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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

AP scores release today: Here’s how high school students are preparing for college early

 (Stephen Templeton/The Spokesman-Review)
By Olive Pete Marton Mezei and Troy Slack The Spokesman-Review

Advanced Placement exam scores drop Monday, and high schoolers across the nation are feeling the pressure.

As students mature in their schooling, the importance of their decisions grows. High school students are effectively laying their academic and professional foundations to strategically set themselves up for success later in life.

“An educational experience is one of the most unique opportunities for students as they venture into higher education because not two people’s experiences are going to be the same,” said Guillermo Espinosa, associate dean of K-12 partnership and outreach at Spokane Community College.


Started in 1952, the AP program offers the opportunity for students in high school to get a head start on college by taking undergraduate university-level classes.

Although traditionally offered to high school juniors and seniors, some freshmen and sophomores participate . Students in the program take a three-hour standardized exam in May and receive a score in early July based on their performance. Passing these strenuous exams can help fulfill general education requirements for college.

Bryce Anderson, a 20-year-old North Central High School graduate and student at the University of Washington who is majoring in communication and history, said AP classes prepared him for college.

“I came in with 70 credits from AP, and a lot of those counted for my general education requirements. So coming into my first year, I had almost all of my general education knocked out.”

Anderson took a total of 13 AP classes during his high school career. He said they provided him freedom in college to explore different classes.

While North Central offers a wide variety of AP courses, smaller and sparsely funded schools have a disadvantage when it comes to offering these classes. According to The College Board, science-themed classes such as AP Environmental Science can cost the school from $6,900 to $11,650 per class. A good portion of smaller public schools cannot afford this high cost, which is where dual enrollment with a partner community college can offer a similar opportunity for high school students.

In addition to the possibility for college credit, some students take AP classes for the boost in their grade point average. In Spokane Public Schools, AP classes are weighted on a 5.0 GPA scale, where an “A” would give a 5.0. This is similar to honors classes, the only difference being that honors classes are typically weighted on a 4.5 GPA scale. For some, these boosts are a significant enough reward, resulting in one-third of students enrolled in AP classes not taking the standardized exam.

Weighted GPA policies vary from district to district, though, as the Mead and Central Valley school districts do not weigh AP and honors courses.

AP grades and test scores are typically a good indication for colleges to gauge how a student performs taking college level curricula.

While AP gets students prepared, other paths to pick include dedication to the International Baccalaureate program, attending NEWtech or studying via Running Start.

Running Start

Contrary to the nervous AP students, those high school juniors and seniors who attend Running Start classes are vying for similar college credit, without the looming fear of Monday’s release of scores. Unlike the AP students, they aren’t striving for college credit by passing high school exams. Instead, they simply take college classes. This was the appeal to 17-year-old Kate Guier, a North Central senior who does Running Start at Eastern Washington University.

“Just being able to do the classes and get the coursework done seemed a lot more manageable for me, and it’s definitely an easier thing to do,” Guier said, comparing the two main college credit options for high schoolers, Running Start and AP. “It’s the same type of work, but just in my experience, it was less pressure to get credit.”

Guier does, however, cut some slack for the AP curriculum.

“In an AP classroom, since it’s a yearlong course, you’re able to really work with the same teacher and understand what you’re learning, but when you’re being passed from teacher to teacher, it’s a little more difficult.”

The Running Start opportunities in Spokane all operate on a quarter system. This means that students take three classes per 12-week quarter, with the potential to take as many as nine to 12 classes per year, contrary to the six in a regular high school.

By attending Spokane Community College, Spokane Falls Community College or Eastern Washington University, students like Guier can earn dual credit: high school and college credit for the same course, then by leveraging some systems in place to transfer those college credits and get even more out of them.

For most students, this looks like pursuing the Associate of Arts Direct Transfer Agreement, which is an agreement among all four-year public universities in Washington to take the 90 credits earned for an associate of arts degree and put those credits towards the first two years of college. Credit transfers will also work at private universities; however, those opportunities vary on a case-by-case basis.

Since Guier is looking to graduate from high school and Running Start at Eastern with an AA degree she can use her Running Start credits to get general college requirements out of the way at Washington State University, so earning a bachelor’s in Pharmaceutical Science will take her only two years. She’s able to maximize the value of Running Start because she knows exactly what she hopes to get out of it.

“The program really works for people who know what they want to do after high school, so you’re able to really start, like, feet on the ground,” Guier said.

A situation like this is what Espinosa refers to as the trifecta.

“It’s taking care of your high school graduation requirement, taking care of your AADTA requirement and taking care of the prerequisites into the program and university you want to end up at after graduating.”

Despite the potential to get a “running start” on plans after high school, students can also explore other interests.

“The reality is that sometimes a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old doesn’t know where they want to transfer to and doesn’t know what program they want to study, which again, the AADTA allows for that student to explore those opportunities,” Espinosa said.

But this academic propulsion may come at a cost. At the end of the day, these students “are completely separated from the (high) school,” Guier said. “I know for a lot of people it’s hard.”

