After administering an Advanced Placement chemistry exam to Lucy C. Laney Comprehensive High School students last spring, Neshika Coney-Devine saw the rigor of the college-level tests firsthand.
“Some students opened the test, and they were just so overwhelmed they just got up and didn’t even attempt to take the test,” said Coney-Devine, the dean of Laney’s AP Academy.
Though the Richmond County school system has succeeded in both enrolling more high schoolers in Advanced Placement courses and increasing the number who actually pass the grueling final exam, officials said they are hoping to boost success rates even more.
Last year, 21 percent of AP students earned a passing grade on the exam, compared with 19.2 percent the year before, which mirrors the state average but is still a grim figure, said Richmond County Board of Education member Helen Minchew.
It has been easier to increase enrollment in the courses – it jumped to 1,202 last year from 902 in 2010– which in effect exposes more students to higher level thinking skills.
Officials now say there is a renewed effort in helping more AP students pass the final exam so they can experience a university-caliber class and earn college credit.
“It’s of course something we’ve been pushing for the last several years,” Superintendent Frank Roberson said. “Now we have a renewed focus.”
On Wednesday, the College Board announced that more students across the nation are taking AP classes and passing the exam than ever. In Georgia, 41 percent of high school seniors took at least one AP course in 2012 and 21.7 percent passed the exam, ranking the state 12th in the nation for AP success.
Though the county is on par with the state, Roberson said his goal is to help more students earn the college credit. A student must earn a score of three out of five to receive credit with most colleges, but they do not have to pass the exam to complete the course.
Roberson said improvement is possible by teachers working regularly to align instruction and curriculum with what will appear on the test. As is done in traditional courses, Roberson said, teachers should analyze student progress weekly to address any weaknesses before they get worse.
Westside High School AP U.S. history teacher David Bradberry said even the highest-achieving students have difficulty with AP classes.
The biggest challenges are the extensive writing required and the amount of material to absorb between tests.
“Sometimes they cruise through ninth and 10th grade and no one has been honest with them, and they get these papers back and it’s bleeding red,” Bradberry said. “It’s really a reality check.”
Though earning a passing exam grade is beneficial, Bradberry said the experience of taking an AP course in itself can be even more important.
In AP, students experience college-level curriculum and are held to standards they’d find at most universities. That environment alone boosts their self-esteem.
“It’s tough,” he said. “They’re not giving away free college credit out there ... They’re certainly exposed to higher-order thinking skills, they really have to learn historical analysis, the have to learn how to make an argument. You’re exposing them to the kind of work they’ll have to do in college.”
Coney-Devine said passing the exam should be the ultimate goal. She said some students coming into high school and enrolling in the courses might not be fully prepared, which can hurt them in the end.
She has suggested creating an AP study skills course that will help increase student success, but that has not yet been implemented.
“It has to be foundational,” she said. “They have to be taught how to take the test.”
Success on the exam also varies at different schools in Richmond County. About 26 of the Academy of Richmond County’s 138 AP students passed the exam last year while only three of Laney’s 200 AP students did. Thirty AP students at Westside passed the exam, but none did among the 27 at T.W. Josey Comprehensive High School.
With the state’s newly adopted College and Career Readiness Performance Index, school districts also benefit from students taking AP courses. Districts will earn points toward its overall score based on how many students are enrolled in the college level courses.
There’s also a financial incentive for students to pass the test, Minchew said, because local and some state funds pay for each student’s roughly $80 exam.
Westside junior Amber Wofford, who is taking Bradberry’s AP U.S. history course, said her main priority is learning as much as she can during the class, discounting the exam at year’s end.
Last year, as a sophomore, she did not pass her AP chemistry exam but did not know many others who did. She said she is in it for the experience and is OK with that.
“The classes look good on transcripts,” Amber said. “The class is more important than the exam. Definitely.”