College & Workforce Readiness

Higher Proportion of Seniors Mastering AP

By Sean Cavanagh — February 14, 2006 3 min read
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The percentage of high school seniors passing an Advanced Placement test has increased in every state over the past five years, says a report released as the White House pushes a proposal to encourage even more students to take those exams.

Overall, the proportion of public school students nationwide who achieved a passing mark of 3 or better on at least one AP exam before graduating rose from 10 percent to 14 percent in 2005, according to the study unveiled last week by the College Board, the program’s sponsor.

Officials at the College Board, a nonprofit located in New York City, were encouraged by the gains, noting that the percentages rose even as the overall pool of seniors increased. The number of U.S. high school graduates in 2005 was about 2.6 million, representing a rise of about 100,000 during the past five years, according to the organization, which is perhaps best known for sponsoring the SAT test.

Test-Taking Population

Race and ethnicity play a role in whether students take Advanced Placement tests.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: College Board

“It is our hope that the AP can serve as an anchor for achieving rigor in our schools and reducing the achievement gap,” College Board President Gaston Caperton said at an event held here to discuss the report.

Several states have taken steps to promote AP in recent years, such as helping students cover the $82 cost per exam and training high school instructors to teach the courses, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based policy group.

The AP program allows students to receive college credit for earning a passing score on any one of 35 different courses and exams covering 20 different subjects. Individual colleges and universities set their own policies for awarding credit, though the passing score is typically a 3, on a scale of 1 to 5. Many colleges, particularly selective ones, also judge high school applicants on the basis of whether they take AP classes.

Backed by Administration

The College Board released the data the week after the Bush administration unveiled a proposal to strengthen math and science education, in part by increasing students’ access to AP courses. Those efforts would include giving federal grants to states and districts to expand AP courses and train teachers to lead them.

“Advanced Placement Report to the Nation” is posted by the College Board.

The administration’s support for AP was made clear by the presence of Tom Luce, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education, at the College Board’s press briefing. Mr. Luce said the administration was especially keen on building AP programs in urban and rural schools that do not offer those courses today. He called the AP program “a key to college success.”

Participation in the Advanced Placement program continues to vary by students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds. While white and Latino students’ participation, for instance, roughly corresponds with their percentages of the overall U.S. student population of seniors, the involvement of African-American students lags well behind their share of enrollment.

College Predictor

A 2005 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that performance on AP exams correlates with students’ eventual performance in college, a point that College Board officials often emphasize. But that study also concluded that students who simply enrolled in AP classes, without taking the exams associated with the courses, did not reap similar benefits. (“Study: AP Classes Alone Don’t Aid College Work,” Jan. 5, 2005.)

Public school participation in AP tests varies widely by state. New York ranks first, with 23 percent of students taking at least one such exam, and Louisiana last, at 2.5 percent.

Last week, College Board officials also cited a 2001 Boston College study showing that American students fared much better on a prominent international test of student academic skill, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, after taking AP physics and calculus, even if they scored only a 1 or a 2 on the tests for those courses.

Trevor Packer, the executive director of the College Board’s AP program, said 74 percent of AP participants across all courses are now taking the tests, a proportion that has been increasing by about 3 percent a year. Test results were one way the College Board judged how well AP courses were being taught, Mr. Packer said.“If students were taking the course and not taking the exam, we’d be worried about quality,” he said.

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