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O.C. Students Find Colleges Tighter on AP

May 12, 1997|TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ayden Kadaster, a senior at Irvine's University High School who is heading to Duke University in the fall, has been frantically cramming for his six advanced-placement tests, which will be over by the end of this week. One of the most important to him is the calculus exam, since it is relevant to his intended engineering major. He had better get a top score: Since two years ago, Duke no longer accepts a mere passing grade.

"We've been working hard all year," Kadaster said. "Now that I'm taking the test and finding out that I [might not] get credit, I sometimes wonder, what's the point?"

Despite the hefty $73 fee per test, a growing number of ambitious students like Kadaster are tackling and passing multiple AP exams. In response to the trend, Duke and other colleges and universities have tightened up on accepting the tests as a substitute for campus course work. Some AP tests are not equivalent to college work, academics say.

Lewis Blake, assistant professor of mathematics at Duke, said the university had found that students with anything less than the top score of 5 on AP tests were unprepared for upper-level math classes.

"We simply had disappointing grades," he said.

In California, the rate of students passing AP tests has tripled and the number of test-takers has doubled in the last decade. And Orange County is the statewide hot spot for the trend, with the highest passing rate on the tests.

Fully 40% of Harvard's incoming students annually continue to be eligible for sophomore status, even though the university has increased the number of AP credits required for advanced standing. And one-third of UC Berkeley's first-year students have had some previous college-level course work.

But some colleges fear that AP classes in high school, which for most students culminate in taking the AP test, might not meet ever-changing university standards.

"There's some mistrust of AP tests," said Margaret DiStasi, Berkeley's undergraduate chief academic advisor.

Berkeley stopped accepting AP tests for its general education requirements three years ago. For example, Berkeley requires a semester each of college biology and social sciences to graduate. AP courses do not fulfill that demand; a student who passes AP math tests still must take a year of math in college, although the college will grant credit toward elective classes for passing AP test scores.

"There is recognition of their validity, by the fact that we give credits," DiStasi said. "But the faculty believes the students need to take college-level courses at the university. They decided it is a better academic experience for the students."

A number of liberal arts schools such as Vassar College will credit no more than four AP tests. And some schools, such as Stanford, are requiring a higher passing grade.

Some education experts lambaste the new restrictions, saying they penalize students who show promise and unfairly force families to pay an extra year of ruinous tuition costs.

"Why should colleges require students to retake a course if they can master the material before they get to college?" said Pat Callan, the executive director of the California Higher Education Policy Center, a San Jose-based think tank. "California has a serious problem of getting students to college, and here are colleges punishing students who are motivated and have proven they can succeed."

"It's money. It's all money," said Michael Victorson, who teaches advanced-placement U.S. history at Canyon High School in Orange. "You've got so many kids doing well on the AP test, but a large number of the schools don't want to lose out on the tuition money."

The colleges and universities deny such accusations.

The AP tests, scored on a scale of 1 through 5 (the highest mark), are based on the premise that high school students can tackle college-level exams and earn college credit if they pass with at least a 3--or, as in the case of Stanford and some other schools, a 4.

"The AP tests used to be a way for schools to identify the top students," said Canyon High senior Elizabeth Henry, who will have taken a total of five tests by the end of this week. "But now, there are so many AP students that you have to take multiple exams and score high to designate that you're at the top of the AP students."

Many students are disturbed by the tightened requirements at the college level.

"I've worked hard my junior and senior years," said senior Randy Lukasiewicz at University High, who is taking three AP exams this year. "People who excel on the AP tests deserve to get credit."

As colleges' rules for AP credit have changed, so have students' reasons for taking the challenging courses and tests. They might not earn college credits, but they are determined to do everything they can to outshine other students for a better shot at the top schools.

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