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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Put the Brakes on AP

By Patrick Mattimore — March 04, 2008 3 min read
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For the fourth year in a row, the College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement program and exams, has reported that higher percentages of students succeeded on AP exams last year than in the preceding year. (“AP Trends: Tests Soar, Scores Slip,” Feb. 20, 2008.)

The Advanced Placement program is a series of 37 college-level courses students take in high school, for which they may receive college credit. The nationally administered AP exam is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 3 being considered a passing score. Some colleges will grant students credit for an exam grade of 3, but, increasingly, more-selective universities require a 4 or 5.

As a recently retired Advanced Placement teacher, I find it gratifying to see the extensive coverage of this rapidly expanding, beneficial high school program. But by reporting that “a higher percentage of students in public high schools are taking and passing Advanced Placement exams,” newspapers such as The New York Times misrepresent the reality.

Going back to at least 2000, the percentage of students passing AP exams, based on the numbers of students taking the exams, has declined. In 2005, the College Board began reporting passing percentages based on the total class of graduating seniors in each state, whether they had taken an AP exam or not.

We must provide the pre-AP infrastructure in our middle schools to ensure that students are prepared to meet the challenges of the program.

The Times reported that New York state once again had the highest percentage of students passing an AP exam in 2007. New York, however, has relatively high numbers of students taking AP exams, so its percentages look fine when measured against graduating seniors. When its passing percentage on the 2007 AP exam is evaluated in terms of test-takers alone, however, New York had more than 6 percent fewer students pass the exam than smaller neighboring states like Connecticut and Massachusetts. Nationally, the percentage of students passing an AP exam in 2007 (based on those who took an exam) declined from 2006 by more than 1 percentage point. California’s passing percentage dropped almost 2 percentage points, from approximately 67 percent in 2006 to just over 65 percent in 2007.

The problem with reporting passing percentages based on graduating seniors is that it encourages states to add more and more AP courses (and therefore more exams), whether students are adequately prepared or not.

The numbers for minority non-Asian students are particularly discouraging. As Education Week reported in its review of the data: “The percentage of passing exams taken by Hispanic students slipped by 5.5 percentage points over the past four years, to 43 percent in 2007. The percentages of passing scores among the group the College Board refers to as black or African-American slipped by nearly 4 points, to just 25 percent.”

According to Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who oversees the AP program, the numbers for Hispanic students are skewed upward because of the availability of an Advanced Placement Spanish-language exam. Without that test, Packer said, “the percentage of Hispanic students sitting in an AP class and earning a score of 3 or better drops to 7.5 percent.”

The Advanced Placement program is growing at a rate of approximately 10 percent a year. It was originally developed in the early 1950s to give elite high school students an opportunity to take a couple of college courses. Packer has been forthright about the program’s growing pains, telling this newspaper last year that there is a “dark underbelly” to AP expansion because, as he puts it, “there have been entire schools or districts where almost no students are scoring 3 or higher.”

The College Board would like to continue the expansion of the AP program, and suggests that equity demands all students have access to the most advanced instruction high schools can provide. The backstory of AP expansion, however, is not that it is a means of benefiting minorities, but that it has become an out-of-control shootout for top students vying for spots at selective colleges.

Before we invest more dollars in expanding the Advanced Placement program, we must provide the pre-AP infrastructure in our middle schools to ensure that students are prepared to meet the challenges of the program. Otherwise, we can expect that our AP failure rates will continue to climb.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Put the Brakes on AP

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