AP Trends: Tests Soar, Scores Slip

By Scott J. Cech — February 13, 2008 6 min read
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While more American public school students are taking Advanced Placement tests, the proportion of tests receiving what is deemed a passing score has dipped, and the mean score is down for the fourth year in a row, an Education Week analysis of newly released data from the College Board shows.

Data released here this week by the New York City-based nonprofit organization that owns the AP brand shows that a greater-than-ever proportion of students overall—more than 15 percent of the public high school class of 2007—scored at least one 3 on an AP test. The tests are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, the highest score.

Yet, as the number of AP exams taken in U.S. public schools has ballooned by almost 25 percent over the four years that the College Board has released its “AP Report to the Nation,” the percentage of exams that received at least a 3—the minimum score that the College Board considers predictive of success in college—has slipped from about 60 percent to 57 percent.

The mean score on the nearly 2 million AP exams taken by students in last year’s U.S. public graduating class was 2.83, down from 2.9 in 2004.

“That happens,” said Jennifer Topiel, a spokeswoman for the College Board. “Any psychometrician can tell you that as participation grows, scores go down.”

Still, Ms. Topiel said the score declines are a major concern for the organization, as are widening score gaps between some racial and ethnic groups, “particularly those among underrepresented students who are not being prepared and not having the same resources.”

While the College Board sees the increasing number of test-takers as a positive phenomenon, she added, “we feel very strongly that students should not be placed into AP classes without better preparation.”

More Ones, Twos

Referring to scores on AP exams, Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who oversees the AP program, said: “We’re seeing more twos than ever before. We’re seeing more ones than ever before.”

Asked whether at some point the College Board would determine that broadened access to the program wasn’t worth the deteriorating scores, Mr. Packer said, “If I were to see two years of statistically significant declines [in any given subject], I’d start to get nervous.”

AP Passing Rates

The percentage of Advanced Placement exams taken at U.S. public schools in all subjects that registered scores of 3, 4, or 5 out of 5 has dipped over the past four years, both for the nation as a whole and for all racial and ethnic categories, except among Asian-Americans.

* Percentage-point difference in passing rates from 2004 to 2007


SOURCE: The College Board

But right now, he said, “we do not have any evidence that we need to increase restrictions on schools” that want to offer AP courses.

Daria L. Hall, the assistant director for K-12 policy development for the Washington-based Education Trust, a nonprofit group that promotes high academic standards for disadvantaged students, said high scores and wide access need not be mutually exclusive.

“These findings shouldn’t be misinterpreted as an unavoidable trade-off between greater and more equitable access to high-level courses and raising achievement—that by letting more students into them, we inevitably lower their quality,” Ms. Hall wrote in an e-mail.

“To change these patterns,” she wrote, “we need to get serious about ensuring that college-prep coursework really provides students with what they need to be successful. Just slapping a new title on the same old courses won’t boost achievement—it’ll only give students a false sense of promise that they will be college-ready.”

Mean AP Scores

The mean grade earned on AP exams taken at U.S. public schools has declined in the past four years for students in all racial and ethnic categories, except for those in the Asian category.


SOURCE: The College Board

Terry B. Grier, the superintendent of the 71,000-student Guilford County school district in Greensboro, N.C., and a panelist invited here by the College Board to talk about the benefits of AP exams, said that while he wants all his students to score as high as possible, he’s willing to live with a dip in AP scores overall if it means more students are taking the exams.

“I’d rather a student take an AP test and score a 2 than take a quote ‘honors course’ and get an A in it,” Mr. Grier said at the Feb. 13 release of the AP report. “That student is going to be better prepared at the college level.”

“Even if they don’t score [well on the AP exam], they will be more successful in college than those who haven’t taken the AP exam at all,” echoed Jean C. Robinson, a professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington whom the College Board also invited to speak.

Although local anecdotal evidence may support that contention, Mr. Packer said, “there’s no research to support that.”

Gaps in Scores

The percentage of Advanced Placement exams in all subjects that received a score of at least 3 has dipped over the past four years, the Education Week analysis shows, both for the nation overall and for most racial and ethnic categories. Asians, Asian-Americans, or Pacific Islanders are the exception.

At the same time, the mean grade earned on AP exams has declined for students in all racial and ethnic categories, except for those in the “Asian, Asian-American, or Pacific Islander” category.

In releasing the report, College Board officials emphasized the rise in the number of students who graduate from high school having scored a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam. The program offers exams in 37 subject areas; students who pass them can qualify for college credit.

The College Board reported that more than 15 percent of the entire public high school class of 2007 had earned at least one AP exam grade of 3 or higher, compared with fewer than 12 percent in 2002, a change that organization characterized as “significant and consistent improvement.”

Still, marked and widening score gaps exist between different racial and ethnic groups, especially those that have been historically underrepresented in pools of AP exam-takers.

The group classified by the College Board as Asian, Asian-American, or Pacific Islander, which has consistently participated in AP exams at a disproportionately high rate relative to that group’s percentage of overall graduating classes, was the only group to post a mean-score improvement.

Scores in that category inched up from 3.04 to 3.05 over the past four years, the Education Week analysis shows. That group also slightly increased its percentage of passing AP scores over the four-year span, with the proportion of tests that received at least a 3 edging up from 63.3 percent in 2004 to 63.4 percent in 2007.

By contrast, the percentage of passing exams taken by Hispanic students slipped by 5.5 percentage points over the past four years, to 43 percent in 2007. The percentages of passing scores among the group the College Board refers to as black or African-American slipped by nearly 4 points, to just 25 percent.

The mean scores of exams taken by both black and Hispanic students, two groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in AP courses, also dropped marginally from their 2004 levels.

The numbers for Hispanic students would be even lower, Mr. Packer of the College Board said, were it not for the Spanish-language exam.

“The AP Spanish-language exam presents an entrée to the AP program” for many Hispanic students, he noted. Without that class, he said, “the percentage of Hispanic students sitting in an AP class and earning a score of 3 or better drops to 7.5 percent.”

‘Lack of Equity’

Among white students, by far the largest single group, the percentage of exams earning at least a 3 dipped from 63.6 percent in 2004 to 62 percent in 2007. The gap in the passing-grade percentage between black and white students in the past four years widened from roughly 34 percentage points to nearly 37 points.

“While more African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are taking AP exams in greater numbers,” said Mr. Packer, there remains “a true and startling lack of equity.”

The College Board also released some information about the results from its recent nationwide audit of AP courses that it had declined to make available in November: Of the 146,671 course syllabuses submitted by teachers of AP classes, 93 percent were eventually approved.

However, more than 2,000 of the 16,464 secondary schools worldwide that offered at least one AP course during the 2006-07 school year are no longer offering the program this year. (“Number of Schools Offering AP Falls After First Audit of Courses,” Nov. 14, 2007.)

The audit was launched amid concerns about whether the program’s rapid growth had diluted its quality.

Research Librarian Rachael Holovach contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week


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