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By the time she graduates from high school, Helena Ma will have taken 15 Advanced Placement tests.
That's enough to start college as a junior, assuming she passes them all. Not that college credit is the only reason the Davis High senior has jammed her schedule with the demanding courses.
"I feel like in AP [Advanced Placement] classes I learn more," said Ma, 17. "They're more engaging classes, usually."
Her attitude is one that may be spreading in Utah.
Last school year, more than 20,000 Utah teens took the exams through which students can earn college credit. That number is nearly 11 percent more than the year before, according to results released Monday by the College Board.
The Beehive State also beat the nation, with a 68 percent passage rate, compared with 59 percent nationwide. That's about the same passage rate as the year before in Utah.
"That is great for Utah because it indicates we have more students who are college and career ready," said Mark Peterson, a spokesman for the State Office of Education, of the higher number of test takers.
Students who earn scores of 3, 4 or 5 on AP exams may often earn college credit for their efforts.
Mark Bouchard, chairman of Prosperity 2020, a business-led initiative to boost education in Utah, said he wasn't surprised to hear of the state's results. State leaders and Prosperity 2020 have set a goal that 66 percent of Utah adults hold postsecondary degrees or certificates by 2020 to meet future workforce needs.
"It's laying a foundation," Bouchard said of students taking AP classes, "so they're better prepared as they're making that transition to life after high school."
Though overall the state is making strides, gaps remain between the achievement and participation of some ethnic groups.
For example, Latinos the state's largest ethnic minority group were underrepresented among test takers. Also the passage rate among Latino students lagged behind that of white students, 53 percent compared with about 70 percent.
Still, that may be changing. Mexican-Amercian students saw the largest jump in test taking last school year, with nearly 24 percent more taking the exams than the year before. In fact, more students from most ethnic groups took the exams in Utah.
"While there are still gaps, the good news is we have greater ethnic minority participation, which means greater interest in moving on to college," Peterson said, "and that's going to translate into better scores in the future."
Dee Burton, Davis High principal, said AP courses and exams help students hone their study skills before college a reason why Davis High encourages any student interested in taking an AP course to do so.
Davis High dominated the list of top AP schools in Utah, claiming both the greatest number of test takers in the state and the second highest passage rate. Burton attributed Davis' success to parental support, students and teachers, including many who hold after-school, weekend and holiday-break study sessions. So many Davis students take AP tests each year that in some subjects the school has to administer the exams outside of the school, Burton said.
In addition to AP results, the College Board on Monday also released SAT scores. Far fewer students take the SAT in Utah than in some other areas of the country, instead opting to take the ACT.
Last school year, 1,954 Utah teens took the SAT, down about 8 percent from the year before. Utah students earned mean scores of 568 points in reading, 566 in math and 548 in writing, out of a possible 800 points for each section.
Utah colleges generally prefer students take the ACT, while schools on the East Coast often ask students to take the SAT.
Those SAT scores were improvements from 2011 and higher than national mean scores.
Top 10 Utah public high schools for AP participation.
Davis, Kaysville • 768
Alta, Sandy • 712
Lone Peak, Highland • 595
Skyline, Millcreek • 589
Hillcrest, Midvale • 580
Brighton, Cottonwood Heights • 549
Park City • 539
Viewmont, Bountiful • 430
Bingham, South Jordan • 415
Copper Hills, West Jordan • 406
Utah AP results
Top 10 Utah public high schools for AP passing rates, by percentage.
Juab, Nephi • 87.5
Davis, Kaysville • 87.0
Emery, Castle Dale • 84.0
Skyline, Millcreek • 84.0
Bountiful, Bountiful • 83.1
Mountain View, Orem • 81.1
Olympus, Millcreek • 80.4
Park City, Park City • 80.0
West, Salt Lake City • 79.8
Salem Hills, Salem • 79.4
Source: College Board, Utah State Office of Education