By Jackie Valley, The Nevada Independent

Nevada’s education struggles have long been evident in national rankings, where the Silver State consistently remains a bottom-dweller.

ACT scores? We’re dead last.

Graduation rates? Not so hot.

Per-pupil funding? Could be better, too.

So it’s no surprise that education officials have doubled down on a bright spot — Advanced Placement (AP) courses — and have committed to expanding their presence across Nevada high schools. After all, Nevada boasts a more desirable spot on a list examining how students from each state and District of Columbia fare on end-of-course AP exams.

Nearly a quarter of Nevada high school graduates scored a 3 or higher on an AP exam in 2017, placing the state 14th overall. The exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best score.

Massachusetts claimed the top spot with 32.1 percent of its high school graduates receiving that coveted score. The national average was 22.8 percent.

Nevada posted the largest five-year and three-year gain in terms of student performance on the AP exams — the culmination of a college-level course students can take in high school. If students score high enough on the end-of-year test, they can potentially earn college credit for the course.

“Some of these students leave high school sometimes with at least their first semester of college basically done,” said Jesse Welsh, assistant superintendent for curriculum and professional development. “That’s a huge cost savings for families.”

Progress amid a setback

For that reason, state and local education officials have been bent on expanding AP offerings and the number of students enrolled in those courses. The Clark County School District, for instance, offers 35 different AP courses — everything from calculus and biology to computer science and psychology — across its high schools, Welsh said. Every Clark County high school offers at least one AP class and some, such as Coronado and Clark, have a menu of more than 30 classes.

Clark County education officials recently released preliminary data from the 2017-2018 school year that shows more students who took the AP exam scored a 3, 4 or 5 on the test, leading to a 49.5 pass rate.

Welsh said the pass rate was welcome news amid a budget-related setback: Fewer Clark County students took an AP exam this past school year, which he attributed to a reduction in funds previously used to offset test costs for low-income students.

The school district received a $251,581 college and career readiness (CCR) grant and an additional subsidy of $38 per test from the state for low-income students during the 2016-2017 academic year. The result: Low-income students took the AP exams for free.

During the 2017-2018 school year, changes related to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act led to no state subsidies for the test, Welsh said. On top of that, the school district’s budget crisis rendered it unable to put other money forward to offset AP test costs. The district only received a $319,924 CCR grant, so the test cost for low-income students increased to $30.

The number of exams taken by Clark County students dropped from 25,201 in the 2016-2017 school year to 24,637 this past year, officials said.

The school district will receive a $382,100 CCR grant for the upcoming academic year, but it’s unclear how much money, if any, low-income students will have to pay to take an AP test.

Although Welsh expressed disappointment about last year’s funding situation, he said the district is committed to expanding access to these more rigorous courses. AP classes teach students “grit,” he said, which can help them succeed in other academic pursuits.

The district’s new superintendent, Jesus Jara, identified the college-prep courses as one of his goals in his entry plan. He wants to examine AP offerings by school and, with an eye toward equity, expand where there are opportunities to do so, Welsh said.

The urban district saw increased pass rates on AP tests among all of its student subgroups this past academic year.

“We’re seeing some growth there, but I think we need to continue that,” Welsh said.

It’s a point echoed by the Clark County Black Caucus, which presented a report in June to an interim legislative committee. The organization lamented the slow participation growth for black students, who trailed their white, Hispanic and Asian peers in the number of students taking AP exams. In 2017, a total of 898 black students took AP exams across the state compared with 8,154 white students, 7,722 Hispanic students and 3,010 Asian students.

A new frontier

While Clark County grapples with how to address the equity gap and participation dip, state education officials are also targeting another demographic — high school students living in rural areas.

Seven rural school districts in Nevada had a total of 20 students enrolled in AP courses two years ago, said Maria Sauter, who oversees the state distribution of the CCR grant.

“Those numbers were not acceptable,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged two major difficulties rural districts face: finding qualified AP teachers and enough students to fill the classes.

Starting this school year, students from White Pine and Nye counties will be taking AP courses through a partnership with the Nevada Learning Academy, an online school within the Clark County School District, Sauter said. Humboldt, Elko and Lincoln counties plan to follow suit for the 2019-2020 school year.

The push coincided with the launch of an AP computer science principles course last year, said Jeff Carlson, senior director for strategy operations and rural engagement for The College Board, which oversees the college-prep courses. The College Board partnered with the Nevada Department of Education and the Governor’s Office to ensure that students from a wide variety of schools could access the computer-science course — not just students at schools that typically have a robust selection of AP classes.

The partners decided to hold training sessions for teachers in both Northern and Southern Nevada, and they provided travel funds for educators who work in more remote parts of the state, he said.

Once a school offers its first AP course, students and staff tend to request more offerings, he said. In other words, access sometimes boils down to awareness.

“It means a little more to them than something they’ve heard of but haven’t had in their school,” Carlson said.