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Annual U.S. Data Report Probes AP Trends

By Debra Viadero — May 31, 2007 5 min read

The numbers of black and Hispanic students in public and private high schools who are taking Advanced Placement exams soared from 1997 to 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s latest annual compendium of education statistics.

The report, released today, documents a 213 percent jump over the nine years of the study in the number of Hispanic students taking the college-level Advanced Placement, or AP tests, and a 177 percent increase over the same period for African-American students.

Those increases were the sharpest amid a nationwide surge in recent years in the numbers of students from all racial and ethnic groups who take rigorous courses in high school. Across the board, the number of students taking the AP tests more than doubled over the same period, growing from 567,000 in 1997 to 1.2 million two years ago.

Contrary to some expectations, though, the influx of test-takers led to only minor declines in AP-test scores. According to the federal data, the proportion of students who earned a 3 or better on the college-level exams fell from 65 percent to 59 percent over the nine-year study period. Most colleges award students credit for their high school AP courses for exam scores of 3 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5.

“The magnitude of the decline is very small when you look at the magnitude of the enrollment increase,” said Michael G. Planty, a research scientist for the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversaw the study for the department. “A lot of critics have said the AP courses have been watered down, but this is a national exam and the scores have held up.”

Part of Broader Study

The data on AP test-taking was part of a special analysis included in the Education Department’s 2007 “Condition of Education” report, a congressionally mandated synthesis of statistics on everything from private school enrollment to 10th graders’ weekly homework load.

Advances in Exams

“The Condition of Education 2007” breaks down data on students taking Advanced Placement course exams.

39condition c1s

1 Total includes other race/ethnicity categories not separately shown.
Note: Data reported are for all students who completed an AP exam.
SOURCE: The College Board

In recent years, department statisticians have documented increases in the numbers of high school students taking on bigger academic courseloads, as well as growth in the numbers of students in advanced academic courses such as those offered by the AP and International Baccalaureate programs.

It’s been more difficult to tell, though, whether the increases were due to changes in the way schools labeled their courses, or some other variations in local school practices. The questions remain in part because statistics show little growth in recent decades in the percentages of U.S. students scoring at the highest levels on national and international tests.

The federal analysts looked to the AP tests to shed some light on the issue because those exams, which are developed by the New York City-based College Board, are administered nationwide and recalibrated annually to maintain their level of difficulty.

But National Center for Education Statistics Commissioner Mark Schneider said at a news conference today that future analyses by his agency would further probe underneath course labels to determine whether the content of all those more challenging courses had changed as well. “To just talk about the titles of those courses and give a brief description is not sufficient,” he said.

Trevor Packer, the executive director of the College Board’s Advanced Placement program, noted, though, that there are drawbacks to the AP exam-taking trends.

“The fact that scores haven’t dropped that much speaks to the success of American educators at expanding access while maintaining quality,” he said. “The dark underbelly to that success is that we’ve seen significant cases where schools have rushed to put in AP courses and the quality has not been there, and there have been entire schools or districts where almost no students are scoring 3 or higher.”

Also, most of the overall decrease in AP-test scores came among black and Hispanic students. Scores for white students remained stable from 1997 to 2005.

The percentage increases also mask the fact that few black and Hispanic students were taking AP exams to begin with in the mid-1990s. Nearly a decade later, those groups continue to lag far behind their white and Asian-American counterparts.

The department’s analysis showed that the number of black students sitting for AP exams increased 177 percent—from 24,469 in 1997 to 67,702 in 2005—during a period when black enrollment overall in grades 9-12 increased by just 5 percent.

Among Hispanic students, the ranks of AP test-takers grew from 47,626 to 148,960, or 213 percent. Hispanic enrollment in the nation’s high schools grew by a much smaller amount, just 50 percent, according to Mr. Planty of the NCES.

In comparison, 762,548 white students took the exams in 2005, up from 371,606 in 1997—a 105 percent increase.

Data on Dropouts

The special analysis also examines the trajectory of students who eventually dropped out of high school in 11th or 12th grades. In keeping with other research on that topic, the analysis showed that the dropouts trailed their peers, in terms of the numbers of course credits earned, as early as 9th grade.

According to that analysis, which draws on a nationally representative sample of 10th graders in public and private schools in the spring of 2002, the 9th graders who eventually became dropouts had accrued an average of 5.1 credits during the 2000-01 school year. In comparison, the 9th graders who went on to graduate on time earned 6.6 credits that year. The gaps widened in 10th grade, with dropouts earning an average of 4.6 credits, compared with the average 6.7 credits earned by their on-track peers.

Other indicators in the 349- page report note that:

• At least at the high school level, the “narrowing” of the curricula that some critics predicted would result from the federal No Child Left Behind Act had yet to materialize by 2004. In both public and private high schools, 2004 high school graduates took more social studies, foreign language, and arts classes— as well as the core English, mathematics, and science classes on which the law focuses—during their high school years than did the graduates of 1982.

• Public school enrollment in prekindergarten to 12th grade is projected to set new records each year from 2007 to 2016, when an estimated 53.3 million children are expected to be in public schools.

• The number of children ages 5 to 17 who spoke a language other than English at home more than doubled between 1979 and 2005.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Condition of Education’ Finds Surge in Minorities’ AP Test-Taking

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