With a semester of college nearly under their belts, Shawnee Mission graduates credit AP courses with preparing them for next level

By Kate Kovarik

Vanderbilt student Claire Whitaker credits the AP courses she took at SM East with helping her prepare for rigorous college environment. Photo courtesy Claire Whittaker.
Vanderbilt student Claire Whittaker credits the AP courses she took at SM East with helping her prepare for rigorous college environment. Photo courtesy Claire Whittaker.

When Claire Whittaker, a 2016 graduate of Shawnee Mission East, arrived on Vanderbilt University campus in Nashville, Tenn. this past August, she found herself feeling overwhelmed. Not only did she have to make the adjustment from home to college life, a challenging feat for many first-year students, but she also faced a course load that initially felt unmanageable.

“I think the first week here was extremely eye opening…I felt in over my head, way in over my head,” Whittaker said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to…make it through the semester.”

As the semester has gone on, however, Whittaker said things have improved a lot. She realized that her high school experience in the Shawnee Mission School District, specifically her experience with Advanced Placement (AP) courses, significantly prepared her for the Vanderbilt classroom by giving her the firm foundation and competitive edge she needs to succeed.

Having taken a rigorous schedule of AP courses throughout high school is “the only thing that makes me feel a little bit more prepared in the environment that I’m in right now,” Whittaker said. “Without having done that, there is no way I could function at Vanderbilt.”

It’s the experience of students like Whittaker that have proponents of AP keeping up their guard against state legislation that could threaten its availability for Kansas students in the future. Last session, the Kansas Legislature considered House Bill 2292, which called for the removal of Common Core Curriculum from Kansas schools and for state control over the revision of K-12 curriculum standards.

With this change, all nationally standardized programs, including Advanced Placement, would have to be aligned with the proposed Kansas curriculum. However, if such adjustments are unable to be made, AP courses could be put at risk of removal from Kansas curriculum altogether. The bill failed last session, but education advocates worry that it could be revived in the future.

State Rep. Melissa Rooker, who won reelection to a third term last week, opposed the proposed bill due to the effect it would have had on the academic futures of students.

“The way the bill was written was really dangerous to the interest of students and their college prep courses,” Rooker said. “It would have really put Kansas students behind their peers around the country.”

Abby Meyer, a 2015 graduate of Shawnee Mission East and current sophomore at the University of Kansas, said AP gave her a sense of preparation for her first semester. Familiar with “being challenged in [her] courses,” Meyer knew the “level of rigor” that would be expected of her in the college classroom.

The removal of the AP program “would be detrimental to students’ learning,” Meyer said. “The only classes that made a true impact on me and have helped me succeed in college are the AP classes.”

The Advanced Placement (AP) Program was first piloted in the mid-1950s under the administration of the College Board. With the goal of closing “the gap between secondary and higher education” as explained by the College Board, AP courses were designed to provide college-level curriculum to high school students through challenging course work and assessments.

Students are given the opportunity to receive college credit for their AP courses by taking standardized exams at the end of each school year. Exam scores range from one to five, based on students’ overall comprehension of the tested subjects. Many universities, such as those in Kansas, typically award college credit to students who earn a three or higher on these exams.

Due to the fact AP is a nationally standardized program, exams and curriculum within the program are consistent throughout the country. If legislation like House Bill 2292 had passed, the AP program may have failed to meet the requirement of the revised standards, putting it at risk of removal. Opponents of the bill say removal of the AP program from high schools would cause students to lose the benefit of advance college credit as well as the benefit of developing effective learning and study skills.

Students like Rachael Cunningham, a 2015 Shawnee Mission North graduate and current sophomore at Kansas State University, have found these study techniques gained through AP course work to be an important element in proceeding to higher education.

“In college, you really have to take the biggest role in your own education,” Cunningham said. “I think as you move further on in college, it does get a little more difficult. That’s where certain study techniques and learning how you study really helps.”

Cunningham believes it would be difficult for high schools to ensure students have the opportunities “to take harder classes and prepare themselves for college if they didn’t have the option to take AP classes.”