As high schoolers demand more college-level classes and schools compete for their enrollment, hundreds more students in the Sacramento region are taking Advanced Placement classes each year, according to new state data.
The number of "qualifying" AP scores high enough to earn college credit doubled in the four-county region since 2005 and rose 27 percent in two years, according to the state figures released earlier this month.
Advanced Placement classes are designed to be equivalent to college-level instruction. Most colleges allow students who score well on an end-of-course AP exam to earn college credit and skip that class when they arrive on campus.
Students like the classes because they look good on a transcript and are often weighted to boost grade-point averages. Parents like the classes because they can potentially cut the time it takes for a student to finish college, which can save money.
"It's a win-win," said Chris Evans, superintendent at Natomas Unified, where the number of high AP test scores increased 60 percent from 2010 to 2012. "It's such a small investment, it'd be silly not to do it."
The AP program began in 1952 as a pilot project that included 11 courses designed by university leaders. Since 1955, the program has been operated by the College Board, which also administers the SAT.
Natomas Unified and other districts are reducing barriers to enrollment in AP courses, which were often limited to honors students. Many AP courses today are offered to students with little emphasis on academic qualifications: If they are interested and want to try it, they can.
Schools also increasingly offer AP courses to sophomores and even freshmen. Natomas, for example, will soon offer AP Human Geography to ninth-graders.
"It gets them exposure very early on for AP tests," Evans said. "It's a gateway class. We see more opportunities later on."
The number of AP test-takers increased locally by 17 percent from 2010 to 2012, and the number of tests they took increased by 23 percent. Students can take more than one test.
Performance on AP tests has improved locally even as more students take them. About 62 percent of AP tests in the region featured scores high enough to earn college credit last year, up from 60 percent in 2010 and 56 percent in 2005, state figures show.
While more students are taking AP exams in nearly every district across the region, the trend is particularly strong in Placer County. Many families move to Placer County due to the strength of schools there and the diversity of academic offerings, said Gayle Garbolino-Mojica, Placer County superintendent.
"College is a focus among many parents in Placer County," she said, explaining the roughly 40 percent increase in high AP test scores across her county.
Some of the trend is fueled by an academic arms race. As one school district offers more AP courses, another feels pressure to offer more, too, or risk losing students.
"There is a competition to retain students," said Jay Berns, principal at Lincoln High, noting that school funding is tied to enrollment. "You start losing (students), it affects the depth of your program, the number of teachers you can hire."
Historically known for its unique agricultural program, Lincoln High has dramatically increased the number of AP classes. The number of high AP test scores at Lincoln High tripled from 2005 to 2012.
The school has had no problem filling AP classes demand from students and parents is high and it plans to offer more in the next year or two.
"You try to make sure you cover the spectrum," said Mike Maul, the school's assistant principal and a former AP English teacher. The school's 20 AP offerings range from chemistry to Spanish.
Maul and Berns said AP classes are among the best tools to prepare students for college a core mission of any high school.
Some aren't convinced.
Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, recently conducted a review into the value of AP classes. She said the rise in students taking the classes may not be as positive as many parents and administrators hope.
"There is really not clear research on what you get out of an AP course," she said. "Will you do better in college, save money or get out of certain classes and perform better in classes? There is not good data."
She said the quality of AP courses may be inconsistent even within a given school, let alone a district or county.
"So you can't necessarily say that students in AP classes for sure have better experiences than students who are not in AP classes," she said. "That's one basic problem."
While many universities grant college credit to students who score at least a 3 out of 5, top private schools have stricter criteria and typically require a 4 or 5 depending on the subject.
Charles Cole, senior associate director of admissions and outreach at California State University, Sacramento, said students who come into college with AP credits have a clear advantage. About 1,500 of the school's 3,100 freshmen had AP credit upon admission last year, up 17 percent from 2011, he said.
"If they have AP credit, it's more likely that they are going to attain a degree sooner," Cole said.
Besides offering more AP courses, local districts have added International Baccalaureate programs, which involve a different track of rigorous coursework for which many colleges also grant college credit.
Local growth in high-caliber classes came despite an economic recession that led to dramatic reductions in school funding at public schools.
The biggest AP-related cost for districts, several administrators said, is teacher training. Debra Calvin, Woodland Unified's associate superintendent for educational services, said her district recently took advantage of summer sessions that prepared teachers to lead AP courses.
Woodland, which saw a 46 percent increase in high test scores from 2010 to 2012, bolstered AP offerings partly to reach out to historically underserved students, Superintendent Debra LaVoi said.
"We wanted to have more kids of color in our AP classes and in our GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program and to reduce the number of children of color who are suspended or expelled," she said.
Call The Bee's Phillip Reese, (916) 321-1137. Follow him on Twitter @PhillipHReese.