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Advanced Placement Testing Sees Moderate Increase; Obstacles Still Remain

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February 09, 2012 07:17 pm

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For the eighth straight year, the number of high school graduates who took an Advanced Placement (AP) exam increased nationwide according to a new report by College Board. Data from the recently released AP Report to the Nation, indicates that the average percentage of graduates from the class of 2011 who took at least one AP exam reached 30.2 percent nationwide, a 2 percent increase from 2010.

In all but one state (Alaska), the percentage of high school graduates who took an Advanced Placement exam increased. Florida, with 47.4 percent, ranks highest in the percentage of 2011 graduates who took an AP exam, followed by Maryland (46.4 percent), New York (40.3 percent), Virginia (40.1 percent), and Arkansas (40.0 percent). Although Advanced Placement enrollment and testing have maintained a steady climb among high school graduates in schools across the country, there are still obstacles to analyzing the effect of Advanced Placement courses and expanding its reach among students.

“There is some progress in the fact that more students are taking AP,” says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “AP is a proxy for increased rigor academically and for college and career readiness. The good news is that student demand for rigor is continuing to increase and student performance is slowly increasing. Some of it is handicapped by the availability and the confidence level of how well they’d do. Should they take an AP course? Should they take that risk?”

Barriers to Success

Although demand for AP level coursework and testing has risen steadily, roadblocks in the process of ensuring more high school students are college-ready through Advanced Placement still prevent qualified students from participating.

Nearly half a million students did not take the AP exam during high school even if they exhibited the academic potential to succeed. This is according to new analyses from the 2011 Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) performance report that was included in the AP Report to the Nation. Approximately 771,000 PSAT/NMSQT test takers demonstrated high potential to succeed but only 293,000, or 38 percent, of those students took an AP exam. The report pinpoints limited access to AP material and lack of participation among underrepresented students

“The challenge then is how do you make AP more available and how do you lead teachers, students, and parents to thinking that taking the AP course is worthwhile,” says Wise.

According the report, students of color, particularly African-American, American-Indian/Alaska Native, and Latino students are significantly less likely to take an AP exam despite possessing a high level of readiness. Often isolation as the only minority or one of few minorities in a course presents added pressure and reluctance to take an accelerated level course.

Across the board, teens face challenges in deciding to take the test stemming from lack of confidence, economic inability to pay, or lack of resources to adequately prepare for AP coursework and testing.

Trevor Packer, senior vice president of AP and College Readiness with the College Board, states in the press release that “these data confirm the need to continue expansion of AP opportunities for prepared and motivated students, because hundreds of thousands of U.S. students have indeed been academically ready for the challenge of an AP course but lacked the opportunity.”

We are the 90 percent

The gap in students who take the test isn’t limited to those who opt not to. There also exists a roadblock for students who seek to challenge themselves with the rigorous AP level coursework but who may not be eligible. Policies exists that limit AP course availability to students in the top tenth percentile of their class. Therefore students who fall below that rank are not able to take part in AP coursework and testing.

“There’s an equity issue when it comes to the availability of AP,” says Wise. “What that does then is send a message to the other 90 percent: ‘Don’t aspire.’”

Course Experience Equally Important

Governor Wise supports allowing those who fall below the top tenth percentile to elect to take AP courses citing the exposure to advanced level work as motivation enough to succeed despite the potential score. Although a student may not take the examination at all, Wise argues that simply the experience of being in a classroom with high academic expectations and challenging curriculum is beneficial for the confidence and motivation of youth.

“Sometimes the process can be as important as the outcome,” says Wise. “The experience of taking an AP course can be that which challenges that student and helps them to recognize they’ve got talents inside them and abilities they did not appreciate.”

Complete results for the class of 2011 in Advanced Placement testing, including national and state-by-state breakdowns, are available at http://apreport.collegeboard.org/.

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