College & Workforce Readiness

Disadvantaged Students Continue AP Climb

February 10, 2010 4 min read
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Continuing a pattern from recent years, more students from low-income families are taking—and earning what is considered a passing score on—at least one Advanced Placement exam, a new analysis of results for the public high school graduating class of 2009 shows.

At the same time, significant gaps persist in preparation and access across “traditionally underserved students,” the analysis released today by the College Board suggests, especially for African-American students.

For instance, although black students represented 14.5 percent of the 2009 graduating class, they were just 3.7 percent of those who passed at least one AP test. That was a slight improvement from the class of 2008, in which African-Americans were 3.5 percent of the students who did so, and 3.3 percent the year before that.

See Also

For further analysis of the College Board report on AP exams, read “Growing Popularity of AP Exams Brings Trade-Offs.”

The results for Hispanic students, who represent a fairly comparable percentage of the class of 2009, about 16 percent, were far stronger than for African-Americans. Of those who passed at least one AP exam, 14.3 percent were Hispanic students. Those categorized as American Indians and Alaska Natives represented 1.2 percent of the 2009 graduating class, and 0.4 percent of those who passed one or more AP test.

The sixth annual “AP Report to the Nation” finds that 18.9 percent of the AP test-takers in the class of 2009 were low-income students, up from 17 percent for the class of 2008 and 13.7 percent for the class of 2004. Meanwhile, such students made up 14.7 percent of those in the class of 2009 who earned a score of at least 3 on one or more AP tests, compared with 13.4 percent for the class of 2008. The tests are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, the highest score.

The College Board, the New York City-based nonprofit organization that sponsors the AP program, considers a score of 3 the minimum that is predictive of success in college.

“Through the dedication of educators and others across the country, we are making progress toward the goal of having AP classes reflect the diversity of America’s students, but the disparity still exists,” Trevor Packer, the vice president of the College Board’s AP program, said in a press release. “We need to ensure that all students are provided with the kind of academic experiences that can prepare them for the rigors of AP and college.”

The annual College Board report comes as USA Today published its own recent analysis of AP results using a different methodology. The newspaper concluded that while the number of students taking AP exams hit a record high last year, the proportion who failed the exams is also rising.

High Failure Rates?

The USA Today analysis finds that more than two in five students, 41.5 percent, earned a score of 1 or 2, up from 36.5 percent in 1999. In the South, a U.S. Census-defined region that spans from Texas to Delaware, nearly half of all tests—48.4 percent—earned a 1 or 2, a failure rate up 7 percentage points from a decade prior and a statistically significant difference from the rest of the country.

College Board officials, the newspaper reported, said it’s misleading to lump all scores together, because some tests have vastly different historical pass rates. They also noted that enrollment growth in AP courses over time means the raw number of students earning passing scores is climbing.

The USA Today report echoes the findings of an Education Week analysis in 2008. It found, looking at test data for the four years from 2003 to 2007, that as the number of AP exams taken grew by almost one-quarter nationwide, the percentage of exams that received at least a score of 3 had slipped from about 60 percent to 57 percent. Education Week also saw declines across all racial and ethnic categories examined, except among Asian-Americans. (“AP Trends: Tests Soar, Scores Slip,” Feb. 20, 2008.)

Maryland on Top, Again

Overall, the new College Board report finds that with the class of 2009, more students than ever earned at least one passing score. Of the estimated 3 million students who graduated from U.S. public schools last year, 15.9 percent earned an AP score of at least 3 on one or more exams. That is up from 15.2 percent in 2008 and 12.7 percent in 2004.

The total number of public high school students from the graduating class of 2009 who took an AP exam was 798,629, up from 757,979 for the class of 2008. No data were provided for students from private schools.

The report also provides state-by-state analysis. It finds that Maryland, for the second consecutive year, led the nation with approximately one-quarter of its public school students from the class of 2009 passing at least one AP exam. New York, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Florida followed.

Virginia and Maryland were also among the seven states identified as showing the greatest expansion of their graduating class earning a passing score on at least one AP test.

Overall, the vast majority of states saw some increase in the percentage of graduates who passed at least one AP exam, compared with the class of 2008. However, five states—New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and Vermont—had slight declines, as did the District of Columbia.

The state with the lowest percentage of 2009 graduates who passed at least one exam was Mississippi, with 4 percent, followed by Louisiana, the District of Columbia, North Dakota, and Nebraska.

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Disadvantaged Students Continue AP Climb

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