A decade ago, most Seattle-area high schools offered just a handful of rigorous classes that provided a way to earn college credit while supercharging a transcript. And only students with top grades were allowed to sign up. But in 10 years, the intensive, fast-paced Advanced Placement (AP) classes have skyrocketed in this state.

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A decade ago, most Seattle-area high schools offered just a handful of rigorous classes that provided a way to earn college credit while supercharging a transcript. And only students with top grades were allowed to sign up.

But in 10 years, the intensive, fast-paced Advanced Placement (AP) classes have skyrocketed in this state.

In 2008, fully one-quarter of Washington public-school seniors took at least one AP test during their high-school years, compared with 10 percent in 1997. In some schools, almost every student takes an AP class in junior or senior year.

And other schools around the state are moving fast to add AP classes and expand participation, in part because college admissions officials say the demanding classes do a good job of preparing students for higher education.

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Many schools are encouraging all students — not just the high achievers, but also average students and even those who struggle — to take AP classes or enroll in other rigorous programs such as the International Baccalaureate (IB).

“AP can have, in some schools, a transformative value,” said Barbara Dittrich, program supervisor of Advanced Placement for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “It changes the school to make it more rigorous.”

Some educators believe it may even be a way to reform a failing school.

But a closer look at participation over the last decade tells a checkered story. In the region’s most diverse, poorest schools, only a few AP classes are offered. Most students fail the exams. A few educators worry that AP — with its emphasis on mastering a large amount of material, then recalling it for a standardized test — turns high school into a long exercise in test-prep cramming.

AP’s rapid growth in Washington owes much to the legacy of one man: Mike Riley, the former superintendent of Bellevue schools.

Riley came here from the Baltimore County school system in 1996 and set about changing long-standing rules — common in other districts, as well — that reserved AP classes for top performers and gifted learners.

He wanted middle-of-the-road students to be challenged in high school, too. And AP classes seemed like the best tool for the job.

“AP isn’t perfect,” said Judy Bushnell, a longtime member of the Bellevue School Board. “But it was the best curriculum we could find at the time.”

AP tests are administered by the College Board, a New York nonprofit that gets about a third of its $600 million annual revenue from the exams, which cost students $86 apiece. The College Board does not sell a curriculum or publish textbooks, but it does give teachers a broad outline of what should be covered for students to do well on the test. Whether a student passes the national test doesn’t determine whether the student passes the class.

As Bellevue expanded its AP program, it developed a common set of curriculum guidelines, which start in kindergarten. The goal: to prepare all students to take at least one AP or IB class by the time they reach high school.

For some teachers who had spent years perfecting rigorous courses, such as in British literature, the move meant abandoning those courses for standard AP classes. That angered some, and at least a few teachers left the district.

David Marshak, a professor emeritus at Seattle University who now lectures at Western Washington University, followed Bellevue’s AP transformation closely. He says AP’s emphasis on content over skills seems like “an artifact of the 1980s,” and that focusing on a test that includes a large chunk of multiple-choice questions can turn a high school into a test-prep factory.

But Bellevue parents and students snapped up the classes. Bellevue students were earning about 200 college credits through AP classes when Riley arrived; in 2009, the number reached 5,800.

First two, then three, then four of the district’s schools made it into Newsweek magazine’s “Best High Schools” issue, which is based on participation in the AP and IB tests.

Last year, all five Bellevue high schools ranked among Newsweek’s top 100 high schools in the nation.

But it’s more than just rankings. “When I walk through the classrooms today, there’s a much higher level of instruction” going on, Bushnell said.

Riley left the district in 2007, taking a job with the College Board as vice president for college readiness. In his new job, he was working to expand AP offerings to small districts and to diverse urban systems such as Seattle, when he died of a heart attack in 2008.

Readiness for college

Each spring, the University of Washington is flooded with applications, about 40 percent of which are turned down. To cull potential students, officials look beyond grade-point averages and examine closely what kind of classes each applicant took in high school.

AP and the IB program are a kind of academic brand name. Washington admissions directors say a 3 or higher on the 5-point AP exam, or a 4 or above on the 7-point IB test, tells them that a student has done well on a national test designed to measure mastery of college-level material.

“There’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever, having done that work, it has a huge effect on what is associated with good outcomes,” said Philip Ballinger, the director of admissions at the UW. (Ballinger is also on the AP advisory committee for the College Board.)

College-level programs for high-schoolers, including IB and the community colleges’ Running Start, all have grown in the last decade, but AP has grown fastest. Washington was once among the states with few AP participants, but in 2008 one-quarter of the state’s students took one or more AP exams. That year, the state ranked 16th among all states for the percentage of seniors — 15.5 percent — who scored a 3 or higher on an AP exam.

Ballinger and other admissions officials would like to see even more growth. For them, the biggest issue is that there’s too little access to the programs. That’s true at rural high schools in Eastern Washington and also in a number of diverse urban schools.

“There are many, many schools in our own state where the students don’t have the possibility of taking college-level rigor,” Ballinger said.

In high-poverty schools with large percentages of African-American and Hispanic students, the number of AP classes is low, the passing rate on AP exams even lower.

For example, at Seattle’s Cleveland High in 2009, just three of the 36 AP exams administered received a passing grade. Fifty-three exams were administered at Rainier Beach High; six received a college-ready score.

Seattle push is on

Seattle Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson has promised to change this. She is expanding AP and IB programs, and has said she wants every student to take at least one AP course before graduation. Some Seattle educators think AP classes make a difference by pushing students to do college-caliber work, even if they do not pass the final exams.

Seattle’s ambitious program calls for standardizing what every student learns at each grade level, and for offering AP or IB classes in major subjects at all of the district’s comprehensive high schools, said Cathy Thompson, executive director of the district’s curriculum, instruction and assessment/evaluation.

The growing catalog of AP classes at Seattle schools has been furthered by grant money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a U.S. Department of Education grant to prepare middle-school students for AP classes.

To make it possible for all kids to take more challenging classes, the district is using different strategies to help some catch up. At Cleveland High, some students take two periods of English and math, Thompson said. Next school year, Cleveland will focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and will offer more AP classes.

The district also adopted the IB program at Ingraham High in 2002 and at Chief Sealth High in 2007.

But “you don’t get there overnight,” said Robert Vaughan, the manager of advanced learning for the Seattle schools. “Mike Riley didn’t get there overnight in Bellevue. Seattle is quite a bit more challenging than Bellevue.”

Blended programs

Former Bellevue Superintendent Riley often said he believed that college-level classes raise the level of scholarship throughout a school, even in less rigorous classes. But some wonder if they create a school-within-a-school for high achievers.

Students in Chief Sealth’s IB program differ on its effect. Senior Paul Duncan says IB and non-IB students mix well together, but another senior, Jan Nicholas, thinks the school has become split — “gentrified” — by IB.

Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School is trying a different approach. At Hale, both AP and non-AP students take the same U.S. history class because “it’s not OK just to prepare kids in the honors class or the Spectrum (highly capable) class,” said Principal Jill Hudson. “We believe in rigor all the way across the board.”

But some AP students say blended classes slow down the learning. Nightly class readings for AP students are out of sync with class discussions, for example.

“I don’t think the system works at Hale at all,” said AP student Sophie Hallam-Eames, a junior. “I didn’t learn the material well.”

South of Seattle, in the Highline School District, Global Connections High School had all of its juniors take an AP English class to give them a sense of what college-level rigor means.

In a school where English is a second language for 24 percent of students, and 67 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, some students felt “overwhelmed and frustrated” by the work, acknowledged Principal Rick Harwood. Seventy of the school’s 110 juniors took the optional exam in 2009; 10 of them passed.

Fast-forward to this year, when a more experienced staff is better prepared to teach the classes. Harwood says he’s seen a remarkable difference in just a year’s time, noting that classes seem more focused.

A lot to cover

“Don’t take my class if you don’t have at least some interest in history,” Bellevue’s Newport High teacher Ed Rubio warns prospective students.

He likes teaching students to think analytically as they evaluate documents from history — for example, studying Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings to learn how his position on slavery evolved. But Rubio acknowledges the class is a lot of work.

“The biggest struggle — let’s face it, there’s a lot of content,” he said. “The sheer level of detail is amazing.”

AP U.S. history surveys the whole of American history, at a college level, in less than nine months.

Rubio echoed a concern voiced by other AP teachers and college-admissions officers: that AP has become so essential to getting into a good college that some students take too many classes, burning themselves out.

“I can’t tell you how many kids get by on three or four hours of sleep,” Rubio said.

At a national level, there’s been a recent backlash against AP at some public and private schools, which have dumped them in favor of classes that teach fewer topics but do so in greater depth, with an emphasis on creativity and exploration.

Lakeside School, a prestigious private school in the Seattle area, dropped the courses about eight years ago so its teachers could have the freedom to follow their interests, said Than Healy, the director of Lakeside’s upper school and assistant head of school. Even without the classes, a large percentage of Lakeside students take and pass the AP tests.

Healy said AP didn’t fit with Lakeside’s culture, but he thinks the program does a number of things well. The U.S. history test, for example, asks students to use documents from American history to answer an essay question. “It’s one of the best measures of critical thought I’ve seen,” he said.

Ballinger, the UW admissions director, said because the College Board examines each AP teacher’s course syllabus, then provides a national test to determine how much students learned, AP is a “national touchstone.”

“That exam is a university-level exam,” Ballinger said. “It is rooted in the college curriculum. In that sense, you do really have a national standard.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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