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Teens Seek Academic Edge in AP Courses

by Heather Mason Kiefer

Faced with intense competition to get into good colleges, many high school students look for any advantage available to them beyond good grades in traditional classes. And they're well aware that university admissions departments look favorably on students who take honors and advanced placement (AP) courses -- some of which they can even receive college credit for completing. To help give students that added edge, many high schools seek ways to increase student participation and success in such courses.

A recent Gallup survey suggests that a significant percentage of U.S. teenagers are taking advantage of these academic opportunities. According to the most recent Gallup Youth Survey*, half (50%) of teens (aged 13 to 17) say they currently take honors or advanced placement courses in school.

Academic Achievement, Sense of Motivation Affects Participation

Obviously, a student's level of academic achievement is strongly related to his or her likelihood to take honors or AP courses. More than three-fourths (78%) of teens who describe their academic standing as "near the top" of their class or "above average" take honors or AP courses, compared with only 15% of students who describe their standing as "average" or "below average." (Overall, 57% of teens classify themselves as "near the top" or "above average," while 42% say they are "average" or "below average.")

Gallup data also suggest that self-motivated students are more likely than other students to take challenging courses. The survey asked respondents, "Which of the following phrases describes you very well? 1) I need someone to motivate me, or 2) My motivation mostly comes from within." Fifty-six percent of students who say their motivation comes from within take honors or AP classes, compared with just 36% of students who say they need someone to motivate them.

If a student is planning to attend college full time after high school, the odds are that he or she is currently taking honors or AP courses. Sixty-two percent of teens who say they plan to attend college full time are taking advanced courses, compared with 36% of full-time, college-bound teens who don't take honors or AP classes. The percentage of teens taking these advanced courses is somewhat lower among teens planning to attend college part time -- 44% of teens planning to attend college part time take them, and 56% do not.

Honors/AP Courses and Race

Participation in honors and AP courses also differs somewhat by race and ethnicity. Fifty-six percent of white teens report taking honors and AP courses, as do 40% of nonwhite teens.

These findings are consistent with a 2002 study published in the American Educational Research Journal, which found that minority students face significant barriers to signing up for advanced courses. In-depth interviews with minority students suggested that teachers and guidance counselors sometimes discourage minority students from enrolling in high-level courses, and the students themselves are sometimes hesitant to enroll for social reasons (discomfort with being the only minority student in the class, hesitancy to leave other friends behind, and so on).

Bottom Line

That half of U.S. teens say they take honors or AP classes should be encouraging. As more students begin to envision college as part of their futures, many of them are looking to take high school courses that will prepare them for the next level of education. But some students are more likely than others to enroll in these challenging courses. Schools must continue striving to make their advanced courses accessible to all students.

*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 517 respondents, aged 13 to 17, between Aug. 1 and Aug. 29, 2003. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

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