Though a greater proportion of public high school students are taking Advanced Placement (AP) exams and earning passing grades on these exams than ever before, the mean score has declined for the fourth year in a row. Additionally, large gaps in AP participation remain between white students and students of color. These findings were reported in The Fourth Annual AP Report to the Nation, published by College Board, the nonprofit organization that works with colleges and universities to develop AP courses and exams.
Nationally, about 25 percent of the Class of 2007-more than 2.8 million students-took at least one AP exam in high school, compared to almost 23 percent of the Class of 2006. Slightly over 15 percent of the Class of 2007 scored a three or higher on at least one AP exam, while only 14.7 percent of the Class of 2006 and 11.7 percent of the Class of 2002 did so. A score of three (out of five) is unofficially considered a “passing” score by many postsecondary institutions, which tend to offer college credit to students for the subjects in which they achieve these scores.
According to the report, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Florida, and Massachusetts graduated the greatest percentages of seniors with scores of three or higher on their AP exams. The report also highlights many of the New England states as “models of improvement,” with Vermont showing the greatest one- and five-year gains in the percentage of its students scoring a three or higher. College Board attributes the New England states’ successes, in particular, to collaborations between educators and policymakers designed to “foster access to AP courses among students in rural and urban areas, increase participation of low-income students in courses preceding AP, [and] provide teachers with opportunities for professional development,” among other objectives.
However, researchers at Education Week, who analyzed the results, find that, though more students scored at three or higher than ever before, mean exam scores had dipped for the fourth straight year, dropping from 2.9 to 2.83. The decrease was seen across most racial and ethnic groups, including African American students, whose mean score fell by 0.12 to 1.91, Mexican American students, whose mean score of 2.39 showed a 0.12-point decrease, and white students, whose mean score fell 0.04 points to 2.95. Only the Asian Pacific Islander American score did not decrease; at 3.05, it was 0.01 higher than the 2004 score, where it had held steady for the two subsequent years.
Part of the reason for the decline could be because traditionally underrepresented students, who are enjoying greater access to the exams, do not get the same preparation as their more well-to-do counterparts. As the report reads, “AP [e]xam results indicate that often these students are not receiving adequate preparation for the rigors of college-level course work.”
In relation to this issue, The Fourth Annual AP Report to the Nation highlights what College Board calls the “equity and excellence gap,” which it says is present whenever the percentage of traditionally underserved students-such as African American, Hispanic/Latino, and American Indian students-who have access to and succeed on AP exams is lower than the percentage of underserved students in the entire class.
For example, in Florida, almost 22 percent of the student body is Hispanic, but 27.6 percent of Hispanic students in Florida scored a three or higher on their AP exams, making Florida one of the states that had successfully closed the equity and excellence gap for its Hispanic students. On the other hand, an equity and excellence gap continues to exist among Florida’s African American students, who make up 19.6 percent of the student body. Among those students, only 6 percent scored a three or higher on their AP exams. By College Board’s measure, several states have eliminated the gap between white students and one or more of the traditionally underserved student populations, but no state has done so across the board.
“More students from varied backgrounds are accomplishing their AP goals,” said Gaston Caperton, College Board president and former governor of West Virginia, “but we can’t afford to believe equity has been achieved until the demographics of successful AP participation and performance are identical to the demographics of the overall student population.”
The complete report is available at
The Education Week’s analysis is available at http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/02/20/24ap.h27.html.