Advanced Placement: More than just a test

AP classes at Camas High School offer students the opportunity for a rigorous academic experience

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Advanced Placement world history teacher Sam Greene engages students in a lively discussion on Friday. Camas High School's AP program has grown significantly in recent years. In 2010, 298 students took a total of 512 AP tests. Four-hundred-twelve had a score of 3 or better. That is in comparison to 2003, when only 60 students took the AP tests with 64.6 percent scoring a 3 or better.

“New perspectives on a diverse and complicated world.”

For veteran Camas High School teacher Hannelore Tweed, these are the opportunities she is passionate about providing to her students.

Her ability to do this was expanded this year as Tweed was offered the chance to become the instructor of a new Advanced Placement class called “human geography.”

“[Administrators] came to me and asked if I would teach it,” she said. “I was an English and history major, so it dovetails beautifully.”

The course is one of the newest AP classes available to CHS students. It focuses on how humans have impacted the Earth, from a perspective that the planet is one cultural landscape after another changed and developed by religion, ethnicity, immigration, migration, language, politics, the economy and the environment.

“I teach about humans,” Tweed said. “It is invaluable for these kids to be exposed to all aspects of the world. I think they are changed. Their minds are opened beyond who likes who and who is in which clique. They become citizens of the world.”

“It looks at the past, but we are also looking at how the landscape has changed during the course of time — not just ancient times,” she continued. “We teach tolerance. It is such a marvelous way to teach students to be open to all cultures, religions and ethnicities of the world. It fosters a deep respect and tolerance. That is what this is all about.”

Human geography is just one of the many Advanced Placement courses offered at CHS. AP is an optional program open to all CHS students. It provides them the opportunity to enroll in college level classes. The curriculum is described as “challenging” and “rigorous.”

“They have to grow up fast,” said Tweed, who teaches the only AP class open to freshmen. “This is not middle school. This is a rigorous course. We are doing a college course and it goes so much faster. It could really defeat some kids.”

At the end of each AP class in May, a 2 to 3 hour final exam is offered. According to school district information, depending on the score (usually a 3, 4 or 5), universities may grant credit, advanced placement, or both.

AP’s popularity at CHS has exploded during the past seven years, as administrators and teachers have focused on educating students about its benefits.

Principal Steve Marshall led the most recent effort after being hired three years ago. He had previously served as an assistant principal at Mountain View High School, which had a very successful and thriving AP program. After reviewing the talent of the Papermaker population, he knew similar success was possible at CHS.

“We obviously had the potential in terms of academic talent of the students, as well as parental support and overall capacity for improvement,” Marshall said.

Last year Marshall, Associate Principal Ellise Anderson, and now retired Assistant School District Superintendent Tanis Knight set out to evaluate the school’s current AP program — its attributes and barriers, and brainstorm ideas for improvement.

From there, the mission was to “market” the program get students and parents excited about AP at CHS. This involved the work of current AP students and teachers, as well as others — including educators from Mountain View who shared their perspectives.

“If students know about AP, see the benefits of it, then they’ll sign up,” Marshall summarized.

Challenges identified by school officials began with the basics. Many students simply weren’t aware of the details of program and what classes were available. Also, there were some negative associations with the assignments students are required to complete during the summer prior to starting classroom work. Another factor was a fear that by taking AP classes a college-bound student’s GPA might suffer because it requires a more challenging curriculum.

“But GPA isn’t the only thing colleges look at,” said Anderson, who explained that admissions officers are very familiar with the nationally recognized AP program, and often consider the difficulty of the classes a student chooses to take as well.

Nationwide 60 percent of schools offer AP classes, more than 1 million U.S. students took AP tests, and 90 percent of U.S. colleges and universities grant credit for successful passage of those tests.

“There is an awareness that it is a prediction of [college] success,” Anderson said.

At CHS, statistics prove word about the benefits of taking AP classes has spread.

In 2003, when enrollment at CHS was 925, a total of 99 of the end-of-course AP tests were completed. Fast forward to 2010, when 512 tests were taken (total enrollment: 1,660).

Just in the past three years alone, student participation in AP testing has steadily increased on an annual basis — from 211 in 2008, to 258 in 2009, 298 in 2010 and an estimated 498 in 2011.

The percentage of students scoring a 3 or better has also dramatically increased. In 2003 it was 64.6, and this year that number increased to 80.5.

In addition to Tweed’s human geography class, other AP offerings at CHS include U.S. history, world history, U.S. government and politics, English literature, English language, physics, chemistry, biology, environmental science, calculus, statistics, studio art, Spanish, and psychology. There are also pre-AP courses in English and science.

Anderson said the hope is to eventually offer even more AP classes, including macro and micro economics and music theory. The determining factors involved in whether the program is expanded are how much money is in the budget, as well as how much flexibility there is in the overall class master schedule.

“You try to meet the needs of as many students as possible,” Anderson said. “Right now, it’s a pretty good spectrum of offerings.”

Students taking part in the AP program are encouraged to be critical and discriminating thinkers, which allows teachers to also take their roles to the next level.

Joe Farland, who has been a teacher in the district for a dozen years, leads AP language and composition, and pre-AP language and composition. Recently, he came to the latter class in the character of author Edgar Allan Poe. The students were composing author studies after reading three of his works — “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”

“The expectation is that they come up with ideas without being fed those ideas by the teacher,” Farland said, describing the AP curriculum. “I see my job as trying each week to do something unexpected that is going to make them want to explore the reading for themselves and take it to different levels.”

Tweed said she feels privileged to teach AP classes, which typically attract students who are dedicated to learning and are looking to be challenged academically.

“I think kids who take these classes want this kind of difficulty,” Tweed said. “They want to discuss — it’s part of their nature. You have kids who truly want to learn. They question everything. I really have to be on my toes.”