Between his sophomore and senior year at Hopkinton High School, T.J. Fujiyoshi plans to take six Advanced Placement courses, all in an effort to challenge himself, stand out on college applications, and prepare for the academic rigors of higher education.
“I think it’s a good academic challenge for myself,’’ said Fujiyoshi, a junior. “Some kids may not have taken them, so I may be a little ahead and know the work that’s required.’’
A growing number of high school students — from Arlington to Swampscott to Plymouth — are taking AP courses and their corresponding exams, which start this week.
During the past decade, the number of Massachusetts public high school graduates who took at least one AP exam during high school has increased by 89 percent, from 13,051 in the class of 2003 to 24,610 in the class of 2013. At the same time, the number receiving scores of 3 or higher increased by 87 percent from 9,419 in the class of 2003 to 17,616 in the class of 2013.
AP is an academic program run by the College Board organization with more than 30 courses in a wide range of subjects and college-level assessments, developed and scored by college and university faculty members and experienced AP teachers.
The College Board says most four-year colleges in the United States provide course credits and/or advanced placements for students who score a 3, 4, or 5 on an exam.
Fujiyoshi said he hopes he scores well enough on the AP tests to earn college credits. Last year he took biology, this year chemistry and American history; next year, physics, calculus BC, and psychology are on his schedule.
State officials and educators say they are increasingly encouraging motivated students to take the courses and exams as a way to challenge themselves and also to improve their chances of getting into college and save money.
“We did make a concerted effort to try to increase our enrollment in AP courses,’’ said Angela Watson, principal of Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School. “I’m a firm believer that if students want to challenge themselves, they should have the opportunity . They give students a preview of college and of the demands that college courses have on students in regards to the workload and rigor.’’
Watson said that in past years, only students who met certain criteria could sign up for AP classes. Now, any student willing to take on the extra work that comes along with an AP class can enroll. However, those students, and their parents, must sign a contract, agreeing to take the class seriously. They must also agree to take the AP exam.
“They know the demands of the course so if they say they’re willing to work hard and want to do it, we’ve opened that door to let them do that,’’ Watson said. “Because we’re encouraging the kids, they have more confidence. Our numbers are going through the roof.’’
Between 2012 and 2013, the number of students taking AP tests at Bridgewater-Raynham increased from 158 to 191. Also during that time, the number of tests taken by students rose from 238 to 328, Watson said. At the same time, the percentage of students who scored a 3 or above rose from 69 percent to nearly 77 percent.
In fact, Bridgewater-Raynham was one of 33 Massachusetts school districts named to the College Board’s 2013 AP District Honor Roll for expanding access to AP curriculum, and maintaining or improving the percent of students scoring 3 or higher. Massachusetts had the fifth highest number of school districts earning a spot on the honor roll. Other area districts on the list included Arlington, Franklin, Freetown-Lakeville, Hamilton-Wenham, Hanover, Hingham, Medfield, Medway, Needham, Newton, North Middlesex, Plymouth, Swampscott, Waltham, Westford, and Whitman-Hanson.
Frank Sullivan, the guidance director at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School, said college recruiters have made it clear that students who have taken AP classes have an advantage when applying. In 2012, 138 students at his school took exams, compared with 156 in 2013. This year, 228 students have signed up for the exams, which are held in May each year.
“We host 90 college representatives each fall who come in and meet individually with our seniors, and universally they value the presence of an AP course on a transcript,’’ Sullivan said. “It’s a universal standard that is recognized as the highest level of academic rigor available, so knowing colleges articulate the value of AP coursework, it’s something we also promote.’’
Like Bridgewater-Raynham, Hamilton-Wenham formerly had strict standards for taking an AP course, but now administrators are less selective.
“The College Board did a study that shows if a student has a genuine interest in a subject and may not necessarily have had stellar grades, they are likely to be very successful because the interest trumps other factors,’’ Sullivan said. “We’ve adopted that vision and made AP coursework available to students who want to choose it.’’
Dan Magazu, a spokesman for Framingham State University, said students who have taken Advanced Placement courses do have an edge in the admissions process.
“We look at the completion of honors and AP-level courses very positively,’’ he said. “It shows an example of a student pushing themselves academically and we consider that very favorably. It gives students a leg up in the admissions process.’’
Magazu also said that students who complete an AP course and receive at least a 3 on the exam get credit for a corresponding entry level course at the university. He said Framingham State has seen students who have completed enough AP courses to enter the university as sophomores.
“The more they can improve their college readiness before they get here, the most successful they’ll be once they get here,’’ he said.
Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said he supports the expansion of AP courses in high schools as a way to better prepare students.
He said one-third of high school graduates in Massachusetts who go on to the state’s public college and university system are being placed in remedial coursework, a sign that many students are not ready for college .
“The reason it’s important for us to track the participation and success rate in Massachusetts is because it’s an important proxy, an important indicator of the extent to which students in our high schools are experiencing strong coursework — course work that does prepare them well for college and beyond,’’ Chester said.
While the overall high participation is good news, he said, officials need to make sure students aren’t overloaded and there are enough qualified teachers to teach the courses.
He also said he wants to make sure that all students have access to AP or other higher-level classes. He said there are many high schools that don’t offer a lot of AP courses.
“I just want to see our students experience a course of studies that’s preparing them for opportunities after high school, whether it’s college or employment,’’ Chester said.
Watson said the payoff for her is when her students are successful in college.
“The part I love is hearing back from the kids,’’ she said. “They write e-mails after their first semester saying their courses really prepared them for college. That’s when I smile and say, ‘That’s why we’re doing this.’ These kids are well prepared when they go to college .’’
More coverage: Graphic: Statewide AP test participation and performance
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@ yahoo.com.