by Heather Tomlinson
News of nearly $400,000 allotted to the state to help fund Advanced Placement tests at the high school level was welcomed by many educators, and it may play straight into local school districts’ move toward providing as many opportunities for college and career preparation as possible.
“We have really tried to strengthen our AP program,” said Wesley Cornett, principal at Somerset High School. “Our goal is to get to that point where we can provide an opportunity for students to get that college credit.”
The Advanced Placement program — AP for short — began in 1995 and is overseen by the College Board, a national organization that develops and implements a number of standardized tests at secondary schools in the U.S. as part of a mission to promote college readiness. Around 35 different course subjects are offered in 20 subject areas, according to information obtained from the College Board website.
“They (the students) are getting exposed to increased rigor,” said Mardi Montgomery, director of next-generation programs with Pulaski County Schools.
AP classes are structured in such a way as to imitate the environment of a first-year college class. Curriculum is delivered by teachers who follow guidelines developed and published by the College Board. Certain courses are available to sophomores, juniors, and seniors in high school, although seniors are usually eligible for a wider variety of such courses.
Students can opt to put their new knowledge and skills to the test by taking an AP exam in each course. Those exams, graded on a scale of between 1 and 5, where 5 is a perfect score, can provide students with the opportunity to earn first-year credits at participating colleges and universities.
Passing those norm-referenced and standardized AP tests — a difficult feat, not doubt — can lead to thousands of dollars in savings for students and their families.
Montgomery said qualifying scores earned by Pulaski and Southwestern High School students in the last school year translated to opportunities for more than $632,000 in savings through just the University of Kentucky alone.
“As a result of our students' AP qualifying scores, on a regular basis our students are entering college and/or technical school as second semester freshmen or even well into their sophomore year,” said Montgomery. “This translates to thousands of dollars of savings for parents.”
Montgomery pointed out that one recent Pulaski district graduate transferred high school AP qualifying scores into 51 credits at UK. The student, a pre-med major, is able to finish an undergraduate degree in just two years. Montgomery said with current UK tuition costs ($415 an hour), the student can save $21,165.
Significant savings are even more important for certain student populations at the local schools. Montgomery said the Pulaski Board of Education has voted to help pay for half of the AP exam fee for qualifying low income students. That cuts the cost from between $80 and $90 to approximately $40.
Cornett said Somerset’s Board of Education has also elected to go in a similar direction. He said students who take the AP test are reimbursed by the school board.
“Students will come to us and say ‘Hey, I want to take this test, I’m not sure if I’ll pass it, but I want to try, and I have no money,’” Cornett said. “We’re very glad to offer that.”
To receive college credit, students must score above a 3 on the test. But Cornett emphasized that it is up to each college whether to accept those AP credits.
The efforts by both school districts seem to be working in removing some of the financial barriers for students pursuing a college career.
Montgomery said the Pulaski Schools District was recognized for the 2012-2013 school year on the AP District Honor Role. And she has high hopes for the next honor roll release.
“This outstanding accomplishment in a district with 65 percent free and/or reduced lunch epitomizes how state support translates to student success and improved competitiveness,” said Montgomery.
According to statistics provided through the Kentucky Department of Education, 4,919 Pulaski District students (this includes high schools, middle schools and elementary schools) in 2012 qualified for free or reduced lunch out of a total of 7,833 students. That means, according to those numbers, 63 percent of Pulaski District students receive free or reduced lunches.
Out of the 2,207 high school students enrolled in 2012 at Southwestern High School or Pulaski County High School, 1,216, or 55 percent, qualified for free or reduced lunch.
Although Pulaski schools have opted beginning this year to provide all students with free lunches, thanks to federal funding, the free/reduced measurement is still used to help identify students in low-income families.
In the Somerset district, 848 of the 1,495 total enrolled students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, which equals out to around 57 percent. In Somerset High School alone, 227 out of 478 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, which equals out to around 47 percent.
Now, a recent announcement from the U.S. Department of Education that more than $21.5 million in grants will be going to 43 states to help pay for AP exam fees for low-income students has local educators awaiting the details.
Kentucky schools will receive $394,457. The Kentucky Department of Education has announced that no low-income student will have to pay more than $10 for their AP exams. That $10 may be easily covered by local school boards.
“We will explore more options, depending on what kind of allocations come down,” said Montgomery. “Removing the test fee exam barrier for our students is imperative.
“ ... All students must be given the opportunity to take exams and compete with their peers worldwide,” Montgomery added. “Fee waivers for exams allows increased access and equality for all students regardless of socioeconomic status.”