Since 2001, Arizona has seen a steady jump in the number of high school students taking at least one Advanced Placement exam — from 10.1 percent of the Class of 2001 to 16.6 percent of the Class of 2011.
Though it’s still far below the national average of 30.2 percent, according to the most recent report out this month by The College Board, East Valley school leaders say they are seeing an increase in the number of AP tests students are taking.
AP courses are given in high school, but are more rigorous than a typical class. They’re in-line with college courses — and students may receive college credit for them either through dual enrollment or through successfully passing an AP exam.
Research shows students who take these exams are better prepared for college and are more likely to complete their degrees.
Chandler Unified School District has seen a 65 percent jump in the number of AP exams students are taking since 2008, according to Matthew Strom, research analyst for the district. Chandler is making a big push for AP courses at its high schools, he said.
Hamilton High School senior Surina Das, 16, is one of the reasons those numbers have jumped. She has already taken six AP exams and plans to take five more this year.
“I think compared to honors classes you have to put in a lot more time, especially outside of school. For AP classes, homework takes longer. You have to be willing to put in the effort. You have to know going into it you’re making a commitment to something,” she said.
And though she’s happy to take the college credits she’ll receive — if the university she attends accepts them — she said she would have taken the classes anyway.
“Most of them are for topics I’m interested in. If I didn’t take AP classes, I would be a little bored and wouldn’t feel as challenged,” she said.
Hamilton teacher Scott Reed, who teaches AP psychology, said some students only take one AP test, while others take many.
The school is home to an AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination), designed to encourage students to reach academic heights they may not have tried to achieve.
“AVID has really helped us get the average student and push them to try to expand themselves. That’s one of the big reasons we’re at the top of the state,” with AP exams, Reed said.
Last year, 785 Hamilton students took 1,694 exams.
While Mesa Unified School District has not seen an increase in the number of students taking AP exams, it has seen a jump in the number of exams taken, said Joe O’Reilly, executive director for student achievement support.
In 2011, Mesa students took 2,773 AP exams — 36 percent higher than three years ago.
Students can take AP classes in a variety of topics, from math and literature to history and science. Nationwide, geography and environmental science have gained in popularity. Gilbert Unified School District plans to add an AP human geography class next school year.
Barbara VeNard, assistant superintendent for the Gilbert district, said the classes raise the level of learning in the schools.
“It’s a great opportunity for students. It encourages advanced learning and advanced performance from the students in regards to instruction,” she said.
Gilbert requires AP classes for its students on one of its campuses — the Gilbert Classical Academy. Last year, 89 students there took 151 exams.
District-wide, 1,250 Gilbert students took AP exams in 2011. But many students are involved in the dual enrollment classes the district offers through local community colleges, VeNard said. Some students don’t even sit for the exams because they’re already receiving college credit with the AP exam tied to dual credit.
Universities and colleges determine whether or not to accept AP credit based on how students perform on the exams. A passing score is a 3, but some schools require or 4 or a 5 (the highest possible).