admissions process, students aren’t penalized if their high schools don’t offer a full slate of AP classes.

“The way we’re evaluating a student is, are they taking a challenging course load within the context of that school,” Flagel said. “Once a student has taken a competitive course load, it’s not necessarily that one more AP course or one less AP course is going to make a difference in admission.”

Maguire, the Medfield superintendent, said his district tries to take a “measured approach” to AP classes, giving students the opportunity to challenge themselves without pushing unprepared students into courses where they won’t succeed. At Medfield High, 59 percent of 2010 seniors had taken at least one AP exam during high school.

“You want to encourage as many children as you can to reach for the bar,” Maguire said. “But you also have some level of responsibility to make sure you’re looking at what the results of that are, how are the kids achieving.”

Badalament, Concord-Carlisle’s principal, said he has sometimes heard from parents in the past who were concerned that the school didn’t offer enough AP courses, but he said he hasn’t faced any recent pressure to add more of the classes.

“I think it benefits some school systems. Schools that are looking to increase their rigor, it’s one way to do it,” Badalament said. “We just have an idiosyncratic view. We like what we’re doing.”

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

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