Phs College-Bound Students Beat State, National Scores

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Payson High School’s top students are doing great on college entrance tests, but struggle to get top scores after taking advanced placement (AP) classes, according to figures charting their progress in 2010.

Some 42 percent of the 58 students who took the ACT test in composition, science, algebra and biology had scores to suggest they’re ready to do college-level work, according to statistics compiled by ACT.

That compares to just 19 percent of comparable students statewide and 24 percent of the students nationwide.

The Payson High School students who chose to take the test for college admissions did best in composition — in which 84 percent are ready for college level work. They did much worse in biology, where only 47 percent are ready for college-level work, according to a summary of the results presented to the Payson School Board recently by high school Vice Principal Anna Van Zile.

The findings represent the performance of the top students at the high school, since only about a quarter of the eligible students took the test.

In some states — including Illinois, Michigan, Florida, Texas and California — more than half of the students take the ACT test. That makes it hard to compare scores between states, since generally the smaller the share of students who take the test the higher are their scores.

Among those top students 70 percent are ready for college level work in algebra and 77 percent in the social sciences — like history and civics.

“I’m glad we’re doing better than the state and the nation,” said Van Zile, “but at the same time, we want to figure out what to do to help these students” since 58 percent of even the top students aren’t ready for college work across the board.

The low scores by students who had taken advanced placement tests offered additional worries when it comes to the performance of the district’s top students.

The high school has worked to expand its AP classes. Students must qualify for such classes and cope with a much more demanding curriculum. At the end of the class, they take a test. If they score a four or a five on a five-point scale, they can usually get college credit for the class. A score of three is considered passing, but usually won’t yield college credit.

The high school now offers AP classes in chemistry, biology, American history, physics and calculus. The school also offers three sections of two different AP English classes.

Students must have high grades and a teacher recommendation to get into an AP class. As a result, most of the classes have 15 or fewer students — with the history class ending the semester with just four students.

A number of the classes were offered in 2010 for the first time, which means the teachers often didn’t have experience in teaching the souped up courses.

All told, six of the classes were taught by teachers who had never directed an AP class before. The scores reported to the board recently actually reflected the outcome of the AP tests students took at the end of the school year in June. Students don’t have to take the class to take the test.

The expansion in the advanced placement offerings gave a lot more students a taste of classes taught to a college standard — but for the most part, the students bombed the test administered at the end of the class.

In English literature, 14 students took the test but only five got scores of four or five, which is the threshold for getting college credit. Five students got threes, which means two-thirds of the students passed the test.

In calculus, 13 students took the test and five got high scores. Four others got a three.

In biology, 12 students took the test but none got fours or fives. One got a three.

In chemistry, 10 took the test and none of them got fours or fives, but one got a three.

In physics 15 took the test and one got a high score.

In U.S. history, 15 took the test and one got a four or five and five got a three.

Van Zile noted that the decision to add an AP English class apparently siphoned a lot of students away from the AP history class, as students juggling tough schedules limited the number of AP classes they took.

Van Zile said administrators were torn between trying to get as many students into AP classes as possible to expose them to college-level standards and a desire to keep the pool small to make sure as many students as possible scored well on the AP test.

“This is the dilemma,” she said. “We have had discussions to some degree, but these are issues we need to discuss within our departments as to what we want to do. What approach do we want to take?”

She noted that the relative inexperience of many of the instructors in teaching AP classes may have played a role in the low scores on the test after finishing the class.

The district struggles to get students ready for college and to adequately challenge the top students, a common struggle nationally.

As a result of federal reforms, many states are working toward settling on a national set of standards and goals.

Many use the ACT test to measure how their schools compare to other districts across the nation and 44 states, including Arizona, have agreed to work toward common standards as they compete for billions in “Race to the Top” federal funding.

One ACT survey concluded that 66 percent of American high school graduates in 2010 could do college-level work in English, 52 percent in reading and 43 percent in math.

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