College & Workforce Readiness

Higher Rates of Students Passing AP Exams

By Catherine Gewertz — February 09, 2011 4 min read

The proportion of each high school graduating class that passes an Advanced Placement exam continues to grow, with nearly 17 percent of the class of 2010 passing at least one such exam, according to a College Board report released today.

New figures show that 16.9 percent of students in last spring’s graduating class scored a 3 or better on one or more AP exams by the time they graduated, up from 15.9 percent in 2009 and 10.8 percent in 2001. The exam is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 3 considered passing. The College Board’s research says that students who score 3 or higher are more likely to succeed in college courses.

Of the 3 million students in last year’s graduating class, 28.3 percent took an AP exam sometime in high school, up from 26.4 percent in 2009 and 16.8 percent in 2001.

Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who oversees the AP program, said in a conference call with reporters that the growth in participation is driven partly by a proliferation of state and district initiatives designed to encourage students to take more challenging courses.

As the popularity of Advanced Placement courses and exams grows, however, fewer tests get a passing grade, a continuing trend that College Board officials have said is to be expected because the testing pool includes more students who have not previously had access to good preparation. In the class of 2010, 56.1 percent of the exams taken received a passing grade, compared with 56.5 in 2009 and 60.8 percent in 2001. (“Growing Popularity of AP Exams Brings Trade-Offs,” Feb. 11, 2010.)

Far more “traditionally underserved” students—those from low-income homes or ethnic and racial minority groups—are participating in the AP program, College Board data show. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of African-American students who took an AP exam tripled. Participation by Latino students nearly tripled, and participation by low-income students nearly doubled between 2006, the first year the College Board reports data in that category, and 2010.

Uneven Passage Rates

But students from some ethnic and racial minority groups continue to be underrepresented among students who take and pass the tests, the data show.

While African-American students made up 14.6 percent of all graduating seniors in 2010, for instance, they were only 8.6 percent of AP test-takers and 3.9 percent of those who passed them. Latino students were not as severely underrepresented, making up 16.8 percent of the class, 16 percent of those taking the exams, and 14.6 percent of those passing.

Asian students were overrepresented; while they were 5.5 percent of the graduating seniors, they made up 10.2 percent of those taking AP exams and 11.7 percent of those passing them. White students presented a mixed picture of representation, making up 60.5 percent of the graduating class, 57.9 percent of the students taking AP exams, and 62.5 percent of those scoring 3 or higher.

The College Board’s equity index shows that most states have far to go before their traditionally underserved students are as successful in the AP program as the rest of their peers. The New York City-based College Board compares data to see whether the proportion of each disadvantaged student subgroup in each state’s graduating class approximates the proportion of those who pass an AP exam. By that measure, only two states—Hawaii and South Dakota—met the organization’s definition of equity for black students. Fourteen states met it for Latino students, including Florida, where Latino students made up 23 percent of the senior class, but 28 percent of those passing AP exams.

Mr. Packer said that the ethnic and racial gaps, particularly those between African-American students and others, are a “strong and enduring concern” at the organization. To better understand how schools and districts can help underserved students in the AP program, the College Board has completed an analysis of successful school district practices that it plans to release next month, Mr. Packer said.

He also noted that College Board research shows that students who enter an AP class with the same PSAT score succeed at similar rates, regardless of their racial or ethnic background. That indicates, he said, that success in AP rests not on what happens during an AP course but “in the years leading up to AP.”

A key concern for the College Board, he said, is the prevalence of low scores on its math and science exams. The latest data show, for example, that one-third of the exams in biology, chemistry, and environmental science earned a score of 1, the lowest possible. Mr. Packer attributed that trend to too many high schools “rushing” students into AP classes without the necessary preparation.

AP passage rates for the entire graduating class varied significantly by state. Maryland once again topped the list with the highest percentage of graduating seniors who passed at least one AP exam, with 26.4 percent, followed by New York with 24.6 percent and Virginia with 23.7 percent. Mississippi had the lowest, 4.4 percent, followed by Louisiana with 4.6 percent and North Dakota with 6.8 percent.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as Higher Rates of Students Passing AP Exams


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