Garner High nets US News bronze again despite weak AP testing

kjahner@newsobserver.comMay 9, 2014 

— Garner Magnet High School principal Drew Cook likes bronze, but said silver or gold suit him better.

Late last month U.S. World News labeled Garner Magnet High School as a Bronze Medal Winner for the third consecutive year, though Cook wants to see the school improve in areas that could earn higher accolades – AP and IB testing in particular.

The school is one of 97 public or charter high schools to be recognized out of more than 500 evaluated; test scores are based on results from the 2011-12 school year. The criteria include student performance in reading and math based on statistical expectations, performance of disadvantaged students and college readiness as measured by students taking and passing AP or IB exams.

While performing well in the first two areas studied (for example, a 84 percent proficiency score in algebra despite a significant economically disadvantaged population), Cook said the school can do better in the third. While the school has an above state-average number of students taking the advanced classes, an unusually low percentage of those take the exams.

According to the U.S. World News figures, about 16 percent of Garner seniors took official AP exams for college credit and 7 percent of seniors passed one. Both the 16 percent and the fact that less than half of those students passed an exam trailed schools ranked higher by a large degree, and also lagged many Wake County Schools that scored lower in the publication’s overall rankings. Cook said there’s no readily apparent explanation for the lower pass rate, but added that means there’s no reason it can’t improve.

“We’ve made progress, but we can and will do better in this area,” Cook said.

Green Hope High in Cary, for example, ranked No. 1 in the state overall, and had 60 percent of students take and 55 percent pass an AP test. Fellow Bronze medalist Southeast Raleigh had 21 percent take an AP exam and 15 percent pass.

Cook said the school used to lag in participation in such classes, but now it surpasses state averages. He said early indications on 2012-13 tests suggest the school should be able to maintain its bronze status.

Now, he said the school needs to find ways to get more who take the class to take the test.

“It’s good that more students are in these more rigorous classes,” Cook said. “It just has to become an expectation (to take the college placement exam).”

There is a cost associated with the test – with a discount for free-and-reduced-lunch students – but Cook said that doesn’t entirely explain the gap.

Some students sometimes take advantage of a district-wide policy on semester-long courses that allows students with an A in the class and near-perfect attendance to be exempted from final exams. (Other districts have similar policies to encourage and reward seniors who do not “phone it in” for their final year.) That leaves students with a choice to study for a test that won’t affect their grade or not study for a final at all.

Cook said the school has considered ways to encourage participation, such as requiring students to take some form of an exam. Either a student in the class takes the official AP exam, or takes an old AP exam at the end for a grade, regardless of seniority. The crack at college credit, he said, would be worth it to many given that they have to study anyway.

The Garner principal noted some schools have told students the only way to earn the full two-point GPA bump would be to take the AP test, but he added that he’s not sure Garner High is ready to make that move at this point.

Additionally, some students may also not feel confident they will pass the test.

Along with Green Hope, Southeast and Garner, three other Wake County schools were recognized: Panther Creek, Cary, and Holly Springs all won silver awards. Green Hope and the three silver medalists scored in the top 10 in the state.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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