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AP Participation Grows, But Some Racial Disparities Persist

Feb 11, 2010

The College Board recently released their annual AP Report to the Nation. The report shows record numbers of students taking the Advanced Placement tests, but significant gaps in both test access and preparation remain for some minority students.

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Access Improved for Low-Income Students

The Advanced Placement (AP) Program was launched as a pilot program in the 1950s by the College Board, a nonprofit organization based out of New York. It has expanded steadily ever since, with well over a million students taking the AP tests annually.

The program offers college-level coursework to high school students in 34 areas. Upon completion of the courses, students may choose to take the AP exam in their subject. The tests are graded on a 1-5 scale, and a score of 3 or better indicates that students have achieved college-level understanding of the subject. Some colleges and universities will also give students early credit for their high school AP courses if the student scores high enough on the exam. As college admissions grow more and more competitive, the AP Program has become extremely popular. Even students who don't aspire to earn college credits take the courses because they look good on college applications.

Each year, the College Board releases the AP Report to the Nation, which includes demographic statistics on who's taking the tests and how America's high school students are performing. The report shows that a record 2.9 million exams were taken last year, and 15.9% of the public school graduating class of 2009 scored 3 or higher. These numbers indicate a pattern of steady improvement over the past five years in both access to and preparation for the test for students across the country.

The report also shows that historically underrepresented groups have made progress in access to and preparation for AP exams. Like most college prep programs, AP started out in the province of the elite, with very few poor or minority students taking the exams. The College Board has actively reached out to underserved communities, and 2009 saw an unprecedented number of low-income students taking the exams. They made up 18.9% of the total 2009 examinees, and 14.7% of the students who received a 3 or better on at least one test.

AP Report Figure 2

The College Board's 6th Annual AP Report to the Nation, figure 2, page 7

The College Board also celebrated progress in closing the 'equity gap' for minority students, defined as the gap between the percentage of minority students in the population and the percentage taking the AP exams. However, the numbers show that significant disparities remain, particularly for African American students. They made up 14.5% of the 2009 graduating class, but were only 8.2% of the examinee population. Worse yet, black students made up only 3.7% of the number of students who passed the tests. That's only a slight improvement from 2008, when black students made up 3.5% of those passing the exams.

Hispanic students fared much better. They made up 15.9% of the 2009 graduating class, 15.5% of the examinee population and 14.3% of the students passing the exams. American Indian and Alaskan Native students, the third major student population of ethnic minorities, were also reasonably well represented. They made up 1.2% of the 2009 graduating class, 0.6% of the examinee population and 0.4% of the students who passed at least one AP test.

High School Students

Overall Failure Rates Climbing

In spite of improvements in underrepresented groups, failure rates overall are increasing, according to an analysis released earlier this month by USA Today. The newspaper found that 41.5% of examinees earned a failing score of 1 or 2, which is up from 36.5% in 1999. The figures are worse in the South, defined as Texas to Delaware by the U.S. Census. Nearly half - 48.4% - of students taking the test in that region last year failed.

USA Today suggests that these numbers show a lack of adequate preparation. More and more students are being pushed to take the exam, but teachers are not being trained properly to deliver the advanced material. There are a lot of incentives for students to take AP tests - a high score can weigh their GPA and improve their chance at college admissions, and some students are even being offered cash rewards. But many of these students aren't academically prepared for the AP coursework, and few teachers can bring them up to the level of passing the exam in just one class.

The College Board contends that the analysis is fundamentally flawed because it lumps all AP exams into one group. Tests in different subject areas have different historical pass rates. For example, scores on AP physics tests have actually improved, whereas scores in AP English Literature are dropping, which may be due to the nationwide trend to promote STEM subjects over the humanities.

A member of the Southern Regional Education Board notes that only looking at the South's overall failure rate also offers an incomplete picture. Although Arkansas has the U.S.'s highest failure rate, it has also made the most progress of any Southern state in participation and passing rates.

While it's clear that efforts need to be stepped up to prepare both students and teachers for AP coursework, particularly in the African-American population, the increased levels of participation still reflect a positive trend. Even if a student fails an AP exam, he or she has been exposed to advanced coursework and will hopefully have a better chance of preparing for college.

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