Lucy C. Laney High School senior James Holmon is no slacker.
This year he manages a 3.53 GPA while playing football and basketball for Laney, taking four Advanced Placement courses and fitting in no less than three hours of homework a night.
He’s the type of student who gets offered a full ride to Howard University, where he’ll head in the fall to play football and study computer engineering.
Holmon, 17, is not accustomed to failure. Still there’s one thing he has not mastered despite practice tests and hours of review.
Although he has passed all of his AP courses taken during four years at Laney, Holmon has never made a passing grade on the grueling final exam, which is required for students to earn college credit.
And he’s not alone. Out of 1,149 AP students in Richmond County, only 19 percent earned a score of 3 or higher on an exam in 2013. Test scores range from 1 to 5; 3 or higher is considered passing.
Despite the low success rates on the exams, many students and teachers say taking on the college-level courses is a victory in itself and that a passing exam grade is rarely the goal. The courses expose students to rigor they wouldn’t find in traditional high school classes and give insight into what they’ll experience in a college setting.
“By taking AP, I wanted a challenge,” said Laney senior Ashley Manker, who will attend Georgia Regents University in the fall to study early childhood education. “I love to learn. I like learning more than just the basics. I wanted to see how far I could take myself, so it was never really about the exam.”
As Georgia has fine-tuned its focus on college and career readiness, the number of graduates leaving high school having taken an AP exam has more than doubled over the past decade to 34,515. About half of those AP graduates left high school without college credit, according to an annual report released this month by the College Board, which administers the program.
“We never hear from students or teachers that college credit is the sole value they see in the program,” said Trevor Packer, College Board senior vice president for AP. “Students and teachers really value the culture of high aspirations and focus on college that they create in these classrooms. It’s how they felt included in something important educationally.”
Holmon said he wanted to be prepared for the type of work he’ll see in college, so when he leaves Augusta, he won’t be overwhelmed.
“I think we’ll have already seen the material by the time we get to college, where other students may be learning it for the first time,” Holmon said.
However, Richmond County Superintendent Frank Roberson said despite the inherent benefits of participating in the classes, the district must help more students take college credit along with them, which will help save on tuition costs.
Out of the 311 final exams taken in Laney’s Academy for Advanced Placement Studies, a magnet program that accepts students from all attendance zones, only two students earned a passing score of 3 or higher in 2013.
None of the 56 exams taken at T.W. Josey High School ended in a passing grade. At Academy of Richmond County, 29 students earned college credit out of 192 exams taken. The magnet schools also struggle – 123 students at John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School earned a 3 or better out of 444 exams taken in 2013, and 17 made the cut at A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet School out of 115 tests administered.
Roberson said he has asked the curriculum department to audit the AP courses to make sure the curriculum is aligned with the exams so students are not shocked by the material on test day.
“We live in a test-and-measure oriented society,” Roberson said in an e-mail. “It is imperative for us to prepare our students to achieve at the expected levels if they are going to be productive and successful in an international community.”
Packer said students nationwide are issued the same exams and that AP teachers’ syllabuses must be approved by the College Board to be used in classes. He said rather than teacher ineffectiveness, some of the struggles with earning college credit can be linked to how well students are prepared in elementary and middle grades.
Laney teacher LaShawn White, a former computer engineer, said the material she teaches in her AP statistics course is more difficult than what she saw in college. At the same time, her students learn research techniques and improve their writing, which is part of daily assignments and homework.
White said the AP courses are truly set up like a college class – students are responsible for reading the syllabus and keeping track of due dates, they must explain their work rather than just give short answers and they must be self-motivated.
After earning a passing grade in the course, she has seen students not show up to take the exam or give up halfway through.
“I believe the preparatory pace is more valuable than the passage of the exam,” White said. “Getting that exposure to that rigor, you couldn’t trade it for anything. In my classroom, they truly experience the ‘I’m the professor, you’re the student’ scenario.”