Pittsburgh schools want more students in AP courses

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Try using these words in a sentence: Advanced Placement. Difficult. Cool.

Pittsburgh Public Schools officials want more city high school students to think it's cool to take the more difficult AP courses.

"We want to make AP part of the school culture at every school," said Allison McCarthy, gifted and talented coordinator for the district.

The district is working to expand AP opportunities, offer test review sessions, open a free three-week AP summer academy to help students prepare, give teachers more professional development and market the program through an attractive brochure that touts "AP=College" and meetings with parents and students.

Ms. McCarthy and Cate Reed, executive director of support services, outlined AP plans to the school board last week, the day before the College Board released its findings showing why taking AP courses is important.

In its annual report, the College Board said that across various socioeconomic groups in public schools, students who took AP exams were more likely to do better in college.

The College Board said the graduation rates were at least 26 percent higher for black, Hispanic, white, low-income and not low-income students who scored at least a 3 out of a possible 5 total points on an AP exam than for comparable peers.

The College Board reported other effects as well, including higher first-year grade point averages for black and Hispanic students who took AP English and a greater likelihood to major in math for AP calculus students.

AP contends students do better just by being in an AP course whether they succeed on the exam or not, but it notes that the likelihood of college success is "significantly higher" for those who score at least a 3.

While some criticize Advanced Placement courses as too broad, participation in the more than 50-year-old program has been growing across the country.

In the Class of 2010 nationwide, 508,818 public school students -- 16.9 percent of the class -- scored a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam.

That's more than the 432,343 who took the test in the Class of 2001.

Pennsylvania's Class of 2010 fell below the national average, with 12.7 percent successful on AP exams.

Nationally, the number of students who took at least one AP exam in high school was 853,314 -- 28.3 percent -- for the Class of 2010.

The report counted 12,705 high schools with AP courses, an increase of 165 over the previous year.

Participation also has been growing in Pittsburgh Public Schools. This year, 878 students are taking AP classes, a 13.7 percent increase over the prior year.

Some take more than one course. The current students are participating in 1,869 classes while the prior year's students took about 1,715 AP classes, an increase of about 9 percent.

Pittsburgh Allderdice has the most students taking AP, 351 students taking 1,000 classes this year.

Districtwide, the numbers amount to 12 percent of high school students taking at least one AP course. The concentration is highest among juniors and seniors, where about 26 percent are taking an AP class this year.

The district offers 20 different AP courses -- ranging from U.S. history to studio art -- although the choices vary from school to school.

All of the district's high schools are working to increase AP enrollment, test participation and success, Ms. McCarthy said.

Before AP exams are given this spring, the district for the first time will offer 12 review sessions for students districtwide in the most popular AP courses, including English 3 and 4 and U.S. history.

The review sessions will take place in March and April at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, Downtown, and Pittsburgh Science & Technology 6-12.

From July 11-29 on the University of Pittsburgh campus for the first time, students who have signed up for certain AP courses will be able to participate in a free three-week summer academy to prepare for the fall AP courses. Students can choose morning or afternoon sessions. Registration information will be available in April.

In addition, the school board is considering a pilot program at three high schools -- Pittsburgh Brashear, Perry and Langley -- that would expand access to AP classes in the fall. The board may vote on the plan in March.

The pilot program would open classes now limited to students who have been tested as gifted to students who have shown strong performance in a particular subject, thus making the district's most rigorous courses available to more students.

Ms. McCarthy said care will be taken not to water down the instruction.

The gifted courses are known as CAS classes, which stands for Centers for Advanced Study.

The initiative would involve admitting students who meet certain requirements but are not identified as gifted into CAS courses in English, math, social studies, science and world language in grades 9 and 10.

Ms. McCarthy said it would be "great" if that change increased CAS participation by more than 10 percent at the three schools.

In grades 11 and 12, instead of offering CAS classes, AP courses in English, math, social studies, science and world language would be offered.

Students who are not identified as gifted can be admitted to the CAS or AP courses if they meet certain requirements, including a 3.0 grade point average and 90 percent attendance.

They also would have to have a track record of performance in the particular subject area. In certain situations, principal or teacher recommendations would be considered.

Of the three schools in the pilot, Brashear currently offers the most AP and CAS courses, more than 20 combined. Langley, which has the fewest, has six AP courses in 11th and 12th grades, but no CAS courses.

Students who take AP classes in the city are not required to take the AP exam, although some choose to do so. Students must pay $87 for one test or $57 if the student qualifies for a fee waiver.

Many of Pittsburgh's AP students do not take the exam. In 2009-10, 973 exams were taken, with about half scoring a 3 or better.

One of the concerns the College Board raised was that traditionally underserved minorities still are underrepresented in AP courses even though there has been an increase in black students both taking AP exams and succeeding.

In Pittsburgh where the enrollment is about 56 percent black, about 27 percent of the students enrolled in AP are black.

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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