Billings high schools have nearly doubled student enrollment in Advanced Placement courses, often considered the gold standard for high school students seeking college credits, in the last four years.
The district has also expanded subject offerings at each of its high schools, and is poised to offer more new classes next school year.
The increase doesn’t guarantee that more students are taking AP classes; School District 2 tracks only enrollments and exams taken, not data tied to specific students.
“We want all of our students to be able to have equitable opportunities for their college and career aspirations,” said Brenda Koch, an SD2 administrator who oversees school principals.
During the 2014-2015 school year, 660 students were enrolled in AP classes. This year, more than 1,100 signed up for such courses.
The expansion comes at a price — teachers have to attend AP-required training, and course materials don’t come cheap — and Montana school funding doesn’t earmark money for high-performing students. Money comes from the same budget pot as things like help for struggling students, building maintenance and mental health supports.
That makes juggling scheduling variables more difficult, and student interest needs to be high enough to sustain enrollment in a class.
“I wish we could say we go 'Check, check, check, check,' and the class is available, but it’s not that easy,” Koch said.
This year, the district set aside money from the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools Dewey Hansen estate’s annual donation to boost AP options. The decision was a “collaborative effort” between the foundation and school principals, foundation executive director Krista Hertz said, making sure students are “able to compete, not just with Montana students but with students across the country.”
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AP courses have key differences from dual enrollment courses, which are taught by high school teachers in high schools through programs with partner colleges in Montana. A passing grade in a dual enrollment class ensures college credit at a Montana system university, but it may not be accepted out of state — especially at prestigious schools.
College credit in AP classes is tied to an end-of-the-year test that’s graded on a five-point scale. A score of three or four on an AP test is usually good for credit at any school in the country. But everything depends on that test; a semester-long grade doesn’t affect college credits earned.
“I think the daunting piece for students, I don’t think so much is about the class, I think it’s a one-time high-stakes test that determines whether you get the credit or not,” Koch said.
In the 2014-15 school year, when current seniors were freshmen, all three high schools offered four AP courses: calculus, English literature, U.S. history and statistics. Senior and West offered Spanish and U.S. government and politics. Only Senior offered world history.
That remained the same during the next school year, though enrollments increased. Course expansion began in 2016-17.
Skyview and West added world history, making it districtwide. Skyview added psychology. Senior added biology and physics. This school year, Senior and Skyview added English language, transitioning from an honors English course for juniors. Senior added French and German. West added biology.
Koch admitted that course equity among schools is a work in progress. The district wants to preserve unique culture in each school while still offering comparable options.
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“Students are zoned to attend ‘X’ school. We want them to have those same course offerings,” Koch said. “It’s not about one being better than the other.”
As districtwide enrollment has increased, the number of exams passed has more than kept pace. About half of students enrolled usually take an exam, and passing rates have gone from 55.3 percent to 60.2 percent to 59.1 percent in the last three years. When viewed as a percentage of overall enrollment, passing rates have increased from 27 percent to 28 percent to 34 percent.
Because the data isn’t tied to specific students, it’s unclear if more students are passing exams, or if a similar number of students are passing more exams. And the figures aren’t comparable to nationally reported information.
Rural states like Montana lag in AP offerings, participation and passage rates. Montana is ranked 37th in the country with 13 percent of graduates passing an AP test, though it’s better than neighbors South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho. The national average is 22.8 percent.
As a state, Montana has the third-lowest rate of improving that percentage over the past 10 years, an increase of 2.8 percent. Nationally, that rate is 8.2 percent. Over five years, the state still reflects the third-lowest improvement.
The College Board, the national group that administers the AP program, named Helena and Polson to the AP District Honor Roll this year. Districts must meet certain thresholds for increasing overall participation and access to AP classes and improve passing rates both for the general student population and for minority groups.
Billings hasn’t made that list since it began in 2011.
Hertz said that no decision have been made, but she suspects schools will keep using foundation funding to expand AP offerings. Koch emphasized the importance of multiple options.
“We recognize that we can’t just have all of one. We want that balance,” she said. “It really depends on what the students are wanting to do post-high school.”