College & Workforce Readiness

1 in 5 Public School Students in the Class of 2016 Passed an AP Exam

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — February 22, 2017 4 min read
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In the high school graduating class of 2016, 1.1 million students took at least one Advanced Placement test at some point in their high school career.

And more than 20 percent of all U.S. public high school graduates that year earned a score of 3 or above on a scale of 1 to 5—thus giving them the possibility of receiving college credit for their work in high school—on at least one AP exam, according to a report released Wednesday by the College Board.

The board, which runs the testing program, also reports that it has continued a long-term trend of administering AP tests to increasing numbers of low-income students: While in 2003 just over 94,000 students from low-income families took an AP exam, in the class of 2016, more than 554,500 test-takers were low-income.

Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who runs the AP program, said in a conference with reporters that the average score on all AP exams has held fairly steady over time, and was actually higher in 2016 than in some years when far fewer students took the test.

David Coleman, the president and CEO of the College Board, said the program’s success in increasing the number of students who take the tests while maintaining quality bucks conventional wisdom. “Whatever people say in public or in private, most believe if you increase access in a big way you’re likely to compromise on quality,” he said.

But the news of the program’s continued growth was tinged this year with concern about the possible effects of a change in federal funding for Advanced Placement. A federal grant program that had subsidized AP tests for low-income students was replaced in the Every Student Succeeds Act by a block grant program that could be used to subsidize tests, among other uses—but the funds in that grant program don’t have to be used to subsidize the tests, and aren’t available until the 2017-18 school year.

Coleman said the College Board is concerned the change will lead to a drop in test-taking among low-income students.

This year, however, the program’s steady scores and growing numbers of test-takers was seen as a positive indicator of educational progress. Nat Malkus, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said it is “hard to overstate” the difficulty of expanding access to underserved students at a national scale while also maintaining its rigor. Malkus authored a report last year that used external data to examine the academic qualifications of AP students. Malkus found that the pool of students taking AP exams didn’t seem to be “diluted” as it grew.

“The fact that more than 1 in 5 public school graduates passed an AP exam in 2016 pushes back against the ‘public schools are failing’ narrative,” he said.

Massachusetts Leads the Pack

Nationwide, some 21.9 percent of the 3.1 million students who graduated high school in 2016 earned a 3 or above on at least one Advanced Placement exam, the College Board reports.

Massachusetts led the way, with 31 percent of all students earning a 3 or above.

Variation in states’ participation and performance on the exams may be influenced by some state policy factors. For instance, some states have passed laws that require state colleges and universities to offer credit to students who have passed their AP exam—an incentive for students who have completed an AP course to take the exam.

Susan F. Lusi, the president of Mass Insight Education, a nonprofit consulting firm, said that the Bay State’s students’ high scores may be evidence of the state’s overall investments in education. But the state has also been home to a nearly decade-long effort to expand access to AP among underserved students: Mass Insight Education runs a program that has offered support for AP students and teachers in nearly a third of the state’s high schools. The program targeted schools with more low-income students and schools that hadn’t previously offered AP. (It also focused on encouraging more girls to take STEM-oriented classes.)

Still, she said, “there is work to do” to make AP opportunities more equitable for all students.

Lusi said that expanding AP access is “crucially important,” especially as the number of low-income students in public schools and the diversity of those students increases, and as gaps in earnings and opportunities between college graduates and those with a high school diploma grow. She said she is concerned about the impact of the loss of the federal subsidy on test-taking among low-income students: “Those exams are not affordable to low-income families.”

Certain demographic groups are still underrepresented among test-takers: Just 6.4 percent of tests in 2016 were taken by black students according to AP’s national report, for instance, while closer to 16 percent of public school students are black. The mean scores of different groups also varied: Black students’ mean test score was 2.03 on the five-point scale, while Asian students’ mean score was the highest, at 3.25 on the scale. The College Board changed its reporting procedures on race and ethnicity for the 2015-16 school year and cautioned against making direct comparisons to previous years.

At the media conference, Coleman and Packer also shared information about the first year of AP Computer Science Principles—the largest launch of a course in the College Board’s history, and part of an effort to expand access to and interest in computer science for girls and students of color. More than 2,500 schools are offering the program this year. My colleague Marva Hinton reported on the program’s 2015-16 pilot.

Chart source: College Board

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.