College & Workforce Readiness

Numbers of AP Test-Takers Continue to Rise

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — February 28, 2017 5 min read
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The number of high school students taking Advanced Placement exams continued to grow last year, and more of the test-takers were from low-income families, according to the College Board’s latest annual report on the program.

In the high school graduating class of 2016, 1.1 million students took at least one Advanced Placement test at some point in their high school careers, more than 25,000 more than last year. And more than 20 percent of that graduating class earned a score of 3 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5 on at least one AP exam—thus opening up the possibility for them to receive college credit for their work in high school, according to the College Board, the New York City-based organization that administers the testing program.

The College Board’s statistics show that certain demographic groups, such as African-American students, are still underrepresented among all test-takers. But the growth last year in the number of test-takers from low-income households continues a long-term trend for the program: While in 2003 just over 94,000 students from low-income families took an AP exam, in the class of 2016, more than 554,500 test-takers were categorized as such.

Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who runs the AP program, said in a media conference call that the average score on all AP exams has held fairly steady and was actually higher in 2016 than in some years when far fewer students took the test.

David Coleman, the president and CEO of the College Board, said the program’s success in increasing the number of students who take the tests while maintaining rigor bucks conventional wisdom.

“Whatever people say in public or in private, most believe if you increase access in a big way, you’re likely to compromise on quality,” he said.

Will Numbers Drop?

But the news of the program’s continued growth was tinged this year with concern about the possible effects of a change in federal funding for Advanced Placement. A federal grant program that had subsidized AP tests for low-income students was replaced in the Every Student Succeeds Act by a block-grant program that could be used to subsidize tests, among other purposes—but the funds in that grant program don’t have to be used to subsidize the tests and aren’t available until the 2017-18 school year.

Coleman said the College Board is concerned the change will lead to a drop in test-taking among low-income students.

Charting AP Test Growth

The number of students from low-income households who take Advanced Placement exams has been rising steadily. The growth has been helped in part by federal subsidies that states and districts have used to offset the costs of the tests to students. Those funds are now part of a broader block grant, but they aren’t available until the 2017-18 school year.


Source: College Board

This year, however, the program’s steady scores and growing numbers of test-takers were seen as a positive indicator of educational progress.

Nat Malkus, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said it is “hard to overstate” the difficulty of expanding the tests’ access to underserved students on a national scale while also maintaining their rigor.

Malkus wrote a report last year that used external data to examine the academic qualifications of AP students. He found that the pool of students taking AP exams remained academically strong even as the program grew to include a wider range of students.

“The fact that more than 1 in 5 public school graduates passed an AP exam in 2016 pushes back against the ‘public schools are failing’ narrative,” he said.

States’ Performance

Nationwide, 21.9 percent of the 3.1 million students who graduated from high school in 2016 earned a 3 or higher on at least one Advanced Placement exam, the College Board reports.

Among individual states, Massachusetts led the way, with 31 percent of all public school students graduating from high school scoring a 3 or better. Variation in states’ participation and performance on the exams may be influenced by some state policy factors. For instance, some states have passed laws that require state colleges and universities to offer credit to students who have passed their AP exam—an incentive for students taking an AP course to sit for the exam.

Susan F. Lusi, the president of Mass Insight Education, a nonprofit consulting firm, said that Bay State students’ high scores may be evidence of the state’s overall investments in education. But the state has also been home to a nearly decade-long effort to expand access to AP among underserved students. Mass Insight Education runs a program that has offered support for AP students and teachers in nearly one-third of the state’s high schools. The program targeted schools with more low-income students and schools that hadn’t previously offered AP.

Still, Lusi said, “there is work to do” to make AP opportunities more equitable for all students. Expanding AP access is “crucially important,” she said, especially as the number of low-income students in public schools and the diversity of those students increase, and as gaps in earnings and opportunities between college graduates and those with a high school diploma widen.

Like Coleman, Lusi is concerned about the impact of the loss of the federal subsidy on test-taking among low-income students: “Those exams are not affordable to low-income families.” In many states, exam fees are expected to rise from $5 or $15 to $53.

The College Board changed its reporting procedures on race and ethnicity for the 2015-16 schoolyear and cautioned against making direct comparisons to previous years. But its data show that just 6.4 percent of tests were taken by black students in 2016, for instance, while closer to 16 percent of public school students are black. The mean scores of different groups also varied: Black students’ mean test score was 2.03 on the 5-point scale, while Asian students’ mean score was the highest, at 3.25.

At the press conference, Coleman and Packer also shared information about the first year of AP Computer Science Principles—the largest launch of a course in the College Board’s history and part of an effort to expand access to and interest in computer science for girls and students of color. More than 2,500 schools are offering the program this year.

Data collected by the College Board during the 2015-16 pilot phase of Computer Science Principles show that:

  • African-American participation was 16 percent for the course, compared with 4 percent for Computer Science A, which was the only computer science course the program offered before last year. Computer Science A is an intensive Java-programming course that tends to attract students with prior knowledge of the subject.
  • Hispanic student participation was 18 percent in the new course, compared with 9 percent in Computer Science A.
  • Girls’ participation was 28 percent in the new course, compared with 22 percent in Computer Science A.
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A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as More Students Take AP Tests—and More Are Low-Income


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