ST. GEORGE — The Utah State Board of Education announced a significant increase in the number of students participating in advanced coursework in 2019.
Utah public schools saw an over 5% increase in students who took Advanced Placement Exams in the past year. AP courses include rigorous coursework in which students work to prepare for an exam that can award college credit or take care of basic college graduation requirements with while still in high school.
Mark Peterson, education board public relations director, said the quantity of students taking the exams has not affected the quality of the scores, with over 67% of the students receiving a “passing” grade of three or higher as opposed to the national average of 57.9%.
The increase in test-taking and scores has been a long-term trend, according to Peterson, due to the growing student population. He said growth is only one reason for the significant increase.
“We have more kids — not just new kids — but more kids taking AP courses,” he said.
Peterson noted one of the biggest driving factors has been a changes in state laws. The Utah State Legislature introduced and passed SB 0220 during the 2017 General Session that amended how schools and students are assessed, beginning with the 2017-2018 school year.
The Legislature now measures how many preparatory courses students are enrolled in — including AP, concurrent enrollment, International Baccalaureate, and Career and Technical Education programs — when assigning schools a grade.
The Utah State Board of Education is also requiring schools to create plans to help underserved students participate in advanced coursework starting this year. Peterson said these plans will tie into how the schools receive state funding, and the board is hoping this will “boost” the number of students taking advanced classes.
“It’s important to get students into the advanced coursework, particularly for students who might not have a family member or friend who has ever been to college to find themselves succeeding in a college-level course in high school so maybe they can see themselves in college later on,” Peterson said.
In Southern Utah, the Washington County School District implemented the plan in its comprehensive career and guidance program at each high school, said Brad Ferguson, director of assessments and learning. Every student and parent meets annually with a career counselor to talk about the available options, including AP courses and concurrent enrollment.
In 2019, the Washington County School District had 2,128 student enrolled in AP courses. Of that, 1,282 students took the exam and 762 passed with a three or above.
Ferguson said — unlike the state average — the district has seen a decrease in students participating in AP courses in previous years, opting for concurrent enrollment over Advanced Placement.
“Concurrent enrollment is a more safe bet upon getting college credit than the AP Exam,” Ferguson said. “A student can take a concurrent enrollment course and get a C or better and they get credit for the course. In AP, you can take the whole course all year, but it comes down to one exam of which you’ve got to get a three or better on.”
The The Utah State Board of Education also announced that the state experienced an increase in students who participated in the SAT. In Utah, the ACT college entrance exam is given to all 11th grade students attending public schools, which is paid for by the state. Students who take the SAT, however, make the decision to take and pay for the exam on their own.
Peterson said the SAT is generally for students who are thinking of attending colleges near the east and west coasts or more prestigious colleges.
“We tend to have very good performance on SAT, but it tends to be taken by self-selected students who are highly motivated to get into top schools.”
Despite the increase in test takers, Utah experienced a decrease in Evidence-based Reading and Writing scores and a decrease in mathematics scores for students in public schools. Peterson said that is the nature of exams: the more students who take an exam, the lower the average score is projected to be.
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