- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Educators worry that lottery-backed scholarships tied to grades are deterring South Carolina’s top students from taking advanced courses in their senior year of high school.

Melanie Barton, director of the Education Oversight Committee, said students are telling guidance counselors they don’t want to jeopardize their chance of getting a scholarship by taking a tough course that could bring a low grade. It appears to particularly be a concern for students expecting to receive Palmetto Fellow scholarships, awarded to classes’ top graduates.

The system may actually deter high-performing students from challenging themselves academically, instead of encouraging students to take Advanced Placement or dual enrollment classes that allow them to earn college credit, Barton said.

“Senior-year students are saying, ‘Mom or Dad doesn’t want me to take that AP chemistry class because they don’t want to risk losing Palmetto Fellows.’ But the student really needs it because the student wants to be pre-med. The issue becomes money versus learning,” she said Tuesday.

The Education Oversight Committee does not yet have statewide numbers to back up what officials are hearing anecdotally. Gov. Nikki Haley’s budget proposal for 2014-15 includes a clause that tasks the agency with investigating the potential problem and, depending on its findings, evaluating solutions. A report to Haley and legislative leaders would be due by Dec. 1.

Gov. Haley believes that it is important to maintain high standards for academic scholarships, but those standards should not prevent students from taking on challenges and stretching themselves academically,” said her spokesman, Doug Mayer. “Providing scholarships that potentially inhibit students from challenging themselves isn’t the answer.”

Barton said the reluctance seems to be a byproduct of the economic downturn, which heightened parents’ concerns about paying increasing tuition costs. Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual-enrollment courses are weighted more, for GPA purposes, but even a B can be a problem for students in schools where there’s lots of competition at the top, she said.

“We’re talking about top schools with lots of kids at the tip-top, but those are the best and brightest we have,” Barton said. “And if we’re not challenging them in their senior year,” it’s a disservice to both the students and state.

Palmetto Fellows can receive up to $10,000 a year toward college tuition, depending on their major, if they earn at least a 3.5 grade-point average and graduate in the top 6 percent of their class. Life Scholarships provide up to $7,500 a year for students with a minimum 3.0 GPA who rank in the top 30 percent of their class. Other students graduating with a 3.0 GPA qualify for Hope Scholarships that provide up to $2,500 for their first year of college only.

This school year, the state expects to provide $228 million worth of tuition assistance through the three merit-based scholarships - 22 percent of that on Palmetto Fellows - and $57 million through need-based scholarships.

Discussion on the potential problem comes as the College Board released Tuesday a report on Advanced Placement trends over the past decade.

Advanced Placement exams, which started in the 1950s, are offered in 34 different subjects. The classes, generally taken by juniors and seniors, are designed to be rigorous and help them transition to college.

Last school year, South Carolina students took more than 33,000 AP exams - many taking more than one - with 58 percent of the tests earning college credit.

Nearly 18 percent of South Carolina’s Class of 2013 scored high enough on an AP exam taken at some point during high school to earn college credit, ranking 21st nationwide. That’s a 5-percentage-point improvement from the Class of 2003.

In 2013, 29 percent of graduates had taken at least one AP exam, up from 21 percent a decade earlier.

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