Student Performance on AP Exams Improves

By Caralee J. Adams — February 20, 2013 5 min read
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Nearly one in five public high school graduates in the class of 2012 passed an Advanced Placement exam, reflecting a steady increase in performance over the past decade, new data released today by the College Board show.

Last year, 19.5 percent of graduates scored a 3 or higher, which is considered a passing grade on a scale of 1 to 5. That is up from 18.1 percent who passed in 2011 and 11.6 percent among the class of 2002.

The AP program is expanding, as well. There were 954,070 public school students who took at least one AP exam last year (32.4 percent of 2012 graduates), compared with 904,794 (30.2 percent) the year before and 471,404 (18 percent) in 2002, according to the “9th Annual AP Report to the Nation.”

“We are excited for educators and the students who achieved these improvements in performance,” said Trevor Packer, senior vice president of AP and college readiness at the College Board, the New York City-based nonprofit that sponsors the exams. “It is part of the overall set of improvements in American high school education. We are seeing a series of trends that are positive—more students in high school taking rigorous courses, earning scores of 3 or better, higher college graduation rates— so some good things are happening.”

Among those students who took an AP exam, 60.1 percent received a score of 3 or more, compared with the class of 2011 when 59.8 percent passed. The percentage of students who scored a 5 was the highest in a decade (14.2 percent), Packer added.

In a press call today, Packer offered a number of possible explanations for the increase in performance. As higher education has become more competitive and the of value AP scores has increased in the application process, more students may be rising to the challenge to not only enroll in AP but also take the exam, he said. Also, College Board efforts to audit and redesign AP has improved the quality of course instruction that may have led to better scores, Packer added.

Still, many more students could succeed on an AP course but fail to sign up, the report notes. More than 300,000 students scored well enough on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test to have a 60 percent or greater chance of getting at least a score of 3 on an AP exam but did not take the test. Some schools don’t offer AP and, in other cases, students aren’t pushed to enroll.

Minority Students

Minority students are much less likely to take the AP exam than white or Asian students. Among students with a high potential to succeed on AP math, just three in 10 Latino or African-American students took such a course, while four in 10 white students and six in 10 Asian students did.

“With expansion, participation gaps still remain, so clearly there is a within-school issue that still needs to be resolved,” says Christina Theokas, director of research for Education Trust, based in Washington. School culture often sends messages to students repeatedly that they aren’t “AP material,” so they don’t take the prerequisite courses and don’t know about the benefits of the program, she says. Teachers and counselors can facilitate enrolling more diverse students into the program with encouragement and with more support, such as tutoring, Theokas adds.

When it comes to performance on the AP exams, there are also significant performance gaps by racial group. Of the successful 2012 test-takers, nearly 62 percent were white, while 16 percent were Latinos and 4.4 percent were African-American, about the same as 2011. More states reported improvements in closing the AP equity gap among Latino than African-American students.

Latinos have had more success, in part, says Theokas, since many students find an entry point into the program with AP Spanish, while African-Americans don’t have that one class to open the door.

College Board’s Packer says the racial gap for black students is a concern. He suggests that state education policy can help drive progress to close achievement gaps, as evidenced in improvements in Florida and Texas.

What states are leading the nation in AP success? Maryland tops the list with 29.6 percent of its students in the Class of 2012 scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam, followed by New York (28 percent), Massachusetts (27.9 percent), Florida (27.3 percent) and Virginia (27.2 percent). There were 30 states that both improved AP participation last year and closed the performance gap among African-American students.

Among the strategies that the College Board suggests in promoting equity in AP is for districts to work with middle and high school counselors, reach out to parents with information about programs, provide targeted mentoring, and host summer bridge program, according to the new report.

Packer says there is promise in districts where teachers are rewarded for students who do well on AP tests, such as in the Glendale Union High School District in Arizona, recognized as an AP District of the Year in the report.

Subsidizing the Cost

It costs $89 for students to take an AP exam. Last year, the College Board provided a $28 fee reduction for more than 439,000 low-income graduates to take the exam—more than double the number covered in 2008 with the test subsidy.

One of the big selling points of AP is that doing well in AP can save students time and money in college by better preparing them and allowing them to get college credit for their work. Earlier this year, when Dartmouth College announced it will not accept high school AP credit beginning in fall 2014, the College Board was quick to defend the rigor of its AP program. In this year’s report, the organization notes 5,400 college faculty members are engaged in designing AP courses, and large-scale research supports the use of AP for credit and placement at a range of institutions, including highly selective schools.

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Arlington, Va., says there was a time when AP courses were considered a path to earning credit in college—and that is still a part of the program—but now it is seen more as a college-preparatory curriculum. Colleges are adopting more nuanced policies, requiring a certain level of achievement for college credit. Still, colleges recognize that students who take AP courses in high school will likely do well in corresponding courses in college, he said.

“It’s very important for counselors to know about any curriculum that is college preparatory and be prepared to explain to parents and students the significance of it in the college transition,” says Hawkins.

About 81 percent of students who take an AP class end up taking the exam, says Packer. Some schools (38 percent) require the exam to be part of enrolling in the course; the district then picks up the fees. Because there is a cost involved, the College Board has not required all students who take an AP class to take the exam, added Packer.

Cost can be a barrier, but Theokas of the Education Trust says much progress has been made on that front and the effort now is needed to make students aware of the financial subsidy for those who need need it.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.