The number of Arizona high school students ready for college and career is above the national average, and more than twice as many Arizona students are earning college credit through Advanced Placement exams now than 10 years ago, according to The College Board’s 2014 Results.
The report combined information from the PSAT, SAT and AP exams for the first time.
“We’re making strides, but we have to keep going,” said Rich Nickel, CEO of College Success Arizona, which works with community partners and colleges to increase access for students who would not be able to afford college or graduate without support.
The percentage of Arizona minority students who took the PSAT in 2014 was higher than the national average, and Arizona sophomores who took the PSAT had the most balanced ratio of male to female participation nationwide.
The PSAT helps measure students’ college readiness and identify who needs additional instruction or more challenging work. Students who score well on the PSAT may qualify for National Merit Scholarships.
“Encouraging students to take the PSAT and SAT have been part of the district’s culture for many years,” said Gene Dudo, superintendent of Glendale Union High School District.
Glendale Union, like many other Arizona districts, has also lowered the cost of taking the tests for those students who need financial assistance.
“Our teachers, counselors, and administrators make a concerted effort to talk to students about the importance of the tests,” Dudo said. “They communicate with parents about the value of the tests. They speak about the scholarship opportunities available. All of these conversations align with our high expectations and that all students will be prepared for college.”
At Rio Rico High School in Santa Cruz County, counselors visit students’ classrooms to discuss the benefits of taking the PSAT and SAT and also present the information at grade-level parent meetings, said David Verdugo, superintendent of Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District.
PSAT scores also indicate students that may be ready for more challenging work found in Advanced Placement courses.
“This information is used along with coursework and grades to identify and encourage student enrollment in AP courses,” Verdugo said.
Arizona students taking Advanced Placement exams grew at a faster rate in every ethnic group than nationwide.
The Advanced Placement program provides students more challenging work by letting them take college-level courses while still in high school.
“Our teachers, counselors, and administrators are always looking for those ‘invisible’ students – students who are doing okay in their classes but aren’t necessarily being challenged,” Dudo said. “Those are the students we target for AP courses.”
In 2013, Glendale Union High School District was recognized by The College Board as the AP National District of the Year for medium-sized districts, Dudo said.
“This was not a recognition we sought, rather it found us – it found us for something we do every day,” Dudo said. “We encourage all students to accept the challenge. We expect all students in an AP course to be successful. We expect them all to take the AP exam and be successful on the exam.”
Glendale Union pays for the all students Advanced Placement exams so all students have equal access and the cost is not a consideration.
“We also know there are many benefits associated with taking an AP class – benefits not necessarily associated with the exam,” Dudo said. “The challenge of an AP class helps students prepare valuable skills and abilities needed for college.”
Students who score a 3 or higher on an AP exam can receive credit in the subject at many colleges and universities.
“At Rio Rico High School, many students request enrollment in advanced classes knowing that the rigorous coursework and potential AP exam scores will advance their college and career-readiness,” Verdugo said. “Other students are identified and encouraged by previous teachers or counselors.”
The number of Arizona students from low-income households earning a 3 or higher on an Advanced Placement exam tripled in the past ten years.
“We believe that education is the single most effective way out of poverty and providing students access to AP credits is one of the first steps (especially to those first-generation students going to college),” Dudo said.
More students, especially low-income and minority students, are taking Advanced Placement courses nationally, yet such improvements have not led to an increase in college-readiness rates, according to the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education.
There are numerous efforts taking place across the state to increase college readiness, Nickel said.
Ready Now Yuma, an initiative of the Yuma Union High School District and Helios Education Foundation, ensures every student is ready for college and career through the internationally-recognized, challenging Cambridge Curriculum. The district has nearly 11,000 students, is 79 percent minority and is in a rural area.
In the past seven years, more than 81,000 Arizona high school juniors have taken the ACT exam through a partnership between Helios Education Foundation and 14 Arizona school districts. Before this initiative, two percent of Arizona students chose to take the ACT, now more than 20 percent do, Nickel said.
While the initiative increased access to the test for all demographic groups, participation increased most notably for males, Latino students and students from low-income families, Nickel said.
The percentage of Arizona students who met the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark was higher than the national average, and more African-American and Hispanic students in Arizona met the benchmark than the national average.
Students take the SAT as part of the admission process for colleges and universities. Students’ SAT scores and high school grade point average are the best predictor of their ability to succeed in college, according to the College Board.
“Approximately 60 percent of Rio Rico High School graduates attend a 2-year or 4-year college or university. However, we always strive to improve,” Verdugo said. “The growth of our Cambridge International Program, a new advanced-course offering, confirms that we are on the right path.”
Recently, the Arizona Board of Regents set a goal of having a 60 percent college graduation rate across the state, a nationally agreed-upon standard for achievement.
“Significantly increasing the college graduation rate in Arizona requires a collaborative approach,” Nickel said. “No one school or organization can do this alone, so we have to work together.”
To significantly increase the college graduation rate, the chances of college completion for Latino and low-income students needs to increase, Nickel said.
“Many of these students are first-generation college-goers, with little expectation that they can afford or succeed in college,” Nickel said. “Some have tremendous personal and economic challenges they must overcome in addition to the academic challenges.”
College Success Arizona’s multi-tiered approach provides financial, academic and personal advice these students need, and has a 71 percent graduation rate, nearly twice the state average, Nickel said.
“Getting more Latino and low-income students through college is not just a matter of ideology,” Nickel said. “It’s a matter of economic success for the entire state.”
College graduates earn more over their lifetimes, benefit from lower unemployment rates, and offer the skills demanded by 21st century employers, Nickel said.
“By increasing the college graduation rate in the state, we will also increase the number of Arizona residents who are healthier, have children who do better in school, vote more, volunteer and serve on civic boards, and patronize the arts,” Nickel said. “That makes the state better not just for individual graduates but for all of us.”