Nineteen seniors in Cody Canning's Advanced Placement history class are learning about corporations. A discussion about liability starts. Hands raise throughout the room with quick questions and answers. All are on subject -- even the jokes.
If you move the room and subject to a college, it wouldn't be out of place. And that's the point: AP classes teach college-level material.
AP classes are becoming popular in Flagstaff. Flagstaff High School started its AP Academy this year, with Mount Elden Middle School offering a preparatory Pre-AP Academy. FHS has 510 students enrolled in its AP courses, up from 386 students last year.
Basis Academy centers its upper-grade curriculum on AP courses. Northland Preparatory Academy (NPA), Coconino High School, and Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy all offer AP classes.
For students, AP classes offer an opportunity to gain experience in a college-level class. As a bonus, they have a possibility of earning college credit if they do well enough on the end-of-the-year exam.
"AP courses stretch students," said Steve Danner, NPA's guidance counselor. "We encourage these classes for students who are ready and interested in them."
Most schools do not require AP classes. Students decide to take these classes based on other factors.
"I like a faster-paced class," said Keven Griffen, an NPA senior. "These classes are more in-depth and give a better understanding of the subject."
Students also get to experience a college-level class and in doing so get to practice study skills, time management and higher-level thinking. Chris Kalinich is a parent of an NPA graduate and an NPA sophomore.
"Maybe I am atypical," Kalinich said. "I don't encourage students to take AP courses for college credits but to help them prepare for college."
Her oldest daughter is now a student at Arizona State University and found the AP courses helped her prepare for the rigors of college courses.
According to the College Board, which administers the tests, more than 2.7 million AP exams were taken in 2012. Tests, in 2013, will cost $89 apiece and are scored from 5 (the highest) to 1. If students score 3 or higher on a test, some universities accept the score for college credit, but that varies by university.
Students can look at the test as motivation for studying during the class, as a learning tool for taking tests or as a comparison with how other students did on the test around the country. A low AP score, however, does not reflect poorly on the student.
"The information [students] get from the class is more valuable than any test," said Sharon Falor, an assistant principal at Flagstaff High School "The test provides good experience in taking tests. Students will be taking MCATs, LSATs. One test is just a slice of time."
Danner said that based on his counseling experience, AP scores typically don't reflect whether a student will get into a college. Rather, colleges see that students were taking challenging classes.
Basis Flagstaff opened its doors at the start of the 2011-12 school year for grades 5 through 10. The school offered one AP class: U.S. Government. Out of 39 students who took the exam, 20 failed.
But Kara Kelty, head of schools, is not concerned. Unlike the other schools, Basis requires its students to take AP classes.
"We took in students of all abilities and increased their vocabulary and reading ability," Kelty said. "If you look at where we started and where we ended, it was a very successful year."
Basis Schools focus on rigorous curriculum, with AP courses at the center of the upper grades. Students need to take six AP exams and courses. AP exams are not the goal of the curriculum, but consistent with raised academic expectations for Basis.
Students need to receive a score of 3 or more on at least one AP exam. AP exam scores are incorporated into students' final grades using a rubric. The exams for Basis Flagstaff students are paid for by Basis. This year, Basis is offering five AP classes.
Flag High's AP Academy also requires students to take AP classes starting freshman year. These students are assigned a mentor to help them progress through high school. At graduation, they receive a diploma with AP scholar recognition.
"We were looking to enhance educational opportunities for students while continuing to offer extracurricular activities," said Falor, when giving one of the reasons why the Academy was started.
AP classes are not for everyone. Although the number of students enrolled in AP courses is growing, the percentage of students taking the classes remains small. Last year, Flagstaff-wide only 992 students took AP classes.
"More and more students say, 'Give me the hardest thing there is.' Parents say, 'Give my kid the hardest thing there is,'" Danner said. "(Deciding whether to take an AP class) should be about the kid and sensible for each kid."
Cecile LeBlanc can be reached at 556-2261 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
2012 Flagstaff Advanced Placement test scores*
# tests 3,4 or 5 (%) 1 or 2 (%)
Basis 39 49% 51%
CHS 98 45 55
FALA 107 53 42
NPA 180 87 13
FHS 218 69 31
**Ariz. 35,795 54 46
**U.S 2,720,084 56 44
*Scores of 3, 4 or 5 are eligible for college credit.
Nationally, test scores vary widely
The AP program dates to the 1950s, but has grown rapidly in recent years to 34 subjects, from art history to Japanese. High-achieving students and parents have driven some of the growth, but mostly it's educators and policymakers.
The six states now requiring high schools to offer AP include several that have struggled the most with educational achievement -- Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. (The others are Indiana and Connecticut. A half-dozen additional states require schools to offer either AP or other rigorous classes such as dual-enrollment or International Baccalaureate).
Nationally, 56 percent of AP exams taken by the high school class of 2011 earned a 3 or higher, but there are wide disparities. The mean score is 3.01 for white students and 1.94 for blacks. In New Hampshire, almost three-quarters of exams earn a 3 or higher; in Mississippi, it's under a third. In the District of Columbia, more than half of exams score a 1.
The proportion of all tests taken last year earning the minimal score of 1 increased over that time, from 13 percent to 21 percent. At many schools, virtually no students pass.
-- The Associated Press
"Schools that are using AP in a very deliberate way to change the culture, there's something very powerful there," said Senior Vice President Trevor Packer. But as a shortcut to avoid the hard foundational work students need, AP may be a waste -- or worse, a diversion (The test fee is $89, though the College Board discounts that to $53 for low-income students, who with government grants often have no cost at all.).
"The last thing we want is (schools) spending money on test fees if that's all they're spending money on," Packer said.