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School board grapples with poor test scores

BRISTOL, Connecticut, U.S.A. — Though more students are taking college level classes in the city’s two high schools, the percentage who pass the Advanced Placement tests has been sinking fast.

To reduce the number who flunk the costly exam, the Board of Education may bar students with poor grades from taking it.

This means that students may take the AP course, but should they fail to maintain a mandated average, they would not receive UConn credit.

In the last two years, many more students are taking the college level courses — especially in history and English — but the number who score well on the end-of-the-year test hasn’t changed.

“The 96-97 school year showed about 20 kids taking AP history,” while 51 took it last year, said Michael Traverso, a history teacher at Bristol Eastern High School.

Traverso said that two years ago, 55 percent of his students scored high enough on the test to earn academic credit from the University of Connecticut. But last year, only 17 percent did well enough to pass the history exam, he said.

“We’ve expanded the pool of kids taking the course considerably,” Traverso said. “When you do that, it seems to me, it only makes sense that the scores would drop. You get kids that would otherwise not be taking the class, some kids that just can’t do it.”

The school board has three goals for the AP program that seem to be in direct conflict, Traverso said. The goals are to hike the number of students taking the classes, raise test scores and save money on administering tests that students don’t pass.

One solution being considered by board members, said Traverso, is to require students have a minimum grade in the class in order to take an AP test and possibly get college credit. Any AP student can take the test now.

“We’re still discussing options,” said Ann Clark, the school superintendent, “and still discussing the goals of a college level program.” She would not elaborate.

“The goals and plans are still in discussion,” agreed Dennis Siegmann, the science department chief for both high schools. “But when you talk about capping the average to take the test and to get the credit, you have to ask yourself what the object of the college level course is. Is it to have all of the kids do well and get high test scores, or is it to give them the real college experience?”

Advanced Placement courses allow city high school juniors and seniors to earn college credit.

Students taking AP courses must take a comprehensive final exam graded on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 the highest possible score. At least a 3 must be earned for UConn credit.

The test costs $80 per student, with the schools footing the bill. Eastern is ranked 18th out of 160 state school systems in the percentage of students taking an AP class. Central is 20th.

Nationally, about half the students taking AP tests get at least a 3 on them, statistics show.

“I think you have to keep class size down if your primary concern is high test scores,” said Art Groth, head of the English departments at Eastern at Bristol Central High School. “However, I think that it should be a very challenging course, as it is for UConn credit, and not everyone is willing to accept the challenge.”

“You can tell that there are kids that wouldn’t really be in the classes,” said Carolyn Choi, an Eastern junior, “some of the classes are difficult and they’re just not interested in doing it.”

“Maximizing participation shouldn’t be a main goal,” said Eastern junior Hayley Varhol. “While I think that a lot of people should have the chance to do it, the first priority should be the students that can and will do the work.”

Varhol said many of the students with low scores don’t do their homework or participate in class. That, she said, doesn’t mean that they don’t know the material.

“In a real college course,” said Varhol, “homework isn’t the most important thing.”

Siegmann said that not every student does well in college. Capping the scores necessary for credit, according to him, would have cut out many of the students who scored 3 and above last year.

According to department heads, history and English classes have been hit hardest by the rush to take AP classes. More students are also taking AP government, where test scores are also down.

Science and math AP classes have not seen an increase in participation — and their scores haven’t changed much.

“There are no more students taking the AP chemistry class this year than in the previous years.” said Patrick Lang, an Eastern chemistry teacher.

Lang said that while he doesn’t feel that the push to increase the number of students taking AP classes has hurt his course, the new block scheduling system hurt.

“My scores dropped a little last year, but that was primarily because of the block, my getting used to teaching AP with the block,” he said.

“The AP classes meet every day for 84 minutes now,” Lang said. “In the old system we had double periods of 48 minutes. The AP students actually lost 12 minutes of class time in the block.”

“Physics scores have been fine, and actually went up last year,” said David Bittle, who teaches AP physics and calculus. He is also the advisor to Eastern’s chapter of National Honor Society.

Bittle notes that some members of the honor society were frustrated with their AP scores last year. Bittle said the college level classes draw kids together, encouraging them to function as a group, succeeding or failing together.

It’s unclear when the board will issue any new policy about AP classes or tests. But Traverso said students taking the courses this year won’t be affected.

Joe Wilbur is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.

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