College & Workforce Readiness

3 Takeaways From the 2018 AP Results and a Heads Up: Register Early Next Year

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 06, 2019 6 min read
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About 1.24 million students—or nearly 40 percent of the class of 2018—took at least one AP exam in 2018, for a grand total of some 4.22 million tests in all. And about 23.5 percent of those students got a score of 3 or higher, which typically confers college credit, according to the tally released today by the College Board.

The annual data dump isn’t just a check-in on the venerable advanced-coursework program. It’s also where the AP highlights certain initiatives or announces new changes in approach, and this year is no exception. Let’s take a look at what’s new, and what we can learn from this year’s data.

1. The AP is shifting its test-registration date to Nov. 15 for all schools.

This is the major policy news. Until now, students enrolled in AP classes have had until the spring to decide whether to sit for the exams or not. But under the new policy, they’ll be asked to enroll in the exams much earlier in the school year. In effect, the College Board is slowly shifting towards a new norm, in which most students will be expected to sit the exams.

Too many students, struggling when they encounter something challenging in a class, simply end up counting themselves out of the test, the nonprofit said in a conference call with reporters.

It made the change based on the results of a study of a random sample of some 800 schools that were required to move the AP test-registration deadline from spring to fall in the 2018-19 school year. In those schools, rates of test registration increased dramatically, and did not seem to depress students’ interest in the courses. The change particularly benefited nonwhite students, young women taking STEM subjects, and disadvantaged students. So starting this upcoming school year, fall registration will be the policy for all.

The shift in registration dates will affect about 9,000 schools, College Board officials said; most of the rest of the approximately 18,000 schools that offer AP courses already require students to register in the fall. The exception is for the few courses like AP Macroeconomics, that are only a semester long—they’ll still have a spring test-registration date.

In addition, the college board will offer students, teachers, and parents access to new preparation resources online, like progress checks that teachers can assign to students, in addition to a bank of some 15,000 AP exam questions. (This sounds similar to the resources the College Board said it was developing with the Khan Academy a few years back.) Overall, the organization said it will put some $80 million into this initiative.

It’ll also help reduce overall test time because test packets can be prepared with students’ name and information filled out ahead of time, rather than on the test date.

There’s already been a little bit of pushback to the earlier-registration initiative, as detailed in this petition, some of whom argue that this is just a way for the organization to make more money on tests and fees. For example, the board will now assess a $40 fee for late test registration. (Formerly, that $40 fee was paid by students who had to take a make-up exam. Schools will be able to waive that now.)

One of the groups that’s promoted this petition, though, has made a business of prepping the test books with kids’ information—a superfluous practice under the new changes—so keep that in mind.

2. Participation by underrepresented students continues to improve, but this remains a big challenge.

Next, let’s dig into some trend data. AP participation has increased markedly among underserved students over the past year, in large part, it appears, to the increasing number of schools that instituted early test-registration deadlines.

There are some great gains among traditionally underserved kids:

But where do these gains stand in the grand scheme of things? For the full story, take a look at this data.

Here, we supplemented the College Board’s data with overall estimates of the size of the class of 2018. This allows for a better grasp of trends and disparities. (Be cautious, though, in interpreting these comparisons—the class of 2018 data comes from projections by a higher education organization, whereas the College Board uses the categories established by the U.S. Department of Education, which aren’t quite identical.)

For example, black and Native American students continue to be considerably underrepresented both in terms of taking the exams and scoring a 3 or more on them, relative to their numbers in the class of 2018. On the other hand, the trend for Hispanic/Latino students is heading in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the rapid exapansion of the courses has led to a lot of debate over whether the “AP for All” push risks watering down or weakening the classes. There’s some empirical evidence to suggest that’s not a widespread trend, but I continue to hear it anecdotally from teachers.

3. Participation in the new AP Computer Science Principles test continues to boom.

Mountains have already been written about this course, which received significant backing from the National Science Foundation and the Chan-Zuckerburg Initiative, among others. (See our article on last year’s AP results for more of this background). Suffice it to say that the number of exams taken for the new computer science course continues to boom, according to the nonprofit. Here’s a little graphic that shows the results nicely. The course has also helped boost the number of black, Latino, and women students taking computer science by triple-digit percentages.

The course, however, is more of a survey of computer science than a technical, skills-building course like Computer Science A, which focuses on a programming language. It’s a question worth asking whether students who do well in Principles go on to the more technical class. Otherwise, the College Board risks stratifying students, which was obviously not the intent behind this change.

4. AP is excited about its new ‘capstone’ courses.

It flew under the radar a bit, but a few years back AP debuted two new courses and exams: a Capstone Seminar and a Capstone Research course, which measure collaboration, critical thinking, and research skills in a series of projects. Students who complete these yearlong classes and several other AP classes, can also earn a diploma recognition when they graduate. Numbers are growing for these classes, too.

Ho-hum, you’re probably thinking, these aren’t huge numbers just yet. Well, no. But it’s important to note them, because of the light it sheds on the College Board’s competition. The International Baccalaureate program has long been linked to a diploma credential, for instance. And now there’s a feisty upstart from the Cambridge Assessment International Education—yes, it’s tied to THAT Cambridge—which also offers aligned courses, tests, and an internationally recognized diploma. It’s not hard to see the College Board wanting to compete in this part of the market, too.

This is also an important thing to underscore because of how it fits in the the broader trends in testing. Here at Curriculum Matters, we’ve noticed a lot of movement to better measure high school students’ knowledge and skills, like initiatives to develop “seals” for diplomas conveying that a student has done more than merely sit through enough credit hours. And there’s a wellspring of interest in performance assessment in general, including extended research projects and portfolios like these.

(If you’re thinking, “What the heck’s a performance assessment?,” we forgive you. In fact, Education Week special report on them goes live today. Hint, hint.)

Any questions for us on the results? Email me, or leave a comment. I’ll do my best to respond.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the methodology the College Board used to study an earlier test-registration date.

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