The Fayette County Public Schools and nine other Kentucky school districts have made a national "Honor Roll" for their success in getting more students to take demanding Advance Placement courses that help prepare them for college.
To be listed on the College Board's AP District Honor Roll, school systems not only had to increase the numbers of their students taking AP classes, but also boost the percentage of passing grades of 3 or higher that students scored on optional AP exams.
Joining Fayette County on the 2012 national honor roll are the Ashland Independent Schools, Boone County Schools, Bourbon County Schools, Clinton County Schools, Diocese of Covington, Oldham County, Pulaski County, Spencer County and Washington County.
A total of 539 school districts in 44 states and six Canadian provinces made the 2012 list.
Only five Kentucky districts made last year's honor roll as selected by the College Board, a non-profit association focused on connecting students with college.
Fayette County Schools officials, like other educators nationwide, are stressing the importance of AP classes. The academically challenging courses help prepare high school students for the demands of college.
Also, students that pass AP exams after taking the courses can earn college credits. Potentially, students who take enough AP classes and pass the exams could earn enough credits to be a sophomore when they enter college.
Vickie Ritchie, Fayette County's high schools director, says 1,901 Fayette students took one or more AP courses during the 2011-2012 school year, up from 1,734 students in 2010-2011. That's a 9.6 percent increase.
Fayette students took 3,689 AP exams in 2010-2012, a 13.7 percent increase over the 3,243 tests taken the year before. The number of exams taken exceeds the number of students taking courses because some kids take several exams in different subjects.
Meanwhile, the number of AP exams on which Fayette students made passing grades has jumped 19 percent, from 2,139 in 2010-2011 to 2,546 in 2011-2012, Ritchie said.
"I think it means we're getting our students better prepared for college and careers," Fayette Superintendent Tom Shelton said. "The more rigorous the course work, the better prepared students are. And if they take an AP test and get a passing grade, they can earn college credit. It really gives kids a head start."
Despite all that, education experts say that getting more students into AP courses is a challenge.
Some students shy away from Advance Placement because the classes admittedly are tougher than standard high school courses. Students thus fear that taking an AP class might only drag down their grade-point averages without actually providing any tangible benefits.
Fayette County high schools are using several strategies to show students that AP classes are worth the effort and that students can succeed in them.
That includes carefully targeting students that are academically capable of passing AP courses; helping persuade them they really can do the work; and providing tutoring and other support for students that struggle.
Most students who try AP classes end up succeeding, says Tracey Lilly, Lafayette High School's AP exam coordinator.
"The classes are really hard, and the kids do have to work," she said. "Sometimes it takes a while for that work ethic to kick in, but the kids usually do a really good job."
Lafayette also is trying to make the program more attractive by expanding its AP course offerings. The school has an AP economics class this year and will add an AP Japanese class next year, Lilly said.
Bryan Station High School has been boosting its students' AP enrollment by participating in AdvanceKentucky, an Advance Placement mentoring and training program that serves schools statewide. Among other things, AdvanceKentucky helps recruit students for AP classes, offers study sessions to help them prepare, and provides cash incentives.
A Bryan Station student who gets a passing grade on an AP English, math or science exam gets $100, said Dana Lawrence, the school's AP coordinator.
Bryan Station also has an open enrollment policy that allows any student to sign up for an AP class, plus interventions to help students that struggle with the workload.
"Only a handful drop out," Lawrence said. "Once they see the benefits and what they are gaining, they stay with the class. Research shows that just being in an AP class itself helps prepare you for the next level, whether you take the AP exam or not."
Meanwhile, Shelton said he ultimately hopes to see every Fayette high school student taking AP classes, participating in the International Baccalaureate program offered by Tates Creek High School, or taking courses that offer college credit.
"We can't afford any longer to think of high school graduation as a culminating event," he said. "The more we can show students that they can be successful in post-secondary education, the better we can prepare them for today's world."