Luis Romero has taken so many Advanced Placement courses, he can barely remember them all. AP Computer Science, Human Geography, U.S. Government, World History — the list goes on.
He may sound like a “typical” teenager in a “typical” high-achieving high school, but not that long ago, Romero would have stood out at North County High School in Glen Burnie, Maryland, a diverse school in a working-class suburb of Baltimore.
If annual growth rates hold true, during the next two weeks, more than two million high school students across the country are expected to take AP exams. A passing score could mean earning college credit while still in high school. Research shows that students who take rigorous courses in high school are more likely to get into, and succeed, in college.
For a lot of students though, especially low-income and minority students, AP courses haven’t always been an option. North County principal Julie Cares says five years ago, only 10 percent of the school’s 2,000 students took any Advanced Placement classes. Less than one-fourth of seniors planned to attend a four-year college.
“When I first came, there was a sense of, just low expectations,” she says. “A lot of kids not only didn’t believe it was possible, but it didn’t even occur to them that was something they might do.”
To build a college-going culture, the school added more AP courses, eliminated all of the requirements to get in and pushed every student to take at least one. In five years, the number of AP students has tripled, from about 200 to 600.
“We decided to open the gates, basically,” Cares says. “Then it just became something that we do here: when you come to North County, you take an AP class.”
There are more students in classes like AP English Language and Composition, where a class of juniors recently wrestled with concepts like “polysyndeton” and “metonomy.” In an assignment designed to help prepare them for the upcoming exam, students are asked to identify the rhetorical strategy in a passage from literature or popular music.
Student Tyler Baynard says he might not have considered taking a class this challenging before the shift.
“I didn’t even know what AP was,” he says. “The middle school I went to, I feel like it didn’t really prepare me for high school, so AP classes was kind of a shock.”
The transition was sort of a shock for North County, too.
“The original intent was like, we’re going to help more kids, this is going to be awesome, bring us more kids,” says Jennifer Mermod, another AP English teacher. “And it did. But, then there were those kids that we thought, ‘Wow, this may not have been the best push for them.’”
So, some gatekeeping has returned. Mermod says students who might do better in an honors-level class, which tend to be less challenging, are encouraged to stay there and get a higher grade.
“I want them to get into college — that’s the point of the program, so I really don’t want a kid that’s going to come into the class and not at least get a C,” she says.
The high school also added more tutoring, and expanded a college prep program called AVID, which provides support for students taking AP courses. Students like Luis Romero, who will be the first in his family to attend college, take a separate AVID class where they learn note-taking and study skills.
“It gives me a time period where I can just focus on whatever I need to do, as well as give me a couple of tips that will help me do better in my classes and get to college,” he says. Romero has passed all but one of the many AP exams he’s taken.
Teachers also have had to make adjustments. They no longer get just the brightest or most-motivated students. To keep classes challenging for those students, Mermod says she breaks her class into small groups. Sometimes the better-prepared students serve as leaders.
“Other times you cohort them together so they can have their, ‘higher-level, you came prepared, you deserve to be rewarded with a better discussion,'” Mermod says.
But, as more high schools push less-prepared kids into AP, there is the risk the whole class might suffer, says Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, a project at Stanford University.
“You may have to water it down so much that it’s not going to be considered a college-level course,” she says.
The original purpose of AP courses was to give talented students a chance to earn college credit — or advanced placement — by taking college-level work while still in high school.
Today, many school leaders see AP as, “the solution to having kids prepared for college,” says Kristin Klopfenstein, director of the University of Northern Colorado’s Education Innovation Institute.
Adding AP classes can boost a school’s standing, Klopfenstein says. She questions the value of putting students into those classes if they aren’t likely to pass the official — though most times optional — AP exams at the end of the year.
“The research is pretty clear that that confers no advantage to them in terms of their post-secondary enrollment and outcomes,” she says.
At North County High, more than two-thirds of students generally do not pass the exams, meaning no college credit. Principal Cares says they’re working to improve that rate. Even without the college credit, she says students develop skills like writing and critical thinking that will serve them in college.
“They’re still learning those skills that are pushing them forward,” Cares says.
Junior Nevay Archuleta didn’t pass her first AP test last year in Government. But, she says taking the class still changed how she thinks about herself and her future. She’s taking two more AP classes this year.
“Before AP, I thought I was definitely like too average for college,” she says. “But I think now that they see that I’ve challenged myself, they’re going to be more impressed.”
AP by the numbers
Total fee per AP exam
Cost per exam for students with financial need*
Number of states where some students can take exams for free
Total College Board — which distributes the AP — revenue 2012-13
Amount of grants awarded by the Department of Education to states in August 2014, to defray the costs of taking Advanced Placement tests for low-income students
*The College Board provides a $29 fee reduction per exam for students with financial need. For each AP exam taken with a fee reduction, the school forgoes its $9 rebate, resulting in a cost of $53 per exam for the student. Many states use federal and state funding to further reduce the exam fee for these students.
Additional reporting by Mary Wiltenburg.