METHUEN — Fernando Lopez took his first advanced placement classes this year, enrolling in AP biology and English at Methuen High School.
Lopez said teachers recommended he take the classes, which he admitted he would not have considered without their advice.
“I needed that push,” he said.
Lopez is one of hundreds of students in Methuen, and thousands in Massachusetts, who have been recruited into rigorous AP courses as part of an effort to expand the program and encourage students who otherwise would not consider the classes.
Methuen, and Massachusetts, also is part of a larger national debate about whether expansion of the program will dilute its quality and what an increase in the proportion of students earning low AP exam scores means.
Advanced placement, a national curriculum program with exams written and administered by the nonprofit College Board, previously was a very selective program, with teachers picking a few students who tried to test into a limited number of seats.
Now many school districts are taking an open-enrollment approach, actively seeking out students to participate.
“We felt that over time we were missing a lot of potential,” said Joseph Harb, the high school science department chairman and coordinator of the AP program.
Enrollment in Methuen’s AP classes in the science, math and English fields has skyrocketed in the last four years. In 2009, the high school administered 59 AP tests. Students take the test, which costs $89 apiece paid to College Board, at the end of each course, and some students take more than one AP course in a year.
By 2012, the high school administered 543 tests, a nearly ten-fold increase.
The expansion of the program in Methuen was financed by a grant from the Mass Math + Science Initiative, a five-year $30 million program funded by the non-profit National Math and Science and housed at the Boston educational nonprofit Mass Insight that aims to expand AP, particularly to low income or minority students. Methuen started its five-year, $500,000 grant starting in the 2009-10 school year.
Harb said the grant, aimed at the math, science and English courses, has paid for teacher training and professional development to get teachers up to speed on the AP curriculum, for a few Saturday prep sessions and for supplies.
Mort Orlov, president of the Mass Math + Science Initiative, said the initiative is funded from private and public sources locally and nationally, and since 2008 has given several millions of dollars of grants to 61 schools in 50 school districts in Massachusetts to encourage enrollment in math, science and English AP courses.
The focus on math and science is part of a national emphasis on science, technology and math programs, he said, and the English is included as a critical component of all the rest of the fields.
“If you talk to the Massachusetts High Tech Council, or with anyone familiar with the biotech industry, they’ll tell you they’re struggling to fill positions pretty much top to bottom,” Orlov said.
AP course enrollment in Massachusetts also has spiked. After rising between 5 and 7 percent per year over much of the last decade, total enrollment in AP courses has grown by between 8 and 9 percent per year since 2009, according to College Board data. Enrollment in math, science and English courses grew by between 9 and 11 percent since 2009.
The AP exams are graded by a panel of experts and teachers assembled by College Board and are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest score. Many colleges recognize a score of 3 or higher as passing or qualifying, though some only recognize scores of 5, and even will offer college-level credit for high scores. The exams are not required as part of the course, but most students opt to take them.
While enrollment has increased, the percentage of students scoring a 3 or higher on the exams has slipped slightly statewide. From 2002 to 2007, between 72 percent and 74 percent of students in Massachusetts taking the math, science and English course exams scored a 3 or higher. Between 2008 and 2012, the proportion ranged from 69 percent to 71 percent.
In Methuen, the change was more dramatic. In 2009, 59 students took an AP exams in math, science and English courses. Forty-one, or 69.5 percent, earned a qualifying score. By 2012, 218 of the 543 students who took exams in those courses, or 40.1 percent, earned a qualifying score.
But Harb said the benefit of the expansion is in reaching out to students who would not consider AP and getting them to challenge themselves. And while the proportion of qualifying scores has dropped, the raw number of students earning high scores on the test has increased sixfold in four years.
Several students interviewed at Methuen High School Friday said they signed up for AP classes because of the courses’ tough reputation. “I thought it would challenge me, and I’d be prepared for college,” said senior Kirstin Alfonso, who is enrolled in AP literature.
Brian Gregg, also a senior who is taking AP courses in calculus, psychology, chemistry and literature, said he felt he was not strong in English, but look the literature course to push himself. “I like English, but I’m not good at it,” he said. “That’s why I took on the challenge of the AP class.”
As AP has expanded, educators nationally are debating whether an open-door policy is good for the program and for the students who participate, particularly those who do not score highly.
James Nehring, an associate professor in the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Graduate School of Education who will conduct research as a Fulbright scholar on schools in Belfast, Ireland, serving low-income students, said the debate centers on questions of whether AP is just becoming a “designer label” just to enhance a college application that will become less prestigious over time and whether the difficulty will be watered down.
“The AP program has always been a touchstone in an ongoing debate in public schools between equity and excellence,” said Nehring, who previously taught in public schools for 25 years. “You want to ensure all students have access to the highest quality courses available. On the other hand, you want to ensure the quality of the programming is excellent. And sometimes these things are at odds.”
A 2009 review of the AP program by the conservative educational policy think tank Fordham Institute included surveys of AP teachers from around the country. Teachers overwhelmingly reported they did not believe the quality and rigor of AP classes and exams had declined as enrollment increased, but 52 percent of those surveyed worried that some students “may be in over their heads,” as districts have increased enrollment by actively recruiting students.
Nehring said two key questions about AP is if the program fits into what communities want their students to know when they graduation and what kind of support the district is providing for the students it recruits.
“One of the pitfalls is if a school district says anyone can take AP now without taking into consideration how to prepare students who are bright but don’t quite have the skills needed to succeed in the course,” he said. “If you take them and throw them in the course, it could be a disaster.”
Orlov said the Mass Science + Math Initiative has worked to broaden training of teachers in middle and high schools so they can prepare students for tougher classes that require more work and move at a faster pace.
Several students at Methuen, though, said the extra workload has helped them. “It’s a lot more work, but it’s made me more responsible,” Lopez said.
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