With high-school Advanced Placement classes more popular than ever, school officials in some of Boston’s northern suburbs say they’re continuing to expand their AP offerings and encouraging more students to take the challenging courses.
“Our sort of philosophy is AP for all,” said Manjula Karamcheti, director of guidance, testing, and academic support for the Malden public schools. “For lack of a better word, we go after the kids. Teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators make sure kids know they have this opportunity. We’ve removed all the barriers.”
Karamcheti said Malden has added AP courses in psychology, US government, and environmental science in the last couple of years.
“It’s really exploded in Malden, I think, because the kids are telling the other kids to take it,” Karamcheti said.
A Globe review of state data shows that students at area high schools take AP exams at widely different rates. In Malden, 40 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, fewer than 20 percent of seniors had taken at least one AP exam. But rates ranged up to around 52 percent of seniors in Andover, Winthrop, and Manchester-Essex, and all the way up to 87 percent at Salem Academy Charter School.
Students who took AP exams this spring started receiving their results earlier this month. The high rate of students sitting for AP exams at Salem Academy Charter School is the result of an intentional focus on college preparedness, said Rachel Hunt, the head of school.
“We were really trying to create a culture of achievement in our school and pushing the majority to take an AP course,” Hunt said.
When Salem Academy began its AP program, Hunt said, the students in AP classes were disproportionately white and from higher-income families, and the school subsequently made an effort to open up access to the classes to larger populations of students.
“Really, our big push was, we’re a charter school, we’re preparing kids for college,” Hunt said. “We wanted to make sure our AP program was representative of our whole school.”
Hunt and administrators at several other schools said it can be a challenge to get more students to take AP courses while simultaneously maintaining good passing rates on the culminating exams. The courses, which are billed as “college-level,” can also overwhelm some students, especially if they take several at a time, Hunt said.
“We found this year that some of our students who had lower MCAS scores really struggled if they tried to take on multiple AP courses,” Hunt said.
Students are now required to have a conference with school staff before they are allowed to take more than one AP course at a time.
“Generally, our teachers guide our students to take the courses that will be challenging for them, but appropriately challenging,” Hunt said.
In 2010, around 60 percent of AP exams taking by Salem Academy Charter School students received a score of 3 or higher on a scale of 1 through 5, according to state data. During that same year, around 58 percent of exams taken nationally scored at a 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 get college credit or class waivers at universities that provide them.
“We are much more interested in the access component,” said Karamcheti, the Malden guidance director. “We’re also focusing on our scores, but we really want the kids to try it.”
Only around 46 percent of AP exams taken by Malden students received a score of 3 or higher in 2010, but Karamcheti said students benefit from being exposed to rigorous course work even if they do not perform well on the test.
“The AP test is one test, one day,” Karamcheti said. “There’s a lot to be said for what the students are learning in terms of research, critical thinking, analysis, problem-solving. They’re doing that on a daily basis, and those are the skills they’re going to take with them to college.”
“When you open up the access, you run the risk of allowing students in that maybe were on the cusp, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Jon Bernard, principal of North Reading High School. “Even if the student gets a 2 or a 1 on the exam, I still think they have gained a benefit that will allow them to be successful in their postsecondary pursuits.”
Bernard said the number of students in North Reading’s AP program has tripled in the last decade and continues to grow. While only around 53 percent of AP exams taken by North Reading students in 2010 scored a 3 or higher, Bernard said that number jumped up to 60 percent last year.
The number of AP exams taken by students in Massachusetts has gone up each year during 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.
Mary Dunn, assistant dean for undergraduate admissions at Salem State University, said she has noticed an increase over the last five to seven years in the number of students coming in with AP courses on their transcripts. She said that a history of taking AP courses typically indicates that a student doesn’t shy away from a challenge. “Usually, any student who challenges themselves academically is going to be stronger in college,” Dunn said.
David Weinberg, assistant superintendent in Chelsea, said the AP program appeals to students because it allows them to measure themselves against students in other school districts. “If you get a five on the AP test, you know you’ve done as well as any student in the country,” Weinberg said. “That’s a big motivating factor for our juniors and seniors, and they take that very seriously.”