Teacher Kari Field mentioned the final-year test four times in the first 10 minutes of her Advanced Placement chemistry course Thursday. 

This is the first year Billings Public Schools have offered the course, where students can earn college credits. Field teaches at West High, and Craig Beals teaches it at Senior High. 

Field's emphasis on the test is well-placed; her students can only cash in on earning a college credit with a passing score on the year-end, high stakes test.

The addition of the course illuminates how both funding and policy decisions have directly affected students in recent years.

The district has added dozens of college-credit courses in recent years as it prioritized both dual enrollment courses through Montana universities and Advanced Placement courses, where students can earn credit accepted at almost any U.S. university. But, they need to pass the test.

The chemistry course required a significant financial investment from the district. Science labs needed upgrades, teachers attended training in San Diego, and materials for rigid AP curriculum aren't cheap. 

Field estimates that West's remodel cost $300,000, plus another $65,000 for materials. 

"I had sinks that didn't work, gas leaks all the time," she said. Asbestos abatement in the floor of the 1962 building accounted for a large chunk of the remodel cost. 

Medical approach

As Beals' class split into groups to prepare for lab work Wednesday, senior Carter Hanson explained that a Career Center teacher who teaches medical courses recommended pursuing AP chemistry. 

“She said that in college, you have to go do a lot of hard chemistry classes,” he said. 

Hanson plans on going to medical school, and most of his group planned on pursuing similar careers, like pharmacy or veterinary sciences. 

“There’s a real big focus on the medical stuff,” among the AP students and honors chemistry students, Beals said. 

But not every student is going that route, nor was every student set on taking the year-end test. Students need to score 3 or better on a 5 point scale to pass, and some selective colleges require a higher score. 

Emma Martinsen has plans to study nuclear engineering at the Naval Academy. But the senior wasn't sure about taking the test. 

“Even if we have to retake (the class) in college, having that base" will help, she said. 

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She's not alone. 

Student enrollments in Advanced Placement classes jumped up to almost 1,300 during the 2018-2019 school year, up about 150 from the previous year and almost double the enrollment from five years ago. 

Those students took 770 tests last year, almost 200 more than the previous year, but still leaving a substantial number who didn't take the test. About 65% of students earned a passing grade on those tests, a five-year high for the district. 

District officials and College Board, the company that oversees the AP program, have prioritized getting more students to take the test. 

Thus Field frequently referencing the exam. She also plans to participate in a fall pledge to take the class, something recently rolled out by the College Board. 

Having the cake

Beals' students prepared for a lab in which they had a pretty straightforward task, with one big sticking point. They knew their ingredients, potassium nitrate and sucrose, would create a smoky reaction that some may consider a smoke bomb, though it was dubbed a "smoke cake" in project materials. 

But they weren't told what the ideal mixture of the ingredients was. 

“It’s meant to challenge you,” Beals said. 

Similarly, in Field's class, as she explained electron configurations, she warned students that some questions on the AP test would be ambiguous; "you have to figure that part out."

And for both classes, this was just review of last year's material. 

Beals said that he hears back from Senior grads who go on to study scientific fields in college. 

“They say, 'yeah I did really good in chemistry that first semester, but then we got to that next point,'" he said. “It’s a big leap.”

A course like AP chemistry helps bridge that gap, he said, introducing students to firehose-like levels of content and memorization alongside critical thinking skills. 

Lab projects can stretch into three days, and students are expected to be self-piloting enough to pick up where they left off. 

“They’re more analytical than 'oh, look, pretty, it changed color,'” Beals said. 

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