Dr. Carey Wright Credit: Mississippi Department of Education

Mississippi is reaping the benefits of increasing the number of students in Advanced Placement courses and passing the exams, the Mississippi Department of Education said Wednesday.

Mississippi ranks near the bottom nationally in Advanced Placement (AP) participation, but it is making strides. The number of students taking AP exams increased by 23.1 percent from the 2014-2015 school year to last school year.

Students took 12,455 AP exams in 2015-2016, a nearly 23 percent increase over the previous year, while the number of students scoring a 3 or higher, or qualifying score, increased 11.1 percent to 3,707.

Students who make a qualifying score can earn college credit from the college or university they attend. In addition, research shows that these students are more likely to perform well in college, take more college courses in the same subject and graduate from college within four years.

While the Mississippi Department of Education launched an AP initiative last year, school districts like Ocean Springs are ahead of the curve thanks to a grant from the National Math and Science Initiative, a group that works to increase the number of students prepared for careers in the STEM fields.

The district of about 6,300 students received the $500,000 grant during the 2013 school year. The grant, which helps districts that serve students from military families, helped pay for teacher training and teacher and student incentives. For example, every student who scored a 3 or higher on an AP exam received $100, while teachers who taught students who scored a 3 or higher received $100 as well.

In addition, the district removed all requirements, such as a certain GPA, for students to take AP courses.

“We went from 17 students taking AP courses to almost 500 students taking AP courses over the past three years,” Assistant Superintendent Dr. Christopher Williams said. “And we went from seven students passing the math and science AP tests to 156 in three years.”

Despite the end of the grant, the district is continuing to push AP and has even implemented a pre-AP English Language Arts curriculum in its middle school. Williams also says it has reserved funds to continue training and to continue paying for students’ exam costs.

Its next goal is to increase the number of minority and low-income students taking AP courses and exams.

“Now that we’ve gotten three years of data, we’ve noted that our minority and low SES (socioeconomic status) students are not taking these courses at the level of their peers. So … this year, all of our eighth grade students will be given the PSAT and we will utilize those results as one data source to target AP potential,” Williams explained.

Statewide, however, minority student participation increased by 37.9 percent, including 18.7 percent for African-American students and 26.4 percent for low-income students using a federal subsidy to defray the costs of the $93 exam fee.

“The AP experience is beneficial even if students do not earn a qualifying score on the AP exam because it exposes students to college-level material,” State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said of participation.  “ … We need to offer challenging learning opportunities to all students and strongly encourage them to participate. Mississippi students are positioned for continued growth and success in AP.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.