Nan Austin

AP class takers up, scores up – Stanislaus County results mixed

Some good news in the equity front, more students are taking Advanced Placement courses and, surprisingly, more are passing the AP tests that qualify their high school work for college credits.

Traditionally, only the cream of college-bound high schoolers took AP classes. Bowing to pressure to let more minority students into advanced classes, more schools creaked open the doors to those AP subjects. The expected trade-off would be fewer kids passing. After all, how could run-of-the-mill students possibly compete?

But it turns out letting average teens choose a class with a faster pace and higher expectations does not doom them to failure.

Nationally, that result was proclaimed by the College Board, the nonprofit that runs the AP program. In a press call this month, an almost giddy President David Coleman called their analysis of 2015-16 AP testing “the single happiest education story of the year.”

Since 2006, the number of students taking AP classes nearly doubled to 1.1 million and is rising rapidy. Yet 21.9 percent earned a score of 3 or higher on the 5-point scale – the bar to receive college credit for the class – up 7.9 percent over the same period.

In New York City, where AP classes were expanded to every high school, African American and Latino students are taking more AP courses and faring well.

The news upends the assumption that only the best-prepared students can make it in AP, or as Coleman called it, “the nagging despair” that the vast majority of teens just could not cut the mustard if challenged.

Their success means the success of a changing nation, he said, “Diversity and excellence can and must go hand in hand.”

In California, nearly a quarter of all sophomores, juniors and seniors are taking at least one AP class. The number rose from 19 percent in 2011-12 to 23 percent in 2014-15 – the latest results available from the California Department of Education. It is likely higher today. Some 57 percent of all AP tests got a passing score for college credit.

Stanislaus County still trails the state, however, with 16 percent of 10th-12th graders taking an AP course in 2014-15. That was up from 12 percent three years earlier. Just over half, 51 percent, of Stanislaus AP tests received a 3 or better, unchanged from 2011-12.

Within the county, however, individual districts had very different numbers. Tops on the numbers taking AP classes in 2014-15 was Turlock Unified, with 22 percent of its teens in AP classes and nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of tests taken receiving 3s, 4s and 5s.

The next three districts in numbers of students taking AP courses were Ceres Unified, 20 percent; followed by Newman-Crows Landing Unified, 19 percent. Patterson Unified and Waterford Unified both had 16 percent.

The highest-scoring districts were Oakdale Unified, where 75 percent of tests received college credit-worthy scores, Turlock, and Hughson Unified, with 62 percent of tests earned a 3 or better. In Oakdale and Hughson, however, fewer students take AP classes – 10 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

In Modesto City high schools, which nearly half the county’s teens attend, 15 percent of students took an AP class that year. Of all the AP tests taken, 51 percent received a passing grade.

Denair Unified showed the greatest progress in getting more of its teens into AP classes, with 13 percent taking at least one in 2014-15 vs. 3 percent in 2011-12, in part by adding online AP courses. The number of kids passing AP tests, however, dropped significantly, with only 28 percent of tests receiving a 3 or better, the lowest rate in the county. Separating Denair High scores from Denair Charter Academy, however, and the result improves. On the traditional campus 47 percent of tests taken earned college credit.

The dilemma for small, rural districts is that for districts under 15,000 students, Coleman said, “the economics don’t work.” Online classes have provided an unsatisfactory answer for them, he said.

“In my mind, we offer them a very dishonest deal,” Coleman said, adding that the next step for the College Board is to commit, over the next few years, to training small district teachers. “If districts want the course, the resources will be available to them to train a teacher.”

Another major plus is the addition of an AP computer coding course that focuses on what coding can do rather than dwelling on the details of its zeroes and ones. Called AP Computer Science Principles, Coleman said the course in its first few years has attracted as many girls as boys to the overwhelmingly male career path.

Teens interested in music learn how to program musical applications. Those who like art learn their way around visual coding processes.

“Rather than preach at them, once again, that they should learn to code. That is where the jobs will be,” Coleman said, “the focus is on computers as a tool for other interests.”

The AP Computer Science Principles course is given at Downey and Enochs high schools in Modesto, and East Union and Manteca High in Manteca.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin