Safely goggled, Stephanie Pawlowski’s students buzz around her Dacula High Advanced Placement chemistry classroom, eagerly filling glass beakers warmed on Bunsen burners.
The assignment? Determining the molar mass of a compound by its freezing point depression.
Sounds like quite a task, but Pawlowski’s students betray not even a hint of intimidation. Their curiosity and work ethic have helped Georgia rise to No. 13 in the nation in the percentage of public school students scoring high enough on AP exams to earn college credits.
Just under 20 percent of Georgia public school students scored high enough to earn college credits in 2011 compared with about 18 percent of their counterparts nationwide. Georgia was tied with Maine for 15th in 2001, when the percentage of public school students here who scored high enough to earn college credit on one or more AP exams was at 10.8 percent.
The success of Georgia students on AP exams comes as the state has had an increasing number of students taking them. About 32,000 students took at least one AP exam last year, compared with 19,492 students in 2006.
Georgia educators credit a summer institute for AP teachers and recognition from educators, students and parents that AP work can not only help students get into college, but help them succeed while there.
“It exposes them to a level of rigor that many of our students are capable of,” Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge said. “The reality is students will rise to the level of expectations you set for them.”
Advanced Placement courses are college-level classes students can take in high school. The College Board administers the AP exams at the end of the course, and students who score at least a 3 on a 1-5 scale can earn college credits, with the number of credits varying by institution.
Emory University, for example, offers four hours of credit for scores of 4 or 5 on AP exams. A typical college degree requires 120 hours of course work, and being able to arrive on campus with, say, nine or 12 hours puts a student ahead.
Plus, getting AP college credit is a money-saver. One credit hour of course work at Georgia Southern University costs $158, according to figures compiled by the College Board. A typical class offers three hours of credit.
AP exams cost $87, and many districts offer financial assistance to needy students.
From 2006 to 2011, Georgia had a 74 percent increase in the number of low-income students taking AP exams. During that span, there was also a 50 percent jump in the number of black students taking AP exams and a 65 percent increase in the number of Hispanic students taking AP exams.
Georgia was No. 2 in the country in 2011 in the number of black students taking AP exams and scoring a 3 or higher.
Ruth Petit-Bois, a 17-year old senior in Pawlowski’s class, said it can still take some convincing to get minority students to sign up for AP classes.
“When I tell them I’m taking three AP classes, they tell me, ‘You are crazy,’” said Petit-Bois, whose parents are from Haiti.
Petit-Bois has taken nine AP classes since her freshman year and plans to attend Southern Polytechnic State University.
Another of Pawlowski’s students, Avery Leonard, is taking six AP courses this school year. He’s been accepted at Georgia Tech and is waiting to hear from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He’s grown accustomed to the level of rigor expected in AP courses.
“Anything less would feel weird,” Leonard said.
Pawlowski enjoys teaching AP courses. Her students are dedicated and willing to do the extra work.
“They come in at lunch, after school, to get extra help,” she said.
Dacula recently began allowing some AP students to come in on Saturdays, and there’s been no shortage of students willing to dive into lab work on the weekend.
Sitan “Stan” Chen, a 17-year-old senior at Northview High in Johns Creek, got a perfect score on the SAT and has been accepted by Harvard. His AP coursework was a big help, he said.
“The academic rigor of the classes really gives me a good opportunity to learn more about subjects I’m interested in,” he said. “The discussions are much more productive and stimulating.”
AP students are required to read more than students in other classes. They are expected to do more independent study and research, and their writing assignments are longer and must convey complexity of thought.
While AP classes offer a range of rewards, some students and parents are wary of getting a grade that lowers their grade-point average and puts lottery scholarship money at risk, Barge said.
“It has been a challenge to continue to increase the [AP] participation rate, but we have been able to convince folks that the benefits outweigh the risks,” he said.
Jonathan Merrill, who teaches AP U.S. government at Woodward Academy in College Park, advises parents to have a good sense of their child’s ability and work ethic before considering AP coursework.
“I would say to parents, make sure the child is actually motivated to take the AP class, because it is more work and a pretty rigorous national exam at the end of the course,” Merrill said. “Secondly, I’d suggest that they need to make sure that the child’s schedule is balanced. A child that is not very well equipped to take five AP classes is probably not going to get great benefits to taking five AP courses, because it might end up lowering their grades.”
AP coursework also is demanding for teachers.
Since 2006, the Georgia Department of Education has spent $1.3 million to give AP training grants to 1,837 teachers. The department sponsors regional AP workshops led by master AP teachers, many of whom have taught AP coursework for decades.
Pawlowski has taken a state AP workshop. And the past two summers she audited a freshman chemistry class at the University of Georgia, where one of her former AP students has gotten off to a strong start.
The student’s father sent Pawlowski an email saying his son got a 98 in freshman honors chemistry. He thanked her for helping his son.
“I was sitting during my planning period, and I actually got a little teary-eyed,” she said of the email. “That’s always great to hear how your former students are doing.”
How some area districts fared on AP
• Gwinnett County: Twelve of its 18 traditional high schools were honored by the Georgia Department of Education for having students taking at least two AP math courses, two AP science courses and having at least 40 percent of exam scores at 3 or higher.
• Atlanta Public Schools: Henry W. Grady High School was honored for having students taking at least two AP math courses, two AP science courses and having at least 40 percent of exam scores at 3 or higher.
• DeKalb County: Students taking AP exams went from 4.6 percent in 2005-2006 to 8.6 percent in 2010-2011; 31.8 percent of students earned a 3 or higher on AP exams in 2010-2011.
Want to take an AP class?
Here’s a breakdown of what’s expected in a typical AP literature class in comparison to what’s expected in a senior English literature class.
• AP lit: “King Lear,” “Hamlet,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Awakening,” “The Things They Carry,” “Brave New World.”
• Senior English lit: “Macbeth,” “Frankenstein,” an additional Shakespeare play.
• AP lit: Five to seven essays. A focus on open-ended writing that shows a complexity of thought.
• Senior English lit: Three essays. A focus on organization and process.
Source: Lesley Buchanan, English literature and AP literature teacher at Dacula High School in Gwinnett County.
-- Staff writers D. Aileen Dodd and Jaime Sarrio contributed to this article.
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