Advanced Placement: Up and Down

Program continues to grow – and passing rate continues to fall.
February 10, 2011

As is the case year after year, the Advanced Placement Program saw notable increases in the total numbers of participants and in the number of participants scoring at least a 3 (on a 1-5 scale) on an AP exam among those who graduated from high school last year, according to data released Wednesday by the College Board. In all, more than a half-million students scored a 3 or higher on at least one exam -- nearly double the number who did so in the high school class that graduated in 2001.

But the overall success rate continued its gradual fall, to just under 60 percent, down from over 64 percent in 2001. And significant gaps remain by state and by racial and ethnic group on success in the AP program.

The data released Wednesday are unlikely to change any minds about the program. High school students – especially those on track to go to competitive colleges -- continue to flock to the program. And the declines in the pass rate are to be expected in any program attracting a broader and broader cross-section of students.

But a series of articles in USA Today, The Dallas Morning News and elsewhere in recent years have suggested that the high failure rates may indicate that expansion of the program has been too speedy and may be too much of a priority at high schools that have a lot of work to do teaching students the basics. The College Board has always rejected such an analysis, arguing that AP courses raise standards and aspirations in all kinds of schools.

Nationally, more than 2.5 million AP exams were given to those who graduated from high school in 2010 -- with the most common score a 3, generally the minimum required to earn college credit for a course. But the second and third most common scores would generally be considered failing.

Breakdown of Scores on AP Exams, 2010

1 22.6%
2 21.3%
3 23.4%
4 18.8%
5 13.9%

Variation among states was wide. In Maryland, just over a quarter of the high school class that graduated last year earned at least one 3 on an AP exam, and the figure was just under a quarter in New York State. In Louisiana and Mississippi, not even 5 percent of high school graduates hit that mark.

In a number of states -- particularly in the South -- the most common score by far was a 1. This was the case in Alabama (29.5 percent of those taking the exam), Arkansas (43.5 percent), Florida (34.0 percent), Georgia (26.3 percent), Louisiana (33.4 percent), and Mississippi (43.1 percent).

The trends by race and ethnicity largely continued patterns of recent years -- with modest gains in the number of black, Latino and Native American students participating in AP and scoring at least a 3. But while the Asian American share of the AP population is nearly twice the Asian American share of the high school population, the figures for black and Native American AP participation lag significantly. The percentages of white and Latino AP participants are close to their share of the high school population, but the figures for Latino students are boosted by the exams in Spanish language -- the most popular AP program for Latino students by far.

AP Test-Taking Population and High School Population, Class of 2010

Group % of High School Population % of AP Test Takers
Black 14.6% 8.6%
Latino 16.8% 16.0%
Native American 1.1% 0.6%
Asian American 5.5% 10.2%
White 60.5% 57.9%


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