For the fifth year in a row, the College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement program and exams, has reported that higher percentages of students succeeded on AP exams last year than in the preceding year. ("Fifth Annual AP Report to the Nation," Feb. 4, 2009.)
The Advanced Placement program is a series of 37 college-level courses students take in high school, for which they may receive college credit. The nationally administered AP exam is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 3 being considered a passing score. Some colleges will grant students credit for an exam grade of 3, but, increasingly, more-selective universities require a 4 or 5.
AP has enjoyed phenomenal growth- about 10% per year for the last decade.
As a retired Advanced Placement teacher, I find it gratifying to see the extensive coverage of this rapidly expanding, beneficial high school program.
However, the success has come at a price. The percentage of students passing AP exams, based on the numbers of students taking the exams, is actually declining. Between 2003-2008 for example, the percentage of all AP exams receiving a score of at least a 3 declined from 61.6% to 57.7%. Since 1988, the percentage of scores receiving passing grades has declined by about 10% and the percentage of scores receiving the lowest possible grade of 1 has increased by more than 10%.
The numbers for minority non-Asian students are particularly discouraging. As Education Week reported in its review of data last year: "The percentage of passing exams taken by Hispanic students slipped by 5.5 percentage points over the past four years, to 43 percent in 2007. The percentages of passing scores among the group the College Board refers to as black or African-American slipped by nearly 4 points, to just 25 percent."
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.
In February 2009, the College Board replaced the original Advanced Placement Equity Policy (2001) with a revised policy statement. The original policy can be found at click here The 2001 policy statement was used to justify open access to AP, though it did not specifically endorse open access. The relevant words from the original policy are: "All students who are willing to accept the challenge . . . should be considered for admission to AP courses."
According to Trevor Packer, who is the College Board's vice president responsible for leadership of the Advanced Placement Program, the message that really jumped out of the original equity policy was that all that was required to get into an AP class was willingness on a student's part to accept the AP challenge. However, the intent of the original language, Packer says, was simply that all interested students "deserved to be considered" for AP. Packer writes that the 2001 statement "appropriately spurred dialogue and thinking about existing gatekeeping devices and policies," but was "not an endorsement of open access to AP" though "it certainly has been used by many to justify open access policies."
The College Board'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 deserve the opportunity to succeed in rigorous, college-level experiences and the advantages they bring. For this reason, the AP Program shares educators' mission to connect traditionally underserved minority and low-income students to Advanced Placement courses. AP encourages all educators to make equitable access a guiding principle for their schools' AP programs, and to make every effort to ensure that their AP classes reflect the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of their student body."
In an e-mail exchange with Packer, he further clarified the College Board's position regarding open access. He writes:
"But other schools that have embraced open access should probably have focused on building a more effective pipeline rather than on open access. I was pleased to see that the Fordham report picked up on an important change to our equity policy, which is that access 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."
These are sensible policy changes by the College Board. Before high schools rush willy-nilly into the AP business, school districts must provide the pre-AP infrastructure in middle school to ensure that students are prepared to meet the challenges of AP. Otherwise, we can expect that our AP failure rates will continue to climb.
Patrick Mattimore taught Advanced Placement and introductory psychology for many years in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the San Francisco International Living Examiner for the examiner.com news site and a fellow of the Institute for Analytic Journalism. He lives in France.