WASHINGTON — Ben Powers may only be a high school sophomore, but already he has college on his mind. Next year, he plans to sign up for Advanced Placement courses at Biloxi Senior High School in Mississippi, and he is already taking honors courses to qualify.
"I need to gain as much knowledge as I can prior to entering college," he reasons matter-of-factly, "and I think AP courses can do that more than general courses."
Many high schoolers share that view. With ever-increasing competition to enter top colleges, students are on the lookout for ways to make their rsum stand out. And the AP exam, instituted in 1954 by the College Board as a way of enabling gifted high-school seniors to earn college credits, has become a favored tool.
Today, according to the College Board, 51 percent of US high schools offer at least one AP course. The program has grown to include 31 subjects, and the number of AP exams administered has grown steadily, reaching 845,000 this May. Of these, 35 percent were taken by high school juniors.
College admissions officers are seeing the results in student applications. Half of the 3,500 to 3,600 students entering North Carolina State University in Raleigh this fall, for example, have taken at least one AP course. At Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, 30 to 40 percent of about 400 incoming freshmen have two or more AP courses under their belt. "Ten years ago," says dean of admissions Wylie Mitchell, "that percentage was maybe 5 to 10."
The rapid expansion is straining the program's ability to maintain its standards, yet the program shows no signs of slowing down. On the contrary: Many students, parents, and educators hail the program as a positive force in US education. It provides the tools for teachers to design courses that are more in-depth than typical high school courses and also strengthen students' reading and analytical skills.
The exam in all subjects consists of a multiple-choice questionnaire and three to four essays. The essays predictably require analysis, synthesis, and the ability to form and support an opinion. But even the multiple-choice portion increasingly emphasizes concepts and themes, demanding analysis, not mere regurgitation of facts.
AP courses are modeled on the exams, but they bear no resemblance to prep classes for, say, the Scholastic Aptitude Test. "It is not teaching the test as much as it is teaching the thought process," explains Carol Osborne, an English teacher in Virginia who has taught AP courses and graded AP English exams.
The courses have grown to include new subjects - statistics and environmental science, for example. The range of material covered has expanded as well. AP English exams now include texts by contemporary and minority writers. But "Shakespeare has not dropped out," insists Penelope Laurans, associate dean of Yale College, who has served on the exam committee.
Many educators like the AP for the informal standards it offers. Guidelines from the College Board form the models for schools' individually created AP curricula. The quality of courses ultimately depends on the quality of the teacher. But, says Margaret Williams, director of admissions at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va., "it's like an academic green light to assume that a certain level of preparation has been achieved."
As a result, AP classes and tests often stand out on students' transcripts. "It is an extra measure to give you better insight into a student's potential," says Glenn Sklarin, an admissions officer at Saint John's University in New York.
This can cut both ways. When admissions officers see that an applicant has performed poorly in an AP course, they often are concerned that the student lacks the maturity to gauge his or her strengths. But, by the same token, they often read commitment and motivation in a transcript that shows that a student was willing to forgo an easy 'A' by taking a more difficult course. Some colleges, like Loyola College in Maryland and William & Mary in Virginia, go so far as to penalize students whose transcripts indicate that they were capable of handling AP courses but opted out of them.
The recent adjustment of the SAT mean - which effectively boosted scores across the board - has created strong pressure to expand the program further, even though this poses significant challenges to maintaining high standards.
Already some high school students report mixed experiences with AP teachers, who presently receive little training beyond one- or two-day workshops. Wade Curry, head of the AP program at the College Board, says that these sessions may not be enough.
Although Mr. Curry does not want certification for AP teachers, he is looking into ways that the College Board can help schools ensure quality teaching.
Expansion also threatens the rigorous grading of the AP exam. Grades range from 0 to 5. Many university departments award full or partial credit to students with AP scores of 4 and 5, and sometimes 3. This allows some students to add a second major or a minor, save thousands of dollars in tuition by skipping a semester or a year, or receive financial aid.
Consistent grading is therefore crucial. In the case of the multiple-choice portion, this is straightforward. The essays, however, require vast numbers of readers - more than 600 this year for the English alone - who sit at tables of nine with one leader.
To ensure a relatively uniform approach, the leader sets the standards, conducts a series of dry-runs, spot-checks each reader's scoring, and monitors the distribution of each reader's scoring throughout the week-long process.
"It's as good a system as I can imagine for a national exam," says Ms. Laurans, who was a leader this year.
Finding venues and staffing is becoming increasingly problematic. But Curry insists that his team will keep the current, single-venue format for the grading process "as long as we can."
The Educational Testing Service, which oversees the College Board, periodically conducts studies in universities and calibrates the AP's scale to the performance of college students who take the test. To guard against creeping grade inflation, ETS then weights the results so that a college student with a high 'C' average receives only a low 3 AP score.
Some small institutions are concerned about the financial implications of more students qualifying to skip semesters. This is unlikely to diminish, since the practice is a carrot colleges dangle in their competition for top students.
But even these colleges are encouraged by the performance of students with AP backgrounds, and say the curricula that the AP exam generates upgrade secondary education.