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Teacher hails AP test scores as success.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

North Eugene High School English teacher Diane Downey knows a 10 percent passing rate typically is not something to crow about.

Downey knows that in this case, the number might serve as fuel for critics of her school's controversial new policy that all juniors take Advanced Placement English.

But she sees the 10 percent passing rate as cause for celebration.

"We had a huge success," said Downey, the English department chairwoman, noting that no juniors took either the course or the exam last year.

Ten of the 97 North Eugene juniors who took the rigorous AP language and composition exam in May earned a 3 or better out of 5 points possible, a score viewed as the equivalent to earning a C or B grade in a college freshman English class. Scores of 3 or higher, and in rare cases even 2, can count toward college credit.

The College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement program, hasn't yet calculated the nationwide results of this year's exams, spokeswoman Jennifer Topiel said. On the same exam last year, just less than 54 percent of the 199,259 public-school juniors and seniors who took it earned a 3 or better, she said.

But there's a big difference between the North Eugene group and most others taking the three-hour exam, which includes an hour of multiple-choice questions and two hours of essay writing.

Across the nation, AP classes have long been dominated by the college-bound, academic elite - students who would be expected to succeed in the class and fare reasonably well on the culminating exam. That's certainly the case across town at South Eugene High School, where 45 of the 50 students who opted to take the language and composition exam scored a 3 or better.

But North Eugene seized on an emerging trend toward broader participation and took it a step further, requiring all juniors to take the AP English course. The only students who were exempt were those with severe disabilities, a handful just learning to speak English and those in the International High School program, which has its own series of International Baccalaureate exams.

In spring, students were given a choice: Take the official AP exam, which costs $82, or take a previous year's version at no cost. For the 100 students who chose the latter option, teachers scored their exams according to AP standards and incorporated the results into final grades.

AP exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, the multiple choice by machine and the essays by a panel made up of high school AP teachers and college professors.

Of the North Eugene juniors who passed, eight earned a 3, one a 4 and one a 5, Downey said. Among the other 87, slightly more than half earned a 2, the rest a 1.

Students found the test very difficult, she said, especially the multiple choice section, but didn't seem to feel caught off guard. The students took the test in the school gymnasium one morning in May.

"I don't think it was harder than what they thought it was going to be," she said.

The students will be able to take the exam a second time as seniors if they wish, Downey noted.

"One of the best things about the experience was the demystification for them," she said. Many North Eugene students come from families with little or no experience in higher education. The school serves a larger percentage of low-income and minority youth than any other school in the district.

The AP mandate has attracted attention from other school districts as well as The College Board, which will soon publish a piece by Downey on North Eugene's experience on its AP Web site, apcentral. collegeboard.com.

It has also drawn criticism. Some teachers at North bemoaned the loss of elective language arts classes for juniors; others, both at North and elsewhere, felt it unreasonable and potentially damaging to expect low-skilled students to slog through what is considered to be a college-level course.

The school also heard plenty from parents and students, especially those on the traditional AP track who feared the curriculum would be watered down or the pace slowed by the inclusion of all students.

But Downey and other supporters believe it is critical to hold all students to the same standards. She points to research linking success in college with exposure to high-level courses in high school, and believes that aspect - more than the act of taking the final AP exam - is the most beneficial part of the school's mandate.

The AP requirement will stand in the coming year, but beyond that it's unclear. The school is breaking up into three small, autonomous schools this fall, although juniors and seniors will continue taking regular classes, including AP English. The following year, though, juniors will take classes in their individual small schools, and it will be up to each small school administrator and teaching team to decide whether to offer - let alone mandate - AP.

According to The College Board, 1.3 million students took 2.3 million AP exams this past year, 98 percent of them in the United States. That's the most ever, Topiel said.
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Title Annotation:Schools; Ten of the 97 North Eugene High School juniors who took the mandatory English exam earned a 3 or better out of 5
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 7, 2006
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