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Advanced Placement News is Generally Good

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Message Patrick Mattimore
    If you google “Advanced Placement” this week, you will find hundreds of AP stories from newspapers around the country. That’s because the College Board has just released its 5th Annual Advanced Placement Report to the Nation. The Report is similar to the first four- lavish in its praise of the increasing numbers of students taking and passing AP exams, but with the caveat that although minority non-Asian participation is growing, there continues to be a wide gap between the performance of minorities and whites on the tests.

    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.     

    Mostly, the newspapers have emphasized their own states’ performance on the exam. Because the College Board administered approximately 10% more tests in 2008 than it did in 2007, the newspapers have reported the good news that more of their respective states’ kids passed the exam than the year before. Makes sense. If approximately ten percent more students take the tests each year (as has been happening with the AP exams