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March 24, 2013

Enrollment in Advanced Placement courses soars

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.

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