Since 2015, the number of students taking Advanced Placement (AP) at Durango High School has nearly doubled. The rapid change reflects a national trend —supported by DHS administration— which emphasizes the value of AP for all students and increasing the number AP classes available at all levels.
AP is a program run by The College Board that allows students to take college level courses and examinations to earn college credit while in high school. AP course are certified and audited by the College Board.
“Any school can call a class honors, it means nothing. The College Board standardizes rigor,” said Assistant Prince Darren Tarshis who worked with The College Board on administering AP tests last spring.
Tarshis’ eventual goal for AP is to enroll half of the student body in an AP course, which he believes will help DHS send more students on to a successful college experience.
“Taking and passing an AP course at some point in high school is the biggest indicator for success. If you can have that experience in high school, you have experience and have strategies to deal with your first college physics class,” said Tarshis, who taught AP physics before coming to DHS.
In addition to preparing students for college level coursework, AP classes are often touted as a way to decrease the achievement gap, the disparity in educational performance between different socioeconomic groups.
“One of the grants I am associated with is AIMES, and their stated goal is to increase college achievement for Native Americans. They see a very direct correlation between the number of AP classes students take in high school and their success in college,” said Robert Aspen, a counselor at DHS.
Despite the positive of experience that Tarshis and Aspen have with AP, some experts questions whether AP is necessarily an effectual method to prepare students for college and narrow the achievement gap.
In a review of 20 existing research studies on AP, Challenge Success, a research-based organization at Stanford University, found that studies on AP had extreme difficulty separating causation and correlation.
“We believe that more research needs to be done before we can verify the broad claim that taking AP classes makes students likely to succeed in college,” states the review.
The review argues that to effectively address the achievement gap, the AP program needs to include changes such as extra tutoring, professional development, and extra instruction for students. It cites evidence that many efforts to increase AP in inner city schools often resulted in few students passing the test with a three or higher.
As part of the effort to increase AP enrollment, DHS is offering more AP courses to freshmen and sophomores. In the last year, the number of 9th graders in AP courses jumped from four to 76. The sophomore class also showed a marked increase from 58 students to 122.
One example of expansion of AP classes for underclassmen is the replacement of Honors World History with AP World History.
“Our Honors World History was almost as rigorous as AP world history,” said Tarshish, in support of the modification.
However, some teachers and students question whether asking freshmen and sophomores to take college level course is really in their best interest.
“I do and I don’t support the change to AP. I support the change because it is the change and anytime we change I am going to do my best to make that successful. I still wonder if the honors class in some ways taught the same skills but at a much more high school student level,” said Ed Cash, the long time teacher of Honors World History who now teaches two sections of AP World History.
As a result of the transition to AP, Cash covers history at much quicker rate in order to cover all the topics necessary for the AP test. He worries that his AP students are not learning to enjoy and love history in the same way that his honors students did.
Difficulty and high expectations of AP classes is part of their value; it’s what sets them apart from regular classes. Math and computer science teacher, Tarra Haller, believes that increasing AP opportunities is an overall positive trend but also recognizes that taking multiple AP classes the right choice for all students.
“I think that we have to continue to talk to our students about making healthy choices around time management and what’s realistic in terms of each individual student,” said Haller.
Administration projects another increase in students taking AP courses for the next academic year. While increased post secondary success, as a result, is not guaranteed, AP courses do represent a chance for students of all backgrounds to earn college credit and develop good study skills.