HAMMONTON — School is still a month away, but Advanced Placement students at Hammonton High School have already started.

Seven AP summer courses give students — and teachers — a head start on the demanding course work and more time to prepare for the College Board’s national AP tests in May.

“The really nice thing is there is no competition,” said AP European History teacher Dan O’Malley. “On that day, they only come to me. There are no other classes, no sports, no high school drama. I’ll get through four or five chapters, or almost a marking period’s worth of work.”

Advanced Placement courses continue to grow in popularity among college-bound students. In New Jersey, 27 percent of the graduates in the Class of 2011, or 26,546 students, took at least one AP test, compared with 19 percent in 2001 according to College Board data. Many students take more than one test, and 76,030 tests were taken in New Jersey in 2011.

Nationally about 30 percent of all high school graduates in 2011 took at least one AP exam, with Florida and Maryland approaching 50 percent. A good grade on the test can help a student get into college and possibly earn them college credits.

But with the tests given in May, teachers are sometimes scrambling to complete all the work.

Many high schools give students summer assignments or hold Saturday or after-school sessions before the test. Summer assignments are typically due on the first day of school.

“It’s a way for me to assess where they are,” said Egg Harbor Township High School English teacher Kevin Murphy. “AP students are motivated and stay on top of assignments. I’ve already had a few emails.”

Murphy said there is always pressure to get through all the material, and AP students learn how to manage their time. He said it is a challenge when students have multiple AP classes and are also involved in sports or other extracurricular activities.

“You get into April and you have spring break, then the prom,” he said. “But these are kids who care about learning and care about their grades. They get the work done.”

Hammonton Supervisor Robin Chieco said they started offering the classes because the teachers wanted to give students extra time.

“There were two years where we had to open later in September because of construction, and the teachers were really panicking about getting done in time for the test,” she said. “This gives them 20 hours of extra time, and they can do it in the summer, or on Saturdays before the test.”

Trevor Packer, vice president for Advanced Placement and College Readiness at the College Board, which administers the AP program, said they expect each course to cover 140 hours of single class periods. He said in science the courses are also expected to be the second course students take in science subjects, so they have already learned basic skills. Still, he said, about 30 percent of high schools disregard that recommendation and allow students to take AP biology as their first biology class.

“If it is their first class, it would be hard to teach the course well in 140 days,” he said.

Local teachers are very aware that states that begin school in August have a head start. Packer said the dates for the tests are based on national surveys, with most high schools nationally and in New Jersey choosing the first three weeks in May as the best time for the tests.

The College Board does a mathematical algorithm to schedule the tests so that most students will not have to take two on the same day, and they will accept the makeup day test from students who have a conflict.

“We can’t really go much later because the colleges want the scores by July 15,” he said. “It would be nice if every high school had the same schedule, but they don’t.”

This is the third year Hammonton has offered the extra 20 hours of class time and Chieco said they have seen an increase in student scores. In 2011 74 percent of all tests taken at Hammonton High School were scored 3 or higher according to the New Jersey School Report Card data for the school. Some students take multiple tests.

The test is scored from 1 to 5 and students must earn at least a 3 to have it considered for college credit. But some colleges will only accept a 4 or 5, so the goal is to get the highest score possible.

Nationally 18 percent of all 2011 graduates got a score of 3 or higher on at least one test. In New Jersey 20 percent of 2011 graduates scored a 3 or higher on at least one test during high school, ranking it 12th in the nation according to College Board data.

Students in O’Malley’s class said they don’t mind coming in the summer or on Saturdays because it does help them. Some are taking more than one summer course.

“It helps us get through more material,” said Vincent Calderone, 17, of Hammonton.

“And we’re getting good scores,” said Haley Wendt, 17 also of Hammonton.

Josh Grabert, 17, of Waterford Township, is taking three AP classes and working as a lifeguard. He said he has to leave early to get to his job, and some nights when an assignment is due he doesn’t get a lot of sleep, but it’s worth the time to come.

“You get used to the format and what’s expected in each class,” he said. “There is no prep time in September.”

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