AP: More Pass and More Fail

February 11, 2010

The script for the annual College Board news conference on the Advanced Placement program goes like this: President Gaston Caperton announces that record numbers of students have participated in the program, that record numbers may have earned college credit, and that minority participation -- while lagging -- is catching up.

And that's how things started off this year, with the board announcing that 15.9 percent of those who graduated from high school in 2009 earned at least one AP score of 3 (the level at which colleges start to award credit), up from 15.2 percent the previous year, and 12.7 percent five years earlier. Caperton hailed the good news.

But College Board officials also showed a bit of frustration with the attention the AP program has been receiving of late over its failure rates. The AP program has become increasingly popular with students (who see it as a way to impress college admissions officers) and state education leaders (who see it as a way to increase the rigor of high schools and to give more meaning to the senior year of high school).

But all that popularity has led not only to a rapid increase in the participation, but to questions about whether the high failure rates suggest that schools may have been too quick to send too many students into AP programs, when more educational gains might be achieved through other improvements.

Trevor Packer, director of the AP program, said he questioned "the ethics" of journalists who have focused on those failure rates without paying equal attention to the growing number of students passing AP exams -- evidence, he said, that the growth in the program is healthy. All of the attention going to failure rates is "an attempt to get a headline," he said.

While Packer didn't name names, USA Today and The Dallas Morning News recently ran long articles looking at increases in the failure rates.

The numbers Packer cites do in fact show growth over the last decade in the number of those who earned at least a 3 -- and an increase in the failure rate:

AP Program, 2001-2009

  2001 2009
Percentage of public high school graduating class who took at least one AP course 17% 26%
Number who earned a 1 or 2 (non-passing) 421,013 1,004,715
Number who earned a 3, 4 or 5 (passing) 653,376 1,307,287
Passing rate 60.8% 56.5%

Packer said that these numbers, in total, show the positive impact of the program's growth, because so many more students are passing. "Educators have believed that what could be good for the few could be good for the many," he said. Any time that educators "take risks and open doors" to more students, the pass rate can be expected to fall, he said. But that's not a bad thing.

Further, he said that that the pass rate "dropped so insignificantly" that it should not be cause for major concern. There may be individual schools, he said, where no one is passing, and that would be a cause for concern at those schools.

Minority participation is also a key issue in discussions of the AP program. Because AP courses are increasingly seen as valuable in college admissions, critics have worried about the low participation and passing rates of black and Latino students in the program. The College Board's briefing put the emphasis on areas where the numbers show progress -- while not drawing attention to other numbers. The College Board, for example, points to statistics showing that the Latino participation rate is almost the same as the Latino share of the high school population. But if participation in the Spanish AP program is excluded, there is a Latino gap.

AP Program Participation, by Race and Ethnicity

  Share of AP Exam-Taking Population Overall Student Population
Asian 10.2% 5.4%
Black 8.2% 14.5%
Latino 15.5% 15.9%
Latino (excluding Spanish exams) 13.0% 15.9%
Native American 0.6% 1.2%
White 59.4% 61.6%

The passing rate also lags for black and Latino students. Black students make up only 3.7 percent of the population of AP test takers who receive a passing score. For Latino students, the figure is 14.3 percent. When Spanish language is removed, Latino students make up only 8.6 percent.

The data for individual AP subjects show as well the many fields in which gaps among racial and ethnic groups are significantly larger than the respective shares of the public high school population might suggest. And the data show some math and science fields (notably biology) in which a gender gap has disappeared or shifted away from men, and others (computer science) where it lingers. On the table that follows, the total percentages for race and ethnicity do not add to 100 because they exclude those who did not give a race or ethnicity or who answered "other."

Demographics of AP Test-Taking Population in Selected Subjects

Test Asian Black Latino Native American White Women
Biology 19.0% 6.6% 10.0% 0.5% 58.1% 59%
Calculus 15.6% 5.4% 10.3% 0.4% 63.3% 49%
Chemistry 22.2% 5.1% 8.3% 0.4% 58.8% 47%
Computer science 25.6% 4.2% 7.1% 0.3% 57.4% 17%
English literature and composition 10.7% 9.1% 12.9% 0.6% 61.0% 64%
European history 13.7% 4.1% 9.1% 0.4% 66.0% 54%
Macroeconomics 17.9% 6.6% 14.3% 0.4% 55.1% 47%
Physics -- electricity and magnetism 29.1% 2.0% 5.4% 0.2% 57.9% 23%
Spanish language 6.2% 2.1% 59.6% 0.1% 27.1% 64%

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