College & Workforce Readiness

Advanced Placement Participation Grows

By Christina A. Samuels — February 01, 2005 4 min read
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The proportion of high school students demonstrating mastery of Advanced Placement courses has increased since 2000, as has the proportion of students taking such courses, according to a report on the college-level program released last week.

“Advanced Placement Report to the Nation 2005" is available online from the College Board. ()

The College Board, the New York City-based organization that administers the program, said 13.2 percent of the students in the class of 2004 demonstrated college-level mastery of an AP course in high school, defined as scoring a 3 or higher on the AP test’s 5-point scale.

For the class of 2000, 10.2 percent of students scored 3 or higher. Many colleges offer academic credit for scores of 3 or higher, although some require a score of 4 or 5 to receive such credit.

In the same four-year period, the number of public high school students taking AP tests increased from 405,475 to 558,993 nationwide, said the College Board’s first “Advanced Placement Report to the Nation.”

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Trevor Packer, the executive director of the AP program, said that the nation’s schools are performing well by both enrolling more students in Advanced Placement courses and getting more of those students to pass the test.

“They’ve actually done double-duty,” he said.

But with the statistics come some concerns, he said. There is a gap between the proportion of black and American Indian students who take AP tests and their overall enrollment in the country’s high schools. Black students made up about 13.2 percent of the high school population in 2004, but only 6 percent of AP test-takers. American Indian students represented 1.1 percent of the high school population in 2004 and 0.5 percent of AP test-takers.

Meanwhile, Latino students made up 12.8 percent of the 2004 high school population but 13.1 percent of them took an AP test. And 10.6 percent of students of Asian background took an AP test, although they make up 5.1 percent of U.S. high school students. White students make up 67.5 percent of the student population and were 64.5 percent of the test-takers, according to the College Board report.

“We can’t rest until the demographics of the AP classrooms are matching the demographics of the nation’s classrooms,” Mr. Packer said.

The report shows how far the Advanced Placement program has come over its 50-year history. When it was created in 1955, the program was intended as an option for select high school students who were bored with regular classes. About 1,200 students took AP tests when they were first available. By 2004, more than 1.1 million public and private school students took the tests worldwide.

High School Push

The 14,144 U.S. schools that participate in the AP program offer, on average, seven different courses.

The growth of the AP program comes at the same time that President Bush’s administration and others are seeking to make high school more rigorous.

“This new report provides further proof that our children respond when we challenge them academically,” U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a statement about the report last week.

The College Board has sought to make it easier for schools to figure out which students might benefit from advanced coursework. Through a Web-accessed report for principals called AP Potential, students who perform well on certain questions in the PSAT, the practice college-entrance exam, are identified as possible candidates for Advanced Placement courses.

Equity Concerns

Milagros Fornell, the principal of 4,300-student Felix Varela Senior High School in Miami, said she uses AP Potential to steer her students into rigorous courses. College Board statistics show that the school had the highest number of Latinos scoring three or above on the English Literature and Language test. About 81 percent of the students at the school are Hispanic, she said.

“A lot of kids were trying to take the easy route,” Ms. Fornell said, but the AP Potential reports make it easier to persuade the reluctant to enroll in AP courses.

Despite the growth in popularity of the AP program, it does have some critics.

A recent study from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that participating in AP courses alone is not a good predictor of college success. Students must also take the AP tests and score well on them before college performance is improved, the study found. (“Study: AP Classes Alone Don’t Aid College Work,” Jan. 5, 2005.)

“Right now, many high schools are giving extra grade points just for taking AP, and that does not appear to be warranted based on students’ subsequent performance in college,” said Saul Geiser, one of the study’s authors.

Some private schools have also decided to stop offering AP classes, suggesting that they are too broad for students to gain a good conceptual background in a subject.

Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, said the program undergoes continual revision to ensure it aligns with the expectations of colleges. There are only a few schools that have dropped the AP program, he said.

“That may be driven by a wonderful faculty member who would rather be teaching a different course,” said Mr. Caperton, a former governor of West Virginia.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Advanced Placement Participation Grows

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