Tons of Test Takers

Many more students are enrolling in AP courses, but enrollments don't always translate into good scores.
February 8, 2006

In every state, more high school students scored 3 or higher -- the level at which some college credit is typically awarded -- on an Advanced Placement exam in 2005 than in 2000.

That fact is not surprising, considering over 200,000 more students -- a total of about 610,000 -- took at least one of the 35 AP exams in 2005 than did so in 2000, according to the College Board, which announced the statistics Tuesday. The percentage of all 2005 high school students who scored at least a 3 on an AP test was 14.1, up from 10.2 percent in 2000. AP English Language and Composition gained the most students between 2001 and 2005, jumping from 135,000 to 230,000. The only AP course that lost students between 2001 and 2005 was computer science, which dropped about 4,000 students to 19,000.

The increases in students scoring at least a 3, however, did not keep pace with the increase in test takers, which jumped from 15.9 percent to 22.7 percent.

The number of black students taking AP tests nearly doubled in the five years, to about 62,000, and the number of Latino students more than doubled to about 135,000. Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, pointed out that President Bush, in his American Competitiveness Initiative, set the goal of 700,000 low-income students getting at least a 3 on AP tests 10 years from now.

As AP courses have come to be viewed as the gold standard in college admissions, more than 15,000 high schools -- a 36 percent increase from a decade ago -- have come to offer them. Nearly all colleges and universities offer at least some credit for high AP exam scores. Critics of AP have contended that the courses are broad, but lack depth, and do not approximate real college level courses. Caperton called the rush of AP offerings a “tide that raises all boats,” as it increases rigor in high schools.

While the number of black and Latino students taking the tests has shot up, so has the number receiving scores of 1 and 2 on the tests. For example, about 73 percent of the black students who took the first level calculus test (Calculus AB) in 2005 got a 1 or a 2, with 57 percent getting a 1. About 71 percent of the Latino students who took the same test got a 1 or 2, with about 53 percent receiving a 1. About 39 percent of both white and Asian students who took the test scored a 1 or 2.

A 2004 study conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley followed 80,000 students coming into college, and found that, while AP test scores were a predictor of future academic success, completion of AP courses, by itself, was not.

Still, students who took AP calculus, even those who did not fare well on the exam, did better than other American students, compared to math students from other countries. American calculus students, on the whole, scored 15th out of 16 countries in the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). Students who took AP calculus, even if they scored a 1 or 2 on the exam, ranked with the top TIMSS calculus students, those from France. As with any such study, that result may be impacted by self-selection of top math students into AP courses.

Caperton also lauded the AP program for saving “time and tuition” by allowing high school students to get college credit.

The quickest growth in AP offerings has been in Arkansas, Florida and South Carolina and Florida, states that have started paying for students to take the exams. Arkansas has required that every public school will offer at least four AP courses by 2008, a commitment that just about doubled the number of students taking an AP course in one year. The number of black students in Arkansas who took AP courses tripled.

President Bush’s plan calls for $122 million in federal funds in the 2007 fiscal year, $90 million more than the 2006 fiscal year, to subsidize AP tests for low-income students, and to provide salary incentives for teachers to become qualified to teach AP courses.

Tom Luce, assistant secretary for the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education, said that professional development will be the key to making sure more students, in addition to taking the tests, perform well.

Added Trevor Packer, executive director of the AP program: “There’s a profound need for adequate preparation in the pre-AP years.” He said that, as AP courses reach urban and rural schools that have not had them before, there are plenty of students who are suddenly thrust into college level courses, and they often do not score well on the exam. To help remedy that problem, the College Board is seeking to broaden access to various pre-AP workshops for teachers, beginning with 6th grade teachers.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and a frequent critic of the College Board, said that increasing access isn’t bad, even if students don’t score well on exams, because “there’s no demonstrated harm in not getting a 4 or 5.” Still, Schaeffer said that no one should expect math and science achievement to improve just because more students take AP courses. “It goes to the whole fallacious notion that if you raise the bar the kids will leap the bar automatically,” he said, “which underlies a lot of so-called test driven reforms.”

In an effort to ensure the quality of AP courses, the College Board is currently studying “best practices” for introductory courses at over 200 colleges and universities, and will require AP teachers to submit course materials for approval, beginning in June. 


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