College & Workforce Readiness

Growing Popularity of AP Exams Brings Trade-Offs

By Erik W. Robelen — February 11, 2010 5 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 yesterday 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 8.2 percent of those who took an AP exam, and 3.7 percent of those who passed at least one of the tests during their high school careers.

Also, data supplied by College Board officials during a conference call yesterday with reporters suggests that as test participation overall has increased dramatically over time, the percentage of AP exams with a passing score has declined.

The data show that 56.5 percent of tests taken by the class of 2009 earned a score of 3 or higher, compared with 60.8 percent for the class of 2001.

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.

The organization this week rolled out its sixth annual “AP Report to the Nation.”

It finds that students from low-income families represented 18.9 percent of AP test-takers in the class of 2009, 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.

During the Feb. 10 conference call, College Board officials discussed the report, as well as additional historical data from the past decade.

Overall, the number of AP test-takers has doubled to nearly 800,000 when comparing the class of 2009 with the class of 2001, said Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who oversees the AP program. He emphasized that the number of exams receiving a 3 or higher has also nearly doubled, from about 653,000 to 1.3 million.

At the same time, he noted that the number of exams getting a score of just 1 or 2 has gone up as well, from about 421,000 for the class of 2001 to approximately 1 million for the 2009 graduating class.

“Any time educators take risks and open doors to a greater diversity of students, we expect that there will be an increase in students scoring 1 and 2,” he said. “The very good news is there is an even larger increase in the number of exams scoring 3, 4, or 5.”

In response to a later question about what rate of failure would be considered too high, Mr. Packer said: “As long as we’re seeing … a greater percentage of students succeed on the exam than not succeed on the exam, we believe ... that expansion should continue, that there are students out there who would continue to benefit from and succeed in these courses.

High Failure Rates?

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

The analysis found 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.

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 2004 to 2007, that as the number of AP exams taken grew by almost one-quarter nationwide, the percentage 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.)

The new College Board report provides some detailed data across racial and ethnic groups. While Hispanic students represent a percentage of the class of 2009—about 16 percent—that is fairly comparable to the African-American proportion, they showed much stronger results on the AP exams. Of the students who passed at least one exam, 14.3 percent were Hispanic, compared with 3.7 percent who were black. The report, however, cautions that one extenuating factor is that many Hispanic students passed only the AP Spanish Language exam.

The report says that “much work remains to increase access to and foster Latino student success in AP courses beyond Spanish Language.”

Students 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.

Maryland on Top, Again

Overall, the 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 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 includes 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 the 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 Growing Popularity of AP Exams Brings Trade-Offs

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