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Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics Regarding the Advanced Placement Program

By       Message Patrick Mattimore     Permalink
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In August the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices released a report entitled, "Raising Rigor, Getting Results- Lessons Learned from AP Expansion."

The Advanced Placement Expansion project of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices was one component of a large-scale initiative launched in 2005 to redesign the American high school. Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Nevada, and Wisconsin received funding to expand Advanced Placement (AP) courses to minority and low-income students at 51 pilot high schools in rural and urban school districts.

Regrettably, the National Governors Association report contributes to misinformation about the College Board's Advanced Placement program, a series of 33 college-level courses students take in high school, for which they may receive college credit.

NGA's authors write:
"The number of students taking AP courses rose 65 percent over two years, and the number of minority and low-income students taking AP exams more than doubled. Performance on the AP exam, as measured by the percentage scoring "at mastery"-defined as scoring a 3 or higher on the exam-... increased from 6.6 percent in 2005-2006 to 8.3 percent in 2007--2008."

We don't know if performance on the exam did in fact improve. Since many more students took the exams in 2007-2008 than in 2005-2006, the passing percentage on the exams should have increased correspondingly. That's because NGA reported passing percentages, not based upon the number of students taking the exams, but upon the entire school populations at the pilot schools, whether students tested or not.

Unfortunately, NGA has not provided statistics as to the numbers of students at the pilot schools during the target periods nor data as to percentages of test takers passing the exams. By computing success percentages based upon increased participation rates, the NGA report covers up failure rates based upon the performance of test takers.

The current obfuscatory means of calculating AP success began in 2005 when the College Board started reporting results based on graduating seniors and converting that into passing percentages, which had nothing to do with passing percentages based on test takers.

The problem is that like NGA other groups are using the deceptive data to promote AP. ExxonMobil, has committed $125 million in support of AP, for example. Based on the NGA report, ExxonMobil declared last week that "students in 12 Alabama high schools achieved an 81% increase in passing scores on Advanced Placement mathematics, science and English tests under a national education programme funded by ExxonMobil."
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That is misleading. In common parlance, an 81% increase in testing results means that 81% more students taking the tests passed. But all the new figures tell us is that by the end of the pilot program many more students took AP exams and therefore more students passed the exams.

NGA is interested in increasing minority participation in AP. Increasing minority AP participation is certainly a worthwhile goal, but the question is at what cost and the method of calculating success based upon increased school participation hides the cost.

The NGA report ignores the fact that pushing more unprepared students into AP classes generally results in higher failing percentages of test takers, particularly among minorities. For example, as the AP program has expanded since 1988, the corresponding passing percentage on AP exams has declined by about 10% nationally to 57%. Only 25% of African-American tests received passing grades in 2008. Despite that, the authors of the NGA report write:
"To expand access to AP among minority and low-income students, the College Board encourages schools, districts, and states to use the entire student body as the denominator in calculating AP performance. This creates an incentive for schools to open challenging classes to as many students as possible."

The College Board, developers and administrators of the AP exams, does not embrace open access however, and suggests limitations on which students should take AP. The CB's revised equity policy is contained in the "Fifth Annual AP Report to the Nation," Feb. 4, 2009, (p.7) "All willing and academically prepared students (emphasis mine) deserve the opportunity to succeed in rigorous, college-level experiences and the advantages they bring."

In an e-mail exchange with Trevor Packer, who is the College Board's vice- president responsible for leadership of the Advanced Placement Program, Packer further clarified the College Board's position regarding AP access. He writes in part:
"...(S)chools that have embraced open access should probably have focused on building a more effective pipeline rather than on open access... (A)ccess should be provided to prepared and motivated students, not all students. All students to (sic) deserve such preparation and investment in their pre-AP years, but that's very different from saying that all students should be placed in AP right now, given current mixed levels of readiness/preparation/motivation. A simplistic, but perhaps not too inaccurate, statement of the problem might be that many schools that should be providing open access, given the level of readiness among their student population, are not, whereas many schools that probably should not be providing open access are."
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A report published in April by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute documents concerns expressed by AP teachers that the program may be expanding too rapidly. A majority of the teachers surveyed said that only students who are deemed capable to handle AP material should take the courses. Nevertheless, 69% of the teachers reported that AP classes at their schools are open to all students.

While overwhelmingly positive about the AP program, 63% of AP teachers in the Fordham study suggested that more screening of students to make sure they are ready to do AP level work would improve the program

The problem is that by opening access to "as many students as possible" without making sure the students are adequately prepared to meet the AP challenge, failure rates will likely continue to climb. By failing to report whether and to what extent the increases in participation have been accompanied by lower passing percentages among test-takers, NGA and ExxonMobil make it impossible to judge whether the pilot programs are really a benefit or not.


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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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