How is Plainwell High School using CLEP to prep students for success?


We spoke to Plainwell High School’s Principal Jeremy Wright to find out what makes the school’s College Level Examination Program (CLEP) use stand out.


College acceleration opportunities—including Advanced Placement (AP), Cambridge AICE, College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), dual enrollment, early college high schools and International Baccalaureate (IB)—can help high school students prepare for college-level work while they earn valuable college credit or work toward a postsecondary credential. However, these opportunities are still out of reach for many students.

ExcelinEd’s college acceleration policy playbooks share the specific steps states and schools can take to improve opportunities and outcomes for their students. Our first playbook identifies a series of nine non-negotiables states, colleges, universities and schools can use to strengthen their college acceleration programs to benefit all students—especially those who have been traditionally underserved. Our second playbook examines how five schools in five different states are putting these non-negotiables into practice.

In today’s post, we’ll take a closer look at one of those schools: Plainwell High School in Plainwell, Michigan.

About Plainwell High School

Plainwell High School (PHS) is located in a rural community about 12 miles outside Kalamazoo, Michigan. The student population of 800 is 92% White, 27% free- or reduced-price eligible and includes students who are unaccompanied minors supported by Bethany Christian Services.

College Acceleration at Plainwell High School

PHS offers Advanced Placement (AP), College Level Examination Program (CLEP) and dual credit, which it delivers through Kalamazoo Valley Community College. PHS’s CLEP program is offered through Modern States, which provides CLEP exams to students for free. CLEP is a credit-by-examination program by the College Board that allows students to demonstrate their mastery of introductory college-level material and earn college credit, and the school uses CLEP exams as final exams in several courses and allows students to earn college credit while they take the underlying course in high school.

PHS focuses on three non-negotiables to drive CLEP success:

  • Plurality of Student Options
  • Student Cost
  • Student Advisement

Plurality of Student Options

Non-Negotiable:School districts offer a plurality of opportunities in all high schools to ensure students can select opportunities that align with their chosen career pathways.

Students at PHS can choose from several college acceleration opportunities, including an articulated credit pathway for an EMT program through Kalamazoo Valley Community College. While the school also offers dual credit and AP, it is best known for its recent expansion of CLEP opportunities for students.

In 2018-19, the school initiated CLEP French exam opportunities for French-speaking unaccompanied minors that were placed in the school by Bethany Christian Services. But the school quickly recognized the value of this program extended beyond language credits. Roughly 100 students took a CLEP exam during the first year, with most of the exams being taken through a precalculus class. Now students have the option to take the CLEP exam as the final exam for this course, which is what most students choose to do. Principal Wright’s ultimate goal is to have the CLEP exam become the final exam option in several other courses, such as sociology, introduction to computers, marketing, economics and more. In the 2019-20 school year, roughly 90% of the school’s non-AP math classes use the CLEP exam as a final exam option.

However, what makes PHS’s CLEP opportunity interesting is Principal Wright’s decision to offer the CLEP exam opportunity to students who score a 2 on an AP exam. A score of 2 on an AP exam does not confer college credit, yet the school encourages these students to take the CLEP exam after the AP exam. Sometimes, these students score high enough on the CLEP exam to earn college credit. Essentially, students are getting two opportunities to earn the college credit.

Student Cost

Non-Negotiable: States ensure that opportunities are available for little or no cost to the student.

PHS makes the CLEP exam open to any student. In fact, the school has tested alumni too. And due to the partnership with Modern States, the CLEP exams are free. Meanwhile, Kalamazoo Valley Community College charges a $20 CLEP exam administration fee.

Student Advisement

Non-Negotiable:Schools notify students in all schools of available opportunities and use state indicators to identify low-income and traditionally underrepresented students with the potential to succeed in college acceleration opportunities. Schools notify students and their parents of the credit transferability for each college acceleration option before students enroll.

Principal Wright and his team pursue CLEP outreach with students and parents through the following activities:

While Principal Wright credits his team and their work for increasing CLEP interest, exam-taking and success, he also believes that news is spreading word of mouth and increasing interest in the school’s college acceleration opportunities.

Additional Strategy: School Culture

While the nine non-negotiables provide an important framework for quality in college acceleration opportunities, Principal Wright believes the school’s culture also plays an essential role. At PHS, students expect to take and succeed in college acceleration opportunities. Principal Wright noted, “our goal is to up the level of rigor.”

COVID-19 Impact

On March 13, 2020, Plainwell closed its doors and shifted to a remote instructional delivery model. PHS’s students were fortunate in that the school had wrapped up CLEP for the most part the week before the shutdown.

Looking Forward

While Principal Wright credits his school’s partnerships with Modern States and the College Board for its CLEP success, there’s still room for improvement. He has identified three concerns policymakers could address to improve student outcomes for students in Plainwell and across the state.

  1. School Bonuses: There is no inducement at the state level for schools to offer CLEP, so many schools and students may be missing out on this opportunity.
  2. Data Collection and Analysis: PHS and other schools have difficulty obtaining post-graduate data on students who take CLEP to help drive program best practices and showcase student success.
  3. Consistent Guidelines: There are inconsistent guidelines for acceptance of CLEP credit at state universities, and this inconsistency hinders student engagement in CLEP.

Solution Areas:

College & Career Pathways


College Acceleration

About the Author

Lowell Matthews, Jr., is the Director of College and Career Pathways for ExcelinEd.

Solution Areas:

College & Career Pathways