Advanced Placement Still Ascending

Number of test takers and high scorers rise, though gaps in performance among racial groups still vexing.
February 7, 2007

In what has become an annual tradition of late, the College Board released a wealth of statistics Tuesday demonstrating substantial and continual growth in Advanced Placement access and success. But while the number of students receiving a score of 3 or higher on the 5-point scale -- the general threshold for obtaining college credit -- continues to rise, the number of high scorers has not kept pace with the even more rapid rise in test takers nationally.

The proportion of American public school students in the Class of 2006 who scored 3 or above on an Advanced Placement exam at some point in high school rose by 4.6 percentage points from 10.2 percent in 2000 to 14.8 percent in 2006. (This year's statistic is up 0.7 percent from last year's figure, 14.1 percent).

Meanwhile, the number of test takers at public schools has grown by 8.3 percent since 2000, from 15.9 percent to 24.2 percent in 2006 -- testament not only to the increased emphasis on Advanced Placement for college readiness and admissions, but also, the report suggests, to the success of state-level policies intended to increase access. An additional 539 public schools and 10 private schools offered Advanced Placement tests this year, bringing the total number of American schools participating to 15,122, including 12,037 public schools and 3,085 private schools.

These statistics were among the highlights of the College Board’s third annual " Advanced Placement Report to the Nation," which trumpets the rise in access and high scorers, highlights those states that have succeeded on both fronts, describes two new studies tying Advanced Placement exam scores and Advanced Placement course participation to college success, and points to progress in closing equity gaps.

Nationally, Latino students, who make up 14 percent of the student population, correspondingly accounted for 14 percent of the Advanced Placement test takers attending public schools in the Class of 2006 -- an important accomplishment, but one that must be understood alongside the College Board’s finding that while Latinos are actually overrepresented among test takers in some states, like Alabama, they are underrepresented in others, like Massachusetts.

Additionally, the report finds that the percentage of African-American and American Indian/Alaska Native test takers continues to lag behind their proportional representation within the student population. Only 6.9 percent of Advanced Placement public school test takers in the Class of 2006 were black, while black students represented 13.7 percent of the student population, and 0.6 percent of test takers were American Indian/Alaska Native, though they represented 1.1 percent of the student population.

Average scores on Advanced Placement tests were also higher for Asian and white public school students -- at 3.04 and 2.96 respectively -- than for black (1.96), Mexican or Mexican American (2.42), Puerto Rican (2.5), “other Hispanic or Latino” (2.57) and American Indian/Alaska Native (2.42) test-takers. “Students in urban locations and rural locations and other areas that have traditionally been underserved by AP have not yet built a pipeline that prepares students for the rigors of AP,” Trevor Packer, executive director of the Advanced Placement Program for the College Board, said to explain the disparities at a Tuesday press conference.

“It’s a matter of building a culture” that values the rigor and intellectual challenge that Advanced Placement courses provide, added L. Lynn Krebs, the Advanced Placement coordinator for the Milwaukee Public Schools. H. Viscount (Berky) Nelson Jr., director of the Center for Student Programming at the University of California at Los Angeles and a scholar of African-American history, said that educators have to work to counteract a historical anti-intellectualism within black communities that has discouraged student success by accusing "people who are bright" with "trying to act white."

The report specifically praises states such as Florida for expanding Advanced Placement participation and performance by traditionally underserved students through the use of state funding to provide teacher incentives; Delaware for establishing programs to prepare low-income students for success on the tests; Washington for expanding Advanced Placement to rural students; Maryland for putting in place  a sequential curriculum across grades 6 through 12 culminating in Advanced Placement; and North Carolina for providing virtual learning opportunities for remote students.  Arkansas, which has a law requiring that all public schools make Advanced Placement courses available, is tied with New Hampshire for demonstrating the most rapid increase of students with scores of 3 or above from 2005 to 2006. Following behind them are Delaware, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Virginia.

Meanwhile, New York, Maryland, Utah, Virginia and California led the nation in 2006 in terms of the proportion of graduating seniors who could point to a score of  3 or above on an exam – with 22.7, 22, 20.8, 20.7 and 20.1 percent of last year's public school graduates, respectively, gaining top scores in those states.

Packer, of the College Board, described the Advanced Placement Program, which offers standardized tests to determine students’ competencies in college-level coursework, as offering an important component in preparing students for college rigor. “We share the concerns of educators nationwide that while America is succeeding in democratizing college access and entrance, it hasn’t succeeded as well at what counts most – preparing students for success in college,” he said. While 75 percent of U.S. high school students enter college, drop-out rates are high, he said, and about half of college freshmen enroll in at least one remedial course.

Two new studies highlighted in the report focus on the value not only of high Advanced Placement scores, but also of course participation among students who choose not to take a culminating Advanced Placement exam, in preparing students for college success. A new study by University of Texas researchers Leslie Keng and Barbara Dodd finds that students who placed out of introductory college courses based on Advanced Placement scores earned higher college grade point averages and took more credit hours in the subject area of their exams than non-Advanced Placement students, even after controlling for high school rank and test scores.

Another study tracking Texas public higher education students from 1998 to 2002 finds that students who took one or more Advanced Placement course or exam, and students who took one or more Advanced Placement course, but no exam, significantly outperformed non-Advanced Placement participants on a number of college outcomes, even after statistically controlling for SAT score and economic status. Students taking both the course and the exam, however, significantly outperformed their peers who just took the course. The study, by the University of Texas researchers Linda Hargrove, Donn Godin and Barbara Dodd, considered outcomes including first- and fourth-year grade point average and four-year graduation rates.

The report indicates that the impact on students who take Advanced Placement courses but do not earn a score of 3 or above should not be discounted, but that “more research is needed to establish the conditions under which AP Exam grades lower than 3 relate to college success, reduction of remediation required, and other outcomes.”


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