7 Takeaways From the 2019 Advanced Placement Results

By Catherine Gewertz — February 06, 2020 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


Nearly 60 percent of the high school graduates of 2019 who took Advanced Placement exams scored a 3 or higher, continuing trends of score improvements among students overall, according to results released Thursday by the College Board.

But the results also show small one-year declines in level-3 scores—the level that most often qualifies students to earn college credit—among students in three ethnic or racial groups: Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, American Indians and Alaska natives, and white students.

The College Board’s annual report on its AP program included more than just data about participation and scores. In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, its leaders discussed a number of AP-related projects, from how they’re diversifying their computer science courses to how they’re positioning themselves as a provider of “alternate assessments.” Let’s take a look at the highlights.

1. AP scores

In the call with reporters, the College Board focused tightly on the past decade’s gains, comparing the class of 2019 to the class of 2009. That focus showed mostly double-digit and triple-digit gains (with a notable exception for the American Indian/Alaska Native group, a big drop fueled in large part by the College Board’s 2016 move to align its racial classifications with those of the U.S. Department of Education).

Looking at just one-year changes, though, shows that in three racial or ethnic groups, the numbers of students scoring 3 or higher on an AP exam are flattening or declining. That’s a departure from last year’s report, which showed one-year gains across all racial and ethnic groups for scores of 3 or higher.

2. AP participation

New College Board data show that 1.25 million, or 38.9 percent, of 2019’s graduates took at least one AP exam. That’s up from 793,300 students, or 26 percent, a decade earlier.

College Board CEO David Coleman opened the call by pointing out that in the past decade, test performance and participation have risen together: 57 percent more students are taking at least one AP exam, and 60 percent more students are scoring 3 or higher. Often, when a testing pool expands to include less-well-prepared students, test scores drop. But “when we opened the doors to AP and far more students participated, we found far more talent than had been seen” before, Coleman said.

But again, looking just at changes from 2018 to 2019 shows participation declines in several racial or ethnic groups.

3. AP as career preparation and civic engagement tool

College Board officials are trying to change the public’s view of AP as exclusively a college-preparation tool. In the call with reporters, Stefanie Sanford, the company’s chief of global policy, portrayed the courses as an important kind of preparation for succeeding in today’s economy and being ready to help solve real-world problems.

An example she showcased: the College Board’s partnership with the National Constitution Center to design classroom instructional modules about the First Amendment. More than 5,000 students have used them in their government courses, she said, participating in live, video-based discussion with students in other states.

Sanford also noted the company’s work with WE Service to create service-learning projects for students. Since 2016, she said, students have done 2,000 projects this way: Students in an AP Physics class created a fuel cell to provide energy to places affected by natural disasters, while students in an AP Government and Politics course pressed their legislators for better prison conditions.

4. Diversifying AP computer science

Sanford described the College Board’s computer science courses as a way to “diversify the pipeline” of skilled workers in that field. She shared data showing big leaps in enrollment in its two courses, Computer Science A and Computer Science Principles, among traditionally underserved students.

5. College Board as provider of “alternate assessments”

Coleman pointed to several areas of work that he said reflect the College Board’s commitment to assess student learning in more complete, nuanced ways. “We are very worried about the narrowness of traditional assessment,” he said.

He pointed to AP Capstone, whose two project-based courses are graded not with tests but projects and essays; and AP Computer Science Principles, in which students design data and computer-programming projects. He also cast the civic-engagement projects developed with WE Service as an alternate form of assessment. All told, Coleman was arguing that the College Board is moving toward a broader concept of assessment.

6. Moving the policy needle

The College Board has never been shy about lobbying lawmakers for the policies it favors. In the call with reporters, their officials made clear that they’ll be pushing more districts and states to adopt those policies.

Trevor Packer, who heads AP programs for the College Board, praised the 31 states that had policies in 2019 requiring their public colleges and universities to accept “qualifying” AP scores. (That’s up from 14 states in 2014.) This is a still-evolving landscape; many students are still disappointed to find that only some of the colleges they want to attend will accept scores of 3 for credit; others accept only 4s or higher. In some state higher-ed systems, rules for what scores can earn credit vary from campus to campus.

The College Board will also keep pressing states to adopt policies that guarantee a wide range of AP courses are available in public high schools. Packer singled out Arkansas for praise, noting that it—along with New Hampshire, Masschusetts, New Jersey, and Maryland—is a state where at least 70 percent of the high schools offer four or more AP courses.

7. Did requiring earlier registration change anything?

In a much-criticized move, the College Board changed the deadline for AP exams to Nov. 15, starting last fall, instead of letting students wait until spring to decide whether they’d sit for exams. Critics called it a money-maker that would force students to pay for tests before they were certain they wanted to take them.

In the call with reporters, Packer said that early data show significant increases in registrations among minority groups, such as African Americans, Latinos, and Native American students. He didn’t address whether those registration increases translated to test-taking increases. But he said next year’s report would dive into those dynamics more deeply.

Image: Pablo by Buffer

An earlier version of this post misstated the percentage of AP test-takers who scored a 3 or higher.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.