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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published November 02 2010

No easy A's: College-level courses test readiness

When Elizabeth Henschel and Haaris Ali start college next fall, they’ll be ready.

The two seniors at Fargo North High School are loading up their schedules with advanced-placement classes and other rigorous courses.

Not only will they have several college credits behind them, the students will be prepared for college-level work.

“I’ll be used to the homework load, and I’ll be used to having that much reading and studying,” said Henschel, 17, who wants to pursue an education degree.

But not everyone is as diligent as those high-achieving students.

Rick Buresh, superintendent for Fargo Public Schools, said graduating from high school alone doesn’t certify college readiness.

“Just simply by getting a high school diploma does not necessarily mean that you’ve achieved to a level needed to succeed in college or that you’ve necessarily taken the right coursework to properly prepare you for college,” Buresh said.

That’s why Fargo school officials and counselors work with students to show them what courses are required to graduate, and what courses are recommended for college preparation.

Assistant Superintendent Bob Grosz said counselors start working with students when they’re in fifth grade about career clusters that interest them.

As they advance in their schooling, students are exposed to career fairs, guest speakers and a career planning guide that shows them suggested courses for their areas of interest.

“Certainly kids are going to change their minds multiple times, but we want to start planting that seed as early as grade five,” Grosz said.

Fargo North Principal Andy Dahlen said the number of advanced placement courses available has expanded to 13.

Sophomores through seniors can take the AP classes, which are college-level courses taught in high schools. Students can earn college credit for those courses if they take an exam and score high enough to meet a college’s expectations.

“We do have more of our kids ready for those college-level courses,” Dahlen said. “But still not everybody’s taking those courses.”

One change the Fargo district implemented this year to encourage more students to take AP classes is a weighted grading system.

The advanced classes are weighted on a five-point scale rather than four. So a B in AP English would be the equivalent of an A in a traditional English course.

“It recognizes that there needs to be a stronger effort and it’s a more challenging course,” Dahlen said.

Students also have the opportunity to take dual-credit courses – meaning they earn high school and college credit at the same time.

Ali, the Fargo North senior, took two dual-credit classes in addition to several AP classes he has on his schedule.

He anticipates he will have enough credits to take care of several generals his first year of college.

“Besides saving money, you save a lot of time,” said Ali, who plans to be a pre-med major. “If you can knock off your freshman year of college, that’s one whole year that you just added to your life.”

Although there are several sections of AP classes this year, not everyone takes advantage of them, said Henschel, who is enrolled in three AP classes.

“There are those people who just slide by,” Henschel said. “I feel like some people just take senior year off.”

Parents, counselors and teachers should watch out to make sure students don’t slack off senior year, Buresh said.

Some recent statewide changes should help North Dakota students be more prepared for college, he said.

High school students in North Dakota are now required to take the ACT or the ACT WorkKeys exam as juniors.

“If their scores are lower than the standard to be admitted to college, they’re going to say, ‘Maybe I’m not ready for college,’” Dahlen said.

A scholarship program established by the 2009 Legislature will encourage more North Dakota students to take rigorous classes.

Among the requirements for the North Dakota Academic Scholarship, which awards up to $1,500 each year, are a minimum ACT score of 24 and completion of an AP class or dual-credit class.

“Those same things that are required for the North Dakota Scholarship will cause kids to challenge themselves more and prepare themselves more, be thinking about higher education at an earlier point in their lives,” Buresh said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590