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AP classes expand their reach

With all the talk of what's wrong in US high schools, it may be easy to forget that every day, eager students and teachers are wrestling with the meaning of a sonnet or a Supreme Court ruling.

In Advanced Placement (AP) courses, high schoolers get to stretch their wings with college-level work well before they have to fly solo. It's the kind of preparation that colleges wish more of their entering freshmen had.

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Their wish is coming true. Nearly one-quarter of public-school seniors take at least one AP exam in high school, up from 16 percent in 2000, according to a report released Tuesday by the College Board, a nonprofit association that administers the AP program. The portion of students scoring at least 3 on a 5-point scale also rose in every state. Arkansas's progress was particularly noteworthy.

"It's exciting to see that educators are actually helping a bigger segment of a bigger population learn at the college level," says Trevor Packer, the College Board's executive director of AP. But the gains are just a start, he says, especially when it comes to access for low-income students and underrepresented minorities. Citing a strong tie between taking AP courses and succeeding in college, he says, "We cannot rest in our quest to expand these opportunities until students ... are equitably represented."

African-Americans made up about 13 percent of graduating seniors in 2005, but only about 6 percent of AP exam-takers. Latino exam-takers have slightly surpassed their portion of the population (13.6 percent vs. 13.4 percent, nationally), but in some states there's a significant gap.

In Arkansas, the number of Hispanics in AP courses more than doubled between 2004 and '05; the number of African-Americans more than tripled. Overall, participation grew 108 percent.

Arkansas posted the largest single-year gains in AP's 50-year history. They resulted from a 2003 law that requires every Arkansas high school to phase in AP courses in math, English, science, and social studies by 2008-09. The state pays all student fees for the voluntary exams.

"We've had a lot of education-reform here," says Arkansas Department of Education spokeswoman Julie Thompson. "This is just another positive [sign] for us that we're doing the right things."

The foundation was laid a decade ago, when Arkansas first gave incentives for offering more AP classes. It was strengthened by federal grants starting in 1999, according to Ann Robinson, director of the Arkansas Advanced Placement Development Center at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. For the past five years, the center has offered training and mentoring to hundreds of teachers - with some programs geared specifically toward teachers of color.

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One key is to not simply focus on what's taught in 11th and 12th grades, Ms. Robinson says, but also to train teachers in younger grades to prepare students for advanced work. "One of the greatest resources that we have is teachers who really love to teach.... In Arkansas you have a groundswell of teaching faculty who are committed, and they're bringing along [their colleagues]."

President Bush's call to train an additional 70,000 AP math and science teachers in just five years has raised questions about maintaining quality. For its part, the College Board plans to launch an audit system in August. "Each school will attest to fulfilling a handful of common elements that are part of any good college course," says Mr. Packer. AP teachers will get feedback on their syllabi from college professors.

Other education reformers applaud AP, but say it's not the only priority.

"It helps over time to lift our national standard ... but AP doesn't reach all students," says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. "Indeed, the challenge of high schools is, first of all, reducing a dropout rate that, nationally, is almost one-third."