High school students are being encouraged to take university-level courses to improve US science, says Jon Marcus
Increasing numbers of US youngsters are enrolling in university-level classes while still in high school to save time and tuition fees later.
The Government proposed taking advantage of this incentive to improve the nation's international standings in maths and science.
The number of high school students who chose to take advanced-placement (AP) courses, followed by proficiency exams, rose nearly 11 per cent last year, according to the private organisation that administers the tests.
AP credit earned in high school can contribute towards university credits that will spare students costly college introductory classes in the same subjects. AP students are also likely to graduate more quickly. Some universities grant as much as a full year of credits to students who earn qualifying grades on a number of AP tests.
Whatever their motives, US high school students who take the AP courses in maths and science do better in these subjects in general than students in any other nation, research has found.
They are also more likely to choose careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics than students who do not take AP courses in high school. America's ranking in these fields continues to decline.
President George W. Bush, as part of his competitiveness initiative, proposed training an additional 70,000 teachers at a cost of $122 million a year (Pounds 66 million) to direct AP courses in maths and science - especially in schools that serve students from low-income families.
Margaret Spellings, the Education Secretary, said there was a glaring disparity between rich and poor schools in the availability of university-level classes. High schools in wealthy Washington suburbs might offer more than 20 elective AP courses each, she said, while an inner-city school in the capital had only four. In all, about 14 per cent of US students - 1.2 million - take the AP exams. "Our challenge today is that nearly 40 per cent of high schools offer no AP classes. And that must change," she said.
The Education Department proposed that a new university tuition-grant programme meant to help academically gifted children from poor families would require these students to take at least two AP courses, among other criteria.
"While we're sleeping every night, accountants in India do our taxes; radiologists in Australia read our Cat scans; and technicians in China build our computers," Ms Spellings told Congress recently. "As other nations race to catch up, there is mounting evidence that US students are falling behind."