Despite efforts to offer college-level courses to more high schoolers, new data show  80 percent of black graduates whose PSAT scores suggested they could have succeeded in an Advanced Placement courses never enrolled in the classes. That rate drops to about 40 percent for Asians and 60 percent for whites.
Those statistics, which one AP executive called “powerful” and “haunting,” suggest there’s work to be done in enrolling students – particularly members of some minority groups -- whose test scores say they are prepared but who still don’t take AP classes, say College Board officials. Often, those courses aren’t offered at their high schools.
The College Board, which administers the AP exams, announced in its annual report Wednesday that test-taking rates continue to grow. About 900,000 graduating seniors (or 30 percent of the nation’s graduates in 2011) had taken at least one AP exam, compared with 430,000 in 2001 and 850,000 in 2010.
Students who receive a score of three or higher on the exams’ five-point scale often receive college credit and can skip introductory classes when they arrive on campus.
But as the number of test-takers grows, so does the number of students who fail by scoring a 1 or 2. Among public school students, 43.8 percent of test takers received a 1 or 2 last year . That’s a 0.1 percentage point drop from 2010, but a marked increase over the 39.1 percent of students who failed in 2001.
Those trends are more pronounced in non-Asian minorities, who are taking and failing the tests at a much higher rate than a decade ago. Nearly three-fourths of black students failed their exams in 2011, along with 58 percent of Native Americans and 60 percent of Hispanics. Compare that with the 35 percent of Asian Americans who scored a 1 or 2.
But there are signs of progress. Some states have already achieved equitable representation of Native Americans and Hispanics among test-takers, and more than 600,000 tests were taken last year by low-income students. Also, while the percentage of non-Asian minorities failing tests has gone up since 2001, so too have the raw numbers of those minority students who are passing.
Still, Asian Americans and whites continue to dominate the test-taking pool, as do students on the East Coast, prompting criticism that AP isn’t doing enough to give disadvantaged students a chance.
The seven states with the highest percentage of 2011 graduates passing at least one AP test all border an ocean. Of those, only California was on the West Coast.
More than a quarter of graduating seniors in Maryland, New York, Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut last year had passed an AP exam. That’s more than three times the rate with which seniors graduated with AP credit in Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, the District of Columbia, Louisiana and Mississippi.
But while the data suggest large numbers of students of all races aren’t taking AP classes they could probably succeed in, closing the gap isn’t as simple as adding a section of college-level history class at every high school in the country.
Trevor Packer, the College Board’s senior vice president for AP and college readiness, said it’s often hard to know when schools should offer more AP courses. While PSAT scores show many black students who could succeed in an AP class aren’t enrolling, just under 75 percent of those who do take an AP test fail. Though less drastic, similar trends hold true for other non-Asian minorities.
But Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, says those numbers show that the College Board needs to do more. With so many minority students not signing up for AP classes they could probably pass – and so many others failing at high rates – Schaeffer said the College Board should be doing more to subsidize AP programs in low-income schools.
FairTest, an advocacy group for fair standardized exams, is not against AP classes. But in the current model, Schaeffer said, the tests are increasing the advantages of wealthy students and making it harder for students in poorer schools to succeed.
In a 30-minute conference call with reporters, Packer said the College Board recognizes and is troubled by the statistics that say some minority groups are underrepresented in AP classrooms and often struggle when they do enroll.
And at schools where teachers aren’t equipped to teach college-level material and where students might not be prepared for the classes, Packer acknowledges that money might sometimes be better spent getting students ready for the advanced material.
Even more difficult is reconciling data that on one hand says some minority groups are failing AP tests at growing rates and on the other says many qualified minorities aren’t enrolling in the classes.
“It’s really a complex situation,” he said. “If school leadership is committed to using AP in a way that really does drive change in culture, then it may be appropriate.
“We certainly don’t want educational resources spent on AP test fees if they would be better spent on teacher training or pre-AP [classes].”