school bus _lowres

Advocate file photo

Louisiana's five-year push to reach the national average for public high school students earning college credit missed the target — by a lot.

Less than 8 percent of students did so, well below the U.S. average of nearly 22 percent for 2016.

The state is 49th in the nation for students scoring well enough through a program called Advanced Placement to get a head start on college credits, which improves the chances they will be successful there.

Only Mississippi had fewer students — 5.9 percent — that reached the mark, according to results released on Feb. 22.

Massachusetts, which often leads the way in public school ratings, was tops in the nation with 31 percent of students earning AP credits.

The issue points out just one of the problems that stem from the state's decades of low public school achievement, including a lack of preparation in elementary and middle schools.

"We can't just put students in AP courses at the end of the game," said Debra Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals. 

Students can earn the credit by taking AP courses in high school — they are considered academically rigorous — and scoring well enough on AP exams to qualify.

Scores range from 1 to 5. Students have to score 3 or higher to get the credit.

In other states, it is not uncommon for high school students to earn enough credit to start college as sophomores or higher.

Louisiana's five-year plan to reach the national average for AP credits was launched in 2011, when the topic barely registered in public school conversations in the state.

The national average at the time was 16.9 percent, which state officials said was doable by 2017.

Officials at the state Department of Education said they had the needed buy-in from local superintendents to make the AP numbers go up.

But Gary Jones, a veteran educator who this week will become president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said things have changed since then.

Jones noted that a wide range of state colleges and universities have agreements with public high schools that allows seniors to take college courses through dual enrollment.

"The AP does not have the significance that it used to have for us," he said. "The kids do not know whether they will get any credit for it when they get to the university."

College standards vary on how AP exams are counted.

State Superintendent of Education John White noted that the state has shown improvements.

In the past five years, AP credits doubled, from about 4,100 to roughly 8,600.

Those earned by African-American students tripled during the same period, to 935.

"It is all relative to where you start," White said. "Louisiana has doubled the number of college credits students earn through Advanced Placement through the last four years. That is remarkable progress, and there are not many states that can say the same thing."

The state has also shown gains in students taking AP exams. In 2006, just 5.5 percent of students did so, compared to 25.5 percent last year, according to the state Department of Education.

Also in 2006, just 2.5 percent of students scored 3 or higher on an AP exam, compared to 7.8 percent last year.

Years ago, state education officials cited Arkansas as a state that showed AP passage rates could rise quickly.

Last year, 17 percent of students there scored a 3 or higher or an AP test, roughly where officials hoped Louisiana would be by now.

The growth stems from a state law that requires each public high school to offer at least one AP course in each core area, said Kimberly Friedman, director of communications for the Arkansas Department of Education.

"The students in the courses receive a weighted grade and are required to take the exam to get the weighted grade," Friedman said in an email. "The state then pays for all AP exams taken by the students."

Hollis Milton, president of the Louisiana Association of Superintendents, said he cannot pinpoint why Louisiana so badly missed the goal for AP improvements. He is superintendent of the highly rated West Feliciana Parish School District.

Milton, like Jones, said lots of students and parents prefer dual enrollment over AP courses "for a variety of reasons." He said better branding of the value of AP, more spending for AP teachers and new dollars for middle school math and science training would help prepare students for AP classes.

Brigitte Nieland, who follows public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, noted the state is offering more AP courses and students are taking the test more often.

"But I think we have a lot of kids taking it but not really achieving a lot," Nieland said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.