PHILIPSBURG Since 1955, American high school students have had the opportunity to take advanced placement courses that might translate to college credits if they got a high enough score on a test administered by the College Board, the same organization that handles Scholastic Aptitude Tests.
But not every school offers the classes. Until 1996, Philipsburg-Osceola didnt offer AP courses. Since then, the district has, through trial and error, added and subtracted different classes, wavering from one to four AP courses until last year when it offered six, to a high this year of 13 and covering everything including English, math and psychology. That puts Philipsburg-Osceola on competitive footing with neighboring districts. State College offers 18 AP classes and has an AP program that dates to 1980. Bellefonte has 10 and started its program in 1998. Bald Eagles program began in 1976 and offers seven classes. Other schools, such as West Branch and Moshannon Valley, have no AP offerings.
Principal Jeffrey Hartmann said thats the point: that P-O students have to be competitive with students from other schools and with transcripts that reflect challenging material to make them attractive prospects for good universities. But others say the districts program needs work and students are not prepared for the work, as reflected in test scores.
SAT scores have tests measured in the hundreds and thousands. The AP test? Just five numbers. A 1 is basically a thanks for playing. A 2 says a student showed mastery of some material, but not enough to merit credit hours. A 3, 4 or 5 can qualify for college credits, potentially saving a student thousands of dollars in tuition, officials said.
In 2009, seven Philipsburg-Osceola students took eight AP tests, and all seven earned a 3 or better on the test. This year, 124 students took 192 tests, and 14 hit that mark. State averages for this year had 68.2 percent of students with at least a 3.
Hartmann quoted national statistics at a board meeting Tuesday showing just 18 percent of U.S. testers are getting a 3 or better, up from 11 percent 10 years ago. Given the districts relative newness to the AP game, Hartmann thinks comparison to those numbers is favorable.
For critics of the open door program, requiring no testing in or other qualifications for the classes says students are not being properly prepared for the classes in advance and are not prepared for the tests by the conclusion of the course.
Retired Bellefonte teacher and local resident John Hardy said he is not opposed to challenging the students. We are supposed to achieve. I expect it, he said. However, he claimed students at other schools are preparing from junior high to take AP level classes, and that preparation shows in test scores.
Hartmann countered that such gatekeeping limits the opportunities for students who might not realize early enough that they want these chances.
Who knows what they want to do with their life in eighth grade? he said.
But the classes are meant to provide college-level challenge and prepare students for a university environment. If you want to take a class at Penn State, you have to meet the prerequisites. Hartmann acknowledged that argument, but said the difference comes in not restricting a public school student from any opportunity presented to them while they participate in an educational program they are required by law to attend. However, access to the tests becomes a stumbling block for some opponents. In recent years, the district has paid the bill for AP courses. Last year, $15,000 was budgeted for the tests. This school year, with the tests costing $89 apiece and a boom in student interest, that number could rise above $17,000 in 2013 and continue to climb.
Hardy and others see some of that money as ill spent when students come back with a 1 or 2 on the tests. Some say that families should be paying the bill, and if they were, they wouldnt be spending the money if they didnt believe their children had a good enough grasp of the material for a higher grade. Hartmann points to the percentages. This years testing, for example, was less than half of 1 percent of the districts budget, and even for students that earned a score of 1 on a single AP test, that shows a more rigorous program and more commitment than no score, no test and no class.
However, AP test scores are not the only ones that go on a transcript. SATs, administered by the same College Board, are taken by more students and are not paid for by the district. Hartmann said the difference is the specificity of the individual classes and subject matter of the test. In addition, AP test numbers are growing in importance in comparison to the SAT.
Assistant Principal Dave Simcoxs youngest daughter graduated from Philipsburg-Osceola in June. She took AP classes and moved on to Bloomsburg.
She is so confident, Simcox said, attributing that in part to being well-prepared by AP coursework. How can anybody see this experience as negative?