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Trump card in the quest for academic excellence

Are the education reforms prompted by the host of studies, reports, and commissions in the United States over the last two years having the intended effect?

In at least one area parents, educators, and legislators are finding that the answer is a resounding yes.

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Lifted on a rising tide of academic excellence, the College Board's Advanced Placement (AP) program has experienced the largest annual increase in student participation in its 29-year history.

More than one-fourth of the nation's 23,000 high schools report offering their students courses that can help them obtain advanced placement later in college, according to the College Board. In 1984 more than 177,000 students from some 6,000 high schools across the nation took some 240,000 AP examinations for credit. Of these schools, 67 percent were public.

The College Board began the AP program in 1955, with most of the participating schools located in the Northeast. For the past decade the program has grown by 11 to 14 percent a year, according to the College Board. Since the education reform movement began two years ago, the AP program has expanded rapidly, especially in parts of the country where historically the test had met with the least response.

Schools signing up grew by 25 percent in the South in the last year alone, say College Board officials. And between 1982 and 1983 a 35 percent growth rate occurred in the Southwest. The program also continues to grow in traditionally high-participation states such as California and New York, as well as in New England, although the growth in these areas is at a slower rate.

Some 45 percent of the Southeast's growth last year came in Florida, according to the College Board. In May 1983 the state accounted for 8,500 AP exams. By May 1984 that number had jumped to 12,500.

In the last year the state legislatures in Florida, South Carolina, and Utah set in place strong financial incentives for schools that successfully participate in the AP program. This school year (1984-'85) Florida earmarked $ 820,000, South Carolina $669,000, and Utah $700,500 for schools that adopt AP programs.

South Carolina's legislation requires all high schools to offer AP programs by 1986 as an integral part of the state's overall school-reform package.

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Florida's increase came as no surprise to State Sen. Jack D. Gordon of Miami Beach. Senator Gordon was a key sponsor of the state's Ominbus Education Act, which tied state aid to participation in the AP program. He is sure the number of students participating will continue to rise.

Speaking at the first of what will be a series of annual conferences sponsored jointly by Burger King and the National Association of Secondary School Principals to honor the 50 state educators named ''teacher'' or ''principal'' of the year, Senator Gordon explained how the Florida legislation provides schools with additional financial aid for each examination a student successfully completes. ''We wanted to build in merit incentive for academic excellence, and AP was one of the vehicles,'' he said.

Senator Gordon said legislators also like the idea of national standards and national examinations, against which they can measure their own students' performance. AP provides such comparison. It gives us something to show the public for the new monies allocated, he explained.

According to the Florida Department of Education, the financial aid an individual school receives adds up to $562 for each examination passed. A student who sucessfully completes three examinations in one year could earn his school $1,686 in funding for the next year.

The AP program consists of 24 college-level courses and examinations in 13 subject areas. Course content is determined by the participating schools, not by the College Board.

Students are required to pass a three-hour AP exam. The tests are offered every May by the College Board. The tests include short-answer and multiple-choice questions as well as essay questions. They are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 the highest mark and a score of 3 required to receive credit.

The College Board does not charge a fee to participate in the program, and there are no prescribed course materials, noted education officials at the Florida conference. Often, existing honors programs can be tailored to fit the AP program, they said.

The College Board provides course descriptions and suggestions, amounting to what one principal here said is a way for schools, especially smaller ones, to save time and money that might otherwise be spent developing a similar program for gifted students. One of the main attractions of the AP program is its national recognition and acceptance by the vast majority of American colleges and universities.

Some 40 colleges and universities also buy a list published by the College Board. Available for the first time last year, the list is called the AP Talent Search. Colleges use it to actively recruit academically talented students who take the tests.

Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education at Vanderbilt University, told the educators gathered here that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the current excellence movement is that people outside the profession are looking for ''evidence of measurable improvements'' in learning. The AP program provides just such an indicator.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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