More AP Success; Racial Gaps Remain

More students than ever are earning scores that can translate into college credit, but results are mixed for some groups.

February 11, 2019

Just under 750,000 high school students who graduated last year earned a score of 3 or above on at least one Advanced Placement test (with 3 translating into college credit at many institutions), a 5.4 percent increase, according to data released last week by the College Board.

The data suggest that even if some educators are questioning the value of the AP courses, and some high schools are planning to drop out of the program, it remains popular. Many high school students believe that scoring well on AP exams in multiple courses is a key part of getting into top colleges.

The College Board has pushed a variety of programs in recent years to try to make sure that the benefits of taking AP courses are available at high schools attended by low-income students, many of whom are black or Latino.

By some measures, the College Board can point to success in the most recent analysis of the program. The percentage of underrepresented students (which excludes most Asian American and white students) earning at least one 3 went up at a faster rate than that of white people. The rate for Asian Americans went up higher still.

At the same time, data released by the College Board show the continued "equity gaps" in the program.

  • American Indian/Alaska Native students represent 0.4 percent of exam takers and 0.2 percent of exam takers who earned a 3 or higher on at least one exam.
  • Asian students represent 10 percent of exam takers and 12.3 percent of exam takers who earned a 3 or higher on at least one exam.
  • Black students represent 8.8 percent of exam takers and 4.3 percent of exam takers who earned a 3 or higher on at least one exam.
  • Hispanic/Latino students represent 25.5 percent of exam takers and 23.6 percent of exam takers who earned a 3 or higher on at least one exam.
  • Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander students represent 0.2 percent of exam takers and 0.1 percent of exam takers who earned a 3 or higher on at least one exam.
  • White students represent 49.5 percent of exam takers and 54 percent of exam takers who earned a 3 or higher on at least one exam.

Still other data from the College Board (which includes findings from students at all grades who took AP exams this year) show just how wide the gaps are in participation and performance on AP exams.

The data show that in some areas, Asian Americans not only outperformed other groups, but made up a disproportionate share of test takers. For instance, the white population in the United States is more than 10 times the Asian American population. But the number of Asian Americans taking the advanced calculus exam was more than half that of the white students who did so. Not even 100 Native Americans took the computer science exam, and 2,256 black students did, while more than 19,000 Asian Americans did so.

Mean Scores by Race and Ethnicity on Selection of AP Exams, 2018

Exam American Indian Asian Black Hispanic/Latino White
Biology 2.29 3.24 2.11 2.30 3.04
Calculus (advanced) 3.17 4.00 2.99 3.17 3.76
Computer science 2.38 3.50 2.13 2.45 3.20
English language and composition 2.26 3.25 2.08 2.31 3.07
U.S. history 2.13 3.28 2.16 2.27 3.01

New Data on College Admissions Officers Views

Also last week, Kaplan Test Prep released new data on how college admissions. Among the findings:

  • 68 percent said that a 3 on an AP exam generally earned a student college credit.
  • 66 percent said such a score would earn a student the right to skip entry-level courses.
  • Only 22 percent said it would result in a boost in an applicant's chances of admission.

Inside Higher Ed's survey of admissions directors last year found mixed views on AP, with many seeing the program as rigorous but many also worried that students feel pressure to take AP courses over other academic offerings that may be more interesting and challenging to them.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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