Scott Blamer wants to be a doctor and is eager to develop the critical-thinking skills he’ll need for that demanding profession.
So Blamer, a senior at Camelback High School in Phoenix, took Advanced Placement calculus this year.
“It definitely gives you determination and critical-thinking skills,” said Blamer, who will start at Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus in the fall.
“It’s not just the course work, but the challenge of AP that pushes you.”
Blamer was one of about 300 students from the Phoenix Union High School District who took a practice AP calculus test at ASU’s West campus on Wednesday.
The practice test, followed by a session in which the students reviewed their answers with an official AP scorer, was meant to sharpen their test-taking skills and give them a better chance of success. Students can earn college credit if they score high enough on the end-of-year AP exams.
High school teachers say that AP calculus readies the students for college work.
“In this class, they really have to think using all their classes. We do a lot of physics and we do chemistry, and that kind of thinking happens in college more than in high school typically,” said Debbie Hannum, who teaches AP calculus at Alhambra High School.
Alhambra has been holding the practice tests for a few years. The AP tests are different from other high-stakes tests, which are usually multiple choice.
“They don’t have to explain as much of their reasoning on the other tests,” she said.
“These questions are much more theoretical, and in the free responses they have to justify their answers.”
John Pacho, the AP calculus teacher at Central High School, said that the AP calculus content is actually harder than a typical college calculus class, although the AP class is spread out over a full school year.
“There is more rigor to it,” he said, adding that the practice exam is important because it replicates the timing and other conditions of the real test. “It’s a sample of what they’re actually going to get. It won’t be all new.”
AP classes are one way to give students a jump on college. In his State of the State address in January, Gov. Doug Ducey proposed giving schools a financial incentive to offer more AP classes. The $6 million proposal would cover students’ testing fees and teacher training and would reward teachers who showed success. The Legislature has not acted on that plan so far.
Jeongeun Kim, an assistant professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU, has studied what factors affect college choice among students. She said that ensuring broad access to higher-level courses like AP is an important consideration.
“We have to think about who has access and who is taking these courses before we discuss whether requiring these courses would be a good way to promote everyone to be college-ready,” she said. “Not every school has the resources to offer these classes.”
She said that research on the relationship between AP classes and college-going would have to exclude “selection bias” — the concept that students who are already motivated and have family and school support to go to college are more likely to take AP classes.
Kim’s own research found that students in Florida who took Algebra II in high school were more likely to go to college but not any more likely to earn a degree.
“It’s a timely question to ask and maybe we should continue that line of research,” she said.
Most of the students in the Phoenix Union district come from families whose incomes are low enough that they qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and many would be the first in their families to go to college.
ASU is working to expand access to first-generation college students, and hosting the students for their AP practice test was one way to inspire them. After the test, the students got a pizza lunch on the campus lawn, where they met Sparky, played games and met with students and ASU staff.
John-Pierre Antoine, a senior at Cesar Chavez High School, is considering applying to the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He said being on ASU’s campus was a motivator.
“It’s nice and green here, and it really helped to calm me down for the test.”
Video: What did the students think of the experience? Watch their reactions below.
Top photo: Students from the Phoenix Union High School District take a practice Advanced Placement calculus exam at ASU's West campus on Wednesday. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now