Alan James looked at his students, sprawled on the wide front porch. What was the best way to wind up their three-hour cram session for the big history test?
Ciara Zachary had an idea: "Let's spend the last 10 minutes in prayer." Her anxious classmates formed the chorus: "Yeah, let's pray."
The 11th-graders from St. Paul's School for Girls in Brooklandville were less than 24 hours from taking the Advanced Placement Examination in U.S. history -- a test their teacher called "remarkably difficult" and more demanding than most they would encounter again, short of medical school perhaps.
However, James led his students not in prayer but in a review of 18th-century documents likely to be on the test.
The young women are among nearly 15,000 Maryland public and private school students and 600,000 nationwide taking an estimated 1 million Advanced Placement examinations this month. The grueling drills can provide an edge in the admissions process and pay off in college credits that reduce the time and money it takes to get a diploma.
The AP program is more than tests. At its core are rigorous college-level courses, usually restricted to high-achievers. Students who do not take the courses also are allowed to take the exams in hopes of passing anyway.
Though highly selective universities favor applicants who take Advanced Placement courses -- indicating an ability to tackle the toughest classwork -- passing scores on AP tests might not guarantee freshmen advanced standing.
An escalating number of AP students has led some colleges to clamp down on which courses, and what grades, qualify for college credit. But college officials say they know of no concerted effort to restrict credits.
More than 30,000 students nationally entered college last fall with enough credits to have sophomore status, according to College Board records.
The College Board produces the nationally standardized curricula for the courses and schedules each test on the same day across the country.
Most schools or districts strongly encourage, and even pressure, those enrolled in AP courses to take the examinations.
'Fulfill the obligation'
"When AP goes on the transcript, we feel they need to take the exam to fulfill the obligation," said Sandra Durfee, an AP English teacher for 18 years at St. Paul's School for Girls.
So, for two weeks every May, students take tests in U.S. and European history, in English and calculus, in French, Spanish, German and Latin and in such specialties as music theory and drawing.
It is not unusual for students to take three or more Advanced Placement courses simultaneously and to start as early as ninth grade.
Students who take AP courses are spurred by peer pressure, by the aura of being among an elite group of students, by the pressure to get into prestigious colleges and by parents, looking for a break on college tuition.
"It makes you feel good about yourself, if you study hard and you do well," said Julie Popovec, a junior at St. Paul's School for Girls.
Most schools screen potential Advanced Placement students to be sure they are qualified to do the more demanding work, though desire goes a long way in getting kids into the courses, too.
"If I had a student who came to me and said 'I want to try this,' I would almost always give that student a chance," said William Ekey, director of secondary education for Harford County schools.
Schools see the proliferation of AP courses, and high scores by their students, as a boon to their standing and marketability.
"It's become an acceptable shorthand for academic rigor and excellence, and I think it has validity for that," said Stephen Clem, a vice president at the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington.
"It's a standard curriculum and a standardized test and, therefore, is a measure of how well our students are prepared," said G. Peter O'Neill Jr., headmaster at Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills.
Students at Garrison Forest took 77 tests last year and 94 percent of them had scores of 3 or higher -- considered passing by the College Board, although not always high enough for college credit.
Schools select the AP courses taught, or choose to offer none.
For instance, Friends School in Baltimore does not offer Advanced Placement courses because the Quaker school is historically opposed to designating courses as advanced or honors, said Assistant Headmaster Tad Jacks. However, the school does give the exams, and students usually do well.
Last year, for example, Friends' students took 56 tests in eight subjects, and 82 percent of them earned a grade of 3 or higher, on a scale of 1 to 5.
Colleges rule on AP credits
Colleges and universities and departments within them rule on whether they will accept AP credits in lieu of college credits or use them to move students into higher level courses as freshmen.
The Johns Hopkins University has recently added statistics to the courses it accepts, while eliminating Advanced Placement biology, said Robert J. Massa, Hopkins' dean of enrollment.
"The extent to which students use AP credits to accelerate their programs could in the long run be detrimental to their education," said Massa. "It encourages them not to take time to explore topics in depth," especially if they are able to shave off as much as a year of college.
If those same students stay in college four years, but are able to waive introductory courses, they can explore other subjects or delve deeper into specialties -- "that's a very positive use," said Massa.
The test-takers, and their colleges, aren't notified of the Advanced Placement scores until July.
"I'm praying for a 3," said Lauren McCartin, a student at St. Paul's School for Girls, just after the history examination. "It was the hardest test I've ever had. The multiple choice, you really had to think about. By the third essay, I lost concentration. I think I probably could have studied more."
Pub Date: 5/22/98