“I was home a lot of the time, and a lot of my friends were at school all day,” she continued. “I did most of my classes, if not all of them, online. So I was able to work more.”

For some people, like Guier, this freedom is a plus, and they can look past the downsides of Running Start while embracing the benefits.

“Working and having a more open schedule has been super easy for me and super nice,” Guier said.

Running Start may work better for students who are able to act independently while taking initiative and taking advantage of opportunities.

“We want the students to come and advocate for themselves,” Espinosa said. “We don’t have everyone looking at all these students. … Those students need to come and ask.”

“Running Start isn’t for everyone,” Espinosa continued. “But I do believe … that the Community College has something for everyone.”


International Baccalaureate graduates received their program results Friday.

Similar to AP students, the seniors in the IB program took intense three- to four-hour examinations in May. These were at the end of their two-year courses.

Saint George’s School, a private school along the Little Spokane River is the only school in the Spokane area “that is offering a full IB program,” said Nathan Lill, head of its Upper School.

“The full goal of the International Baccalaureate program is to not only prepare a student for any kind of academic setting post-secondary, but also in terms of holistically approaching themselves as a learner, as an individual, to find connections with issues that resonate with them in the world, to see themselves as a global citizen with international mindedness at the forefront,” Lill said.

And IB has practical uses, too, said Head of School Jamie Tender.

“IB credit can be counted as college credit at the Washington state schools,” Tender said. “We’ve had students receive … 19 credits at state universities.”

But what makes IB stand out is its international appeal.

“If you’re looking at trying to apply credits to schools abroad, they will accept that, whereas AP is very much more of an American curriculum,” Lill said. “IB is unique in its capacity to meet the holistic needs of a burgeoning learner and adult.”

“Universities generally regard any student that’s taking the full diploma as taking the absolute highest level of preparatory work that they could as a high school student,” Lill said. “I think that it really puts kids in the place of authenticity as learners, because they are required to do so much and to show that they have a deep commitment to passions and interest rather than just completing coursework.”


While Running Start students choose to get a head start on a career through saving time and money, NEWtech participants prepare for their adult lives by training for a career with hands-on work and experience.

Instead of having the looming fear of score drops and stressful exams that the AP and Running Start programs come with, the Northeastern Washington Tech Skills Center offers opportunities for students vying for similar credit in a less stressful and more hands-on manner.

The program is targeted toward students who don’t fit into the traditional secondary education molds.

NEWtech is one of the state’s 16 skills centers preparing students for the reality of their professional career.

This alternative education offers preparatory career and technical education courses such as cosmetology and welding.

“Students in high school can begin to explore their post-high school career path, tuition free. Rather than waiting for college and trying different majors, different courses and paying tuition for that, you know, we often say college is an expensive career exploration,” said Patrick Lenihan, assistant director at NEWtech.

Attendance is crucial to nurturing success.

“It’s not like the instructors can give a packet to make up for that welding they missed. It just doesn’t equate that way,” Lenihan said.

“A lot of the workforce is getting to the age of retirement, and there’s not enough new workers coming into the workforce to fill that gap,” he added. “They fill a skills gap in not just our local community, but at the state and national level as well.”

Lenihan encourages tours prior to registration so students have a well-rounded understanding of the program, providing information about the specific skills and how to build the course to match each personality and interest. He often jokes with incoming students: “We don’t want to put somebody in dental assisting that doesn’t want to touch teeth, right?”

Students from 11 local school districts spend half of their day with the option of morning or evening in one of the 16 career tech programs, with the other half back at their home high school. The rigor of this preparatory level education opens up more opportunities for students to begin their careers prior to high school graduation, rather than limiting them, Lenihan said.

“I think there’s a fallacy about career and technical education that it is for students that are not college bound,” he said.

For some NEWtech students, high school and college credit is awarded for the same course on top of a high school diploma, but no associate of applied science degree.

As a skills center, they’re required to offer the opportunity to earn industry-recognized certifications. For example, students in the nursing program could take their certified nursing assistant exam at the end of the course, and students in automotive can earn automotive service excellence certifications. These dual credit opportunities apply to NEWtech’s community college partners.

The experienced masters of each program didn’t go to school to become educators in the traditional sense; they focused on their career of interest and secondarily taught at the skills center. This brings the relevant instruction and knowledge necessary to not only get a job, but to advance in a professional position.

“This is their second career, so they’re coming to our program to teach here in our building with on average 20 years’ experience from the industry associated with the program they teach,” Lenihan said.

However someone chooses to prepare themselves for life after high school, Espinosa said it’s important that each student paves their own path.

“You are driving the bus,” he said. “Your family, your counselors, your teachers, they’re all passengers helping guide you. You could even have a copilot. Your parent, your mom, your dad, whoever is really there, like your guiding light, but you’re the one pushing on the gas. You’re the one using the steering wheel.”

Olive Pete, Marton Mezei and Troy Slack's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.