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Pros and cons of AP courses

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BARRE, Vt. -

For the 19 students in John Lewis' Advanced Placement psychology class, the lesson for the day is brain regions and their functions. This class, like the 14 other AP offerings at Spaulding High School in Barre, has seen phenomenal growth, with 246 students taking the AP exam last spring. That's double the number of just four years ago. Why the interest?

"My motivation is to try and get college courses out of the way," said Matt Thompson, a senior. "It's a cheaper alternative and it also allows me to take more classes in college if maybe I want to do pre-med on top of engineering or something else."

"I think the students in the classes are really dedicated to their work and it makes it for better conversations and interesting classes. And the teachers are excellent, so we're really lucky," said Rose Meriam, a senior.

Whether it's pure love of academics or a way to look more attractive to colleges, the popularity of the courses has grown rapidly in the last decade. The College Board first offered AP classes back in the mid-1950s, college-level courses designed to be rigorous and teach critical thinking skills.

At Spaulding, course offerings range from this yearlong AP calculus class, to European history, biology or English lit. In May, most students pay the $90 to take a College Board-administered exam. In order to get college credit, students must earn a three or better on a scale of one to five.

But as more students are being encouraged to take the courses, critics have raised questions. Among them-- does the expense and faculty required to offer an AP class diminish from resources available to others? Does cramming for that spring exam create the kind of "teach-to-the-test mentality" that so many educators find discouraging?

In 2014, out of the 3,962 Vermont AP students, 28.7 percent scored below a three and did not get college credit.

At Spaulding, 159 students took the courses and 50.3 percent received no credit.

"Opening up access to students for a rigorous curriculum has really been our goal and that's what it's about," said John Pandolfo, the curriculum director for the Barre Supervisory Union.

Pandolfo spent more than a decade teaching AP courses. He says regardless of whether students get college credit, the experience is valuable.

"I had students who got twos at times who would come back to me in college and say, 'That course really prepared me for college. I really went into college having experienced that course and feeling like I know what it's like and I know I can succeed here,'" Pandolfo said.

He says if you're teaching to a test that is backed by a solid curriculum, then there's nothing wrong with that. And for Spaulding, where 40 percent of students won't necessarily go to college, he says the school strives to offer equal opportunities.

"We have had discussions about-- so if we get three students signed up for a course, do we offer that course if that's going to impact the greater curriculum? And what we can offer to all students with the resources we have? And I think that can be an issue in smaller schools. Spaulding is fortunate in that way," Pandolfo said.

Average AP class size at Spaulding comes to about 16 students. Providing better access at small schools has fueled the growth of programs like the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative, where students from Spaulding or other participating schools around the state can take AP classes online. And if that doesn't work, there's always the real thing. At the same time as some colleges around the country have questioned the value of low-passing AP scores-- and in some cases denied credits-- Vermont State Colleges have broadened their outreach with dual enrollment and other programs that allow high schoolers to leap ahead.

"They're able to take two college courses during their junior and senior years, and so I expect there are a number of students who are combining that with AP courses at their school, or in some cases replacing AP courses," said Tom Alderman of the Vt. Agency of Education.

Back at Spaulding, Rose Meriam says her AP courses have taken her on the right path.

"I've taken a lot of history APs; I think I've taken four for history," she said. "And I want to be a history major, and so when colleges see that's what my focus is, then I think that really helps that."

Helps enough to get her early admission to Columbia University. Not bad for this soon-to-be Spaulding grad.

Spaulding officials say the $90 AP exam fee is covered for any student who needs assistance. That funding is administered by the Agency of Education.

Spaulding High School has 755 students and 136 faculty and staff members, 76 of them under a teaching contract. The school's total budget is $12.3 million.

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