In Mountain View High School English teacher Marty Sampson’s classroom, students are digging into their learning.
On a recent afternoon, juniors pored over sheets of paper, each describing a different type of person interested in locally grown food. Be it a teacher, an environmental activist or a young parent, students were tasked with learning about the person they were assigned and their position. Eventually, they’d debate, with evidence, whether an imagined city should invest in the locavore movement.
It’s a project akin to the coursework you’d see in an Advanced Placement classroom, where students can earn college credit after passing an optional exam at the end of the year. But this isn’t an AP class; it’s the school’s standard English class.
In recent years, Mountain View has raised the bar for students in many of their so-called “on-level” courses, echoing more advanced coursework. In Sampson’s English class, students move through the curriculum at a slower pace than their AP peers, but they read many of the same texts and write the same essays as students in AP English language and composition.
The goal, Principal Matt Johnson said, is to encourage more students — especially those who may not believe themselves qualified to take advanced coursework — into higher-level classes. The school also hopes more students will feel prepared to enter college or other post-secondary programs after taking more rigourous coursework.
“They’re going to be able to think in a way maybe they wouldn’t have been able to do,” Johnson said.
Research on whether taking AP courses has long-term benefits is mixed. A 2015 study in the Journal of Educational Research, led by Utah Valley University psychologist Russell T. Warne, found the benefits are greater for students who succeed on the end-of-year AP exam. Students who take the exams tend to score higher on the ACT, a college entrance exam, than their peers who take the class without taking the test.
“There’s a lot of reasons to take AP classes with no intention to take the test: Your friends are taking the class; your mom makes you take it; you get an automatic boost to your GPA,” Warne told Education Week in 2015. “Just merely enrolling in these classes isn’t the answer.”
Other studies suggest those who take AP exams are more likely to enroll in a four-year college or university, and earn higher grades in some courses.
Efforts seem to be bearing fruit for the east Vancouver campus, at least in the number of tests students are taking. This year, Mountain View High School has ordered 1,252 AP exams — that’s up 20 percent from last year, said James Cantonwine, Evergreen Public Schools’ assessment program coordinator. On average, schools offering AP classes in Washington ordered about 211 tests last year, according to the College Board, the national nonprofit organization that administers AP exams.
That includes small schools that may only offer one or two AP classes, while Mountain View alone offers more than a dozen.
Vancouver Public Schools is seeing similar growth, with 1,216 students taking 2,051 tests this year across the district, said Layne Manning, director of curriculum and instruction. That’s up from about 500 to 600 students taking tests about a decade ago. Vancouver Public Schools also covers the $94 cost, in full, of every AP exam for students.
“We really have had a sustained concentration focus on college and career readiness,” Manning said.
Evergreen Public Schools does not cover the cost of AP exams for all students, but assistance is provided for students who struggle to pay the cost. In other words, district spokeswoman Gail Spolar said, students aren’t turned away if they can’t pay. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, meanwhile, pays the majority of the fees for low-income students, reducing the cost to $10 per test.
Part of Mountain View’s rise in the number of tests is due to the growing variety of AP coursework offered at the school, Cantonwine said, but also reflects the district’s efforts to encourage more students to take advanced classes.
“I think AP is a big part of making sure all students are able to see themselves as capable of post-secondary education, and making sure they don’t see that as something that’s for other kids in the school,” Cantonwine said.
Sampson, the English teacher, said providing all students with the same challenges is a matter of equity.
“All students deserve access to the same skills,” Sampson said.
Kiana Nygaard, an 18-year-old senior at Mountain View High School, started her year last year in a standard United States history class, but switched to the AP class partway through the year. She’d initially not signed up for the class, believing she wouldn’t succeed on the AP exam.
“Sometimes you can psych yourself out,” she said.
Instead, she found a challenging environment she felt more suited in.
“The people that are there want to learn,” she said.
And some students in on-level English classes have gone on to take the AP exam despite not having been in the advanced course.
Olivia Murray Ceriello, this year an 18-year-old senior, was among them, passing last year’s AP English language and composition test. She’s now enrolled in AP English literature.
Murray Ceriello had initially wanted to take it easy her junior year, but said she felt well-prepared to take the exam after her junior English class.
“I was really proud of myself,” Murray Ceriello said.