MIAMI, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- The College Board's Advance Placement program is the target of as many shots as ever, but it is still growing rapidly, and so far it is surviving challenge after challenge.
"The challenges are good challenges. They include the need to get into more schools, and train more teachers," said Lee Jones, the College Board's vice president for kindergarten through 12th grade operations.
"Reaching minorities is absolutely a large part of it, and we're making some good headway. Minority participation grows faster than the overall growth every year," he said.
He said that overall growth has been at a 10-percent-a-year pace over most of the last decade.
The program, known universally as AP, began in 1955 with a handful of courses. The program has grown to 35 courses in 19 subject areas from English to history to calculus. Since the beginning, more than 8 million students have taken more than 13 million examinations worldwide.
Last year, more than 840,000 students took 1.4 million AP exams worldwide. AP courses are offered in 13,680 schools with 435 new schools joining the program in 2001.
The biggest part of the draw for good students is that if they do well enough on the tests they can get college credit at the college or university of their choice.
More than 90 percent of the colleges and universities in the United States grant incoming students credit, placement, or both for good grades on the AP tests.
The papers are graded one through five with one at the unhappy end of the scale. A three used to be good enough to get college credit, but that may be changing as many universities believe the instruction isn't up to college levels.
Harvard University now requires a five to get credit. Maryland and George Washington are among those who think a three is no longer good enough.
"That is a trend that is occurring at most highly selective institutions," Jones said. "However, we survey colleges every year, and by and large, that is not the case, although some high-end kids are showing up with six to eight AP courses and institutions are reluctant to give them that many credits."
Some administrators feel that the atmosphere and the rigors of taking a college course are not the same in high school as they are in college, and students are robbed of some of the undergraduate experience. Some counselors urge students to repeat the courses.
But Matt Hulett, coordinator of freshman admissions at the University of Florida, said the program is working. Florida gives college credit for a grade of three on the AP test.
"Most of our faculty feel that the advanced placement program does a good job of preparing students for college and the University of Florida in particular," he said. "A score of 3 or higher has proven satisfactory."
The University of Kansas uses a complicated sliding scale according to the subject matter. A score of three will get three hours credit in statistics, but physics requires a four. In history, a four will get the student three hours, but a five is worth six hours. In chemistry, which entails a lot of lab time, a five is worth 10 hours.
With some students, the college credits are not what is important. The important thing is the prestige and what they can put on their applications to the universities they are eyeing. The College Board has no problem with that.
"There is no doubt that for students trying to get into highly selective institutions, that is a driving factor," Jones said.
As the program grows, the College Board tries to improve it on a constant basis. Course descriptions are often under revision.
"That's something we do on a regular basis. AP courses are intended to be introductory college courses and we make changes to reflect those requirements," Jones said.
Critics have said there is too much breadth and not enough depth. The National Academy of Sciences released a report in February showing that AP math and science classes force students to cover too much material too quickly at the cost of depth of knowledge.
Jones said the organization is responding by trying to focus more on concepts and themes and less on the breadth of college courses.
Preparing younger students for the AP courses they will face in high school, and also attracting students to them is another focus. Curriculums known as Pre-A and Pacesetter are intended to step up learning in the lower grades.
The Vertical Teams programs where elementary and middle school teachers are made aware of what the high school teachers need in preparation have also been under way for about five years, but the results are not yet in.
"Teachers in high schools see Vertical Teams as critical," Jones said. "But you can't see the impact of the Vertical Team until the kids pass through. We are not going to be able to see that until a number of years go by."
Grading of the examinations is done by 5,000 college and high school faculty members throughout the nation at locations throughout the nation. The seven-day sessions are administered by Educational Testing Service, the College Board's for-profit subsidiary.
It's an expensive annual exercise, and the College Board, a New York-based not-for-profit organization, is looking for ways to cut costs. One way is to distribute tests to more remote locations, such as the cities where readers reside. Another is to let computers grade the tests, many of which are in essay form.
"Right now, we're not sure of the feasibility. One way is that you can deliver the essays to remote locations. You can also get smart computer programming that can grade essays," Jones said. "But we are fully aware that the annual AP readings are an excellent developmental opportunity for the college and high school faculty who go to the readings."
The drive under College Board President Gaston Caperton to save money is getting some flack. The Massachusetts organization "FairTest" has gone so far as to call it "the money-grubbing College Board."
Jones said frugality is an effort to become more self-sufficient, increase efficiency and improve performance.
"You are in a much better position to achieve new initiatives with your own money rather than to try to get funds elsewhere," Jones said. "If you want to improve services, it's better to use your own money. I think it will make it more successful."