When Susan Richman called the College Board in 1992 to ask if her son Jesse could take Advanced Placement tests as a home schooler, a staff member responded that no one had ever asked him that question, but then assured her that home schoolers were welcome to take the tests.
Ms. Richman went on to coach Jesse for so many AP exams that he started college with 12 AP credits. But that experience also gave the Richmans, who live in Kittanning, Pa., an idea that eventually put them at the front of a home-school trend.
She and her husband, Howard Richman, went on to develop a thriving business that offers online AP test-preparation classes for home schoolers. Their company, PA Homeschoolers, has been providing the classes for 10 years and now serves 227 home schoolers who are preparing for any one of 14 AP exams, in subjects from music theory to computer science.
And just as enrollment in PA Homeschoolers classes has grown steadily, so has the overall number of home schoolers nationwide who are taking AP exams. Since 2000, the number of home schoolers taking such exams has tripled, from 410 that year to 1,282 in 2005, according to data the College Board prepared at the request of Education Week.
The number of home-school students taking Advanced Placement tests has more than tripled in the past five years.
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SOURCE: The College Board
That growth is due in part to home schoolers who want to validate that they’ve learned challenging academic material, particularly if they are applying to competitive colleges.
“The home schoolers don’t come to college with the usual credentials,” said Christopher J. Klicka, the senior counsel of the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va. “To have some supporting documentation of their academic excellence helps them so much more.”
An estimated 1.1 million U.S. students, or 2.2 percent of all school-age children, are being schooled at home, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 315,000 home-schooled children are of high school age. More than 2 million AP tests were administered in 2005.
Rick Bischoff, the director of admissions for the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, Calif., said strong AP test results, while not required, carry weight in his school’s admissions process.
“When you are looking at home-school kids, very often we don’t have grades that evaluate them in the context of a large pool of talented high school students as we would with the typical kid applying to Cal Tech,” he said. “Certainly, getting fives on the math and science components of the Advanced Placement tests is going to give us a better indication of students’ having learned the subject.”
Most colleges and universities give credit toward college credit for a score of 4 or 5—with 5 being the top score—on an AP exam. Some colleges give credit for a 3.
High schools increasingly have viewed the AP program, run by the New York City-based College Board, as a valuable measure to show that students are mastering advanced subject material—and to enhance their attractiveness to college-admissions officers.
For many high-achieving home schoolers, AP tests have become a staple of their education.
“It gives validation, but it also gives the child a jump-start on the college career,” said Joanne Juren, the founder of Eta Sigma Alpha, a national home-school honor society, based in Houston.
The number of home schoolers who get either a 4 or 5 on the tests is small. In 2005, 297 home schoolers who took the five most popular AP tests got 4’s or 5’s. Those who do earn such scores can increase their chances of getting accepted to top universities.
Karin Jentoft, a 17-year-old from Circle Pines, Minn., who was home-schooled until the current school year, believes her strong scores on several AP tests helped her get accepted by Harvard University and the Johns Hopkins University for the fall of 2006. She’s spending what would have been her senior year of high school attending a local college.
“My mom had to prepare a transcript [for universities] in which she wrote up a summary of what each of our courses entailed,” Ms. Jentoft said. “It helped that we were taking courses at local colleges and AP tests because they are standardized in grading.”
Personally, though, she studies for AP tests because she finds the material interesting, she said.
Austin Webb, 20, who was home-schooled from 2nd grade by his mother in rural Custer City, Okla., said getting the top score on the AP biology and chemistry tests probably helped him get accepted by Cal Tech, where he is a freshman studying math and physics. He was also accepted by Harvard. Mr. Webb studied for the AP biology test by taking an online class with PA Homeschoolers, but for AP chemistry, he studied on his own.
Some parents help their home-schooled children patch together innovative self-study plans to prepare for AP tests.
When John Calvin Young of Smithville, N.C., wanted to study for the AP U.S. government and politics exam, his mother, Melanie Young, selected a textbook and study aids. But they both believe the youth’s involvement in two campaigns for Republican candidates during the fall of 2004 and other political activities helped him score a 5 on the exam.
“One of the harder parts of the AP government stuff for me was remembering the details behind the legislative process or behind specific legislation from the past,” said Mr. Young.
Ms. Richman of PA Homeschoolers saw a need for online classes for home-schooled students after meeting such students who fell behind while studying on their own for the AP U.S. history test.
“One girl said, ‘I never got past the turn of the century.’ Another said, ‘I never got past the Civil War,’ ” Ms. Richman recalled. Those students did poorly on the exam, she said.
The classes offered by PA Homeschoolers cost from $320 to $595 per student, depending on rates set by the teachers. The Richmans don’t necessarily hire certified teachers—one is a college student—and they work only with home schoolers because they don’t want to worry about providing official high school credits.
The yearlong classes don’t focus just on practice tests, Ms. Richman added. “You have to cover the material and use college-level textbooks and other resource books,” she said. “You have to do lots of writing and lots of high-level thinking like is required on the test.”
Mr. Richman teaches the AP economics class, and Ms. Richman teaches the AP U.S. history class. He has an undergraduate degree in economics and a doctorate in education. She is a certified elementary school teacher. Of her 20 U.S. history students last school year, 13 landed a 4 or 5 on the exam, Ms. Richman said. “The kids who get fives go beyond the minimum standards that I set,” she said. “They read widely in other books related to U.S. history. They watch films, visit places, and they are very good writers.”