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Law Allows More College Credits for High Schoolers

High school Advanced Placement students should be able to earn more college credits under a bill signed by Gov. Greg Abbott this month, a change that will save students and universities millions of dollars.

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Earning college credit may soon get easier for high school students who take Advanced Placement courses in Texas.

A bill signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott this month will require the state’s colleges and universities to give credit for scores of three or higher on many AP tests, which are graded on a five-point scale. The new rules could mean that high school students could get credit for thousands of hours not allowed before.

However, some classes that are a prerequisite for later courses could still require higher scores if the school's top academic officer decides that's necessary.

Universities are still working out the details, but the new rule has the potential to impact students across the state. The University of Texas at Austin currently gives credit for 31 AP tests, but requires scores of four or higher on 17 of them to award course credit. Texas A&M requires scores of four or higher on 13 such tests.

The University of Houston and Texas State University both require fours or higher on 12 tests. At the University of North Texas, that number is nine, and it’s seven at Texas Tech University.

The nonprofit College Board administers the tests, and considers a score of three equal to making a C, C+ or B- on a college course, according to the bill's author. That’s not binding, however, and it’s up to the individual schools to determine what they’ll accept to give credit.

Most of the schools leave that decision up to their individual academic departments. That can be frustrating for teachers and students, because the requirements often seem arbitrary or inconsistent. For example, at UT-Austin, a student needs a five on the Chinese Language and Culture test, according to the school’s website. But a student can score two on the German test and still get credit for three hours. The bill attempts to make those decisions more consistent. 

“I have always been mystified why some universities would take a three, four or a five, and some would say no,” said Coila Morrow, an AP English teacher at Garza High School in Austin.

The aim of the new law is to save money for students and universities. If students get credit for their AP scores, they won’t have to pay for those classes in college. Almost 240,000 students in Texas took an AP exam in 2014, with 124,000 of them scoring a three or higher, according to the College Board.

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, the bill’s author, predicted during the session that accepting all scores of three could save Texas students up to $160 million in tuition.

“Students could hypothetically enter college with a full semester’s credit if they complete the core curriculum classes through the AP exam route,” he said when he laid the bill out to the House Higher Education Committee.

Zerwas’ original version of the bill, House Bill 1992, would have required all scores of three to be accepted for credit. But the bill was later amended to allow the one exception. That provision was requested by the universities, which worried about situations such as a biology major scoring a three on an AP biology test but being unprepared for more difficult later coursework.

After that change, UT-Austin expressed its comfort with the law, which applies to students entering school in fall 2016. The school is now reviewing how it will implement it.

“I don’t see it as necessarily disruptive to our curriculum,” said Harrison Keller, vice provost of higher education and policy research for the school. 

Keller said UT-Austin was also willing to accept the changes because the AP is working on an overhaul of its tests, making them more aligned with what is currently taught in universities.

Meanwhile, high school teachers have applauded the change, saying it will make a huge difference for their students.

“I don’t find anything wrong with kids who get a three,” said Morrow, the AP teacher. “They should have that opportunity to get college credit.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, Texas State University and Texas Tech University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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