Gains and Gaps on AP Scores

More students are scoring at levels viewed as indicating college-level knowledge, but black and Latino participation and success in the program lag significantly.
February 14, 2008

The College Board released data Wednesday showing improved performance by students on Advanced Placement examinations and highlighted examples of new programs to prepare more black and Latino students for AP courses. But the data released also showed huge gaps in the participation rates and success rates of black and Latino students, as compared with white and Asian students.

The figure highlighted by the board was that 15 percent of the high school class of 2007 earned at least one score of 3 on an AP exam. That is the score that the College Board says signifies college-level performance and is typically the minimum level at which colleges will award credit. Only 12 percent of students earned at least one 3 in the class of 2002.

There is much debate among academics about whether AP courses are truly college-level, with studies regularly coming out that either question the program or praise it. But even AP skeptics acknowledge that the program is popular with students and parents, that admissions offices value it as an indicator of rigor in instruction, and that AP courses are frequently among the most challenging in high schools. As such, who takes AP matters -- and educators have increasingly focused on data from the AP program to see whether the program's emphasis in admissions is likely to hurt minority applicants and what the participation rates say about the preparation of a diverse pool of students for admission to top colleges.

Here the data will probably give cause for concern. Black and Latino students are less likely to take AP exams and to score at least a 3 on at least one test.

AP Participation by Racial and Ethnic Group

Group % of School Population % of AP Enrollment % Earning 3 on One AP Exam
White 64.0% 61.7% 65.5%
Latino 14.6% 14.0% 13.6%
Black 14.0% 7.4% 3.3%
Asian 5.5% 10.4% 11.5%
Native American 1.1% 0.6% 0.4%

Those numbers would appear to suggest that the most significant problems with what the College Board calls an "equity and excellence gap" -- a gap between enrollment levels and AP participation and success levels -- is with black and Native American students.

But while the numbers above are those published by the College Board, officials upon request released additional data in which the Latino rates for participation in AP and the percentage of those earning at least one 3 are recalculated excluding the Spanish language courses and test. Latino students make up more than 55 percent of those who take that exam, and if those students and scores are excluded, the percentage of Latino students in AP program falls to 7.5 percent, and the percentage of students earning at least a 3 on one exam falls the same percentage, creating a significant gap that is otherwise not visible. (College Board officials said that there were valid reasons to look at the data with or without the AP Spanish impact.)

Trevor Packer, who leads the AP program for the College Board, said that the figures showed a "true and startling lack of equity." Packer stressed that a variety of factors can hinder minority enrollments in AP: lack of preparation, lack of encouragement or lack of courses to take.

Packer said that the gaps, for whatever reason, show "how concerned we should be as a country for the lack of equity for minority students."

The large gap for black students, he said, may point to the need for programs similar to those started in Texas, where educators have had a positive impact on Latino AP enrollments by reaching out to Latino parents to explain benefits of the program. Packer said that there were not programs of similar scope reaching out to black families.

The College Board report also releases gender and racial/ethnic breakdowns for those taking particular AP exams. These data reflect a continuation of several trends in recent years. Female students continue to dominate in the humanities (67 percent of those taking art history for example), but are also achieving equity or close to it in many science fields. Females made up 58 percent of those taking the biology exam and 47 percent for chemistry. Computer science remains dominated by male students, who made up 83 percent of test takers. The gender gap is also still notable in physics.

On race/ethnicity, Asian students are disproportionately represented among AP test takers in every field except two: Italian language and culture, and Spanish literature.

Here is a sampling of data on those taking the tests in particular AP programs (figures for racial and ethnic groups will not add to 100 because "other" and "not stated" are left out).

A P Examinees by Race and Gender in Selected Fields

Subject White Latino Black Asian Native American Female
Calculus AB 64.4% 8.4% 4.5% 16.5% 0.4% 48%
Computer science 58.2% 6.5% 3.7% 24.5% 0.3% 17%
English literature and composition 64.9% 10.2% 7.4% 10.3% 0.6% 64%
European history 68.1% 7.9% 3.7% 12.7% 0.4% 54%
French literature 66.3% 5.6% 6.0% 10.6% 0.0% 71%
Government and politics: U.S. 63.3% 11.5% 5.9% 12.4% 0.5% 53%
Human geography 59.7% 12.3% 9.7% 10.7% 0.4% 55%
Macroeconomics 56.6% 11.7% 4.6% 19.8% 0.3% 45%
Physics: electricity and magnetism 58.8% 3.9% 1.7% 28.6% 0.3% 22%
Psychology 64.7% 8.7% 6.5% 12.9% 0.4% 65%


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