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Advanced Placement (AP) course participation is growing faster in Illinois than in any other state

Illinois State Board of Education

In the past decade, the number of Illinois high schoolers earning early college credit from Advanced Placement or Dual Credit courses has skyrocketed.

To earn college credit from an Advanced Placement or AP high school course -- students have to pass a test at the end of the year. In Illinois, scoring a 3 or higher on that test qualifies students for at least some college credit at public colleges and universities. If it’s a private school or out-of-state, it’s a bit more complicated.

But, in the past 10 years, Illinois has had the largest percent increase in the country in high school graduates scoring a 3 or higher on the AP test. Last year, over 36,000 Illinois high school grads did it.

Dr. Erica Thieman is the director of the standards and instruction department at the Illinois State Board of Education. Thieman says AP exams give those students a jump-start towards a college degree, but even more importantly, she says, it can save them a lot of money.

“If you look at the amount of money that is being saved by our Illinois families, "she said, "when they get a three or higher, they don't have to pay for that college credit -- it's in the $200 million range."

It does cost students money to take the exam. Tests cost nearly $100 a pop, with many students taking multiple exams. But in Illinois, low-income students only have to pay $7 per exam thanks to supplemental state funding.

That can be a big deal, with the typical cost of college tuition per credit hour anywhere from around $100 to $1,000 in some cases.

The state also supplies grants for schools to enhance or add more AP courses and train teachers. Joliet Township High School District has received that grant several times, including last year.

Dr. Karla Guseman is the superintendent of the Joliet Township High School District.

She says expanding AP access and offerings has been a big priority for the last decade. That work culminated with Joliet Township winning “AP district of the year” a few years ago.

“We were at 138 Students with three or higher on an exam. In 2017, we were at 645,” said Guseman. “Those numbers continue to increase through 2019. But then the pandemic, [there was a] slow dip, but now we're working our way back up.”

Along with expanding the total number of students taking AP courses, Guseman says they’re also trying to expand access to low-income students and students of color. The vast majority of Advanced Placement programs don’t mirror the school’s student demographics.

Illinois State Board of Education

And Joliet Township is closer than many districts. They’re a majority Hispanic district and Hispanic students make up 60% of students taking one or more AP classes. But Black students aren’t equally represented yet.

That holds with state trends. Out of all Illinois students who scored a 3 or higher on AP exams last year, only 3.6% were Black. That number hasn’t changed since 2012. But the number of Hispanic students has increased significantly statewide, from 12% to over 20%.

Suneal Kolluri says it speaks to the importance of culturally-relevant curriculum. He’s an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside. Kolluri’s researched AP courses and their impacts for years.

“If you have a curriculum that connects to students’ lives, to students’ communities," said Kolluri, "then I think you can, perhaps in a lot of respects, do a better job attracting more students."

He says, historically, the College Board, the nonprofit organization who crafts AP curriculum, hasn’t been great at connecting with Black students. There are current efforts, like a new AP African American Studies course. But even that has been criticized when the curriculum was changed after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to ban it. The College Board says the governor’s words had nothing to do with their curriculum decisions.

Kolluri says there are more existential questions about AP too. Is it a good idea to push as many kids as possible into AP classes if many don’t pass the test? There’s also a question about the test itself. Students have to pass a test at the end of the year to earn college credit.

Many colleges and universities stopped looking at standardized tests like the ACT for admission and scholarships because they argue it’s not a good barometer to measure learning. Kolluri says the College Board is actually introducing more project-based assessments and portfolios.

The College Board also has a new initiative to expand AP’s influence in schools even more, called “Pre-AP.” These are regular, grade-level courses meant to set students up for future AP classes. It kicks off next year, and Dr. Karla Guseman at Joliet Township says they are investing in it.

“All students," she said, "will either be in a pre-AP class or an AP class."

Pre-Ap does raise some initial concerns from Professor Kolluri.

“Okay, so is the College Board going to teach every class at every high school?" he asked. "How much curricular control are we trying to cede from our public-school professionals?"

But, he says, even though the current system is flawed, when you talk to students taking AP classes -- they really like them.

“It could be that they're good classes and the best teachers teach them, which I think we kind of have a sense of,” said Kolluri.

He says it’s important to cultivate a space where kids are excited about learning and challenging themselves. And, for those who pass the test, the opportunity to save a bunch of money on college credit can be too good to pass up.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.