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.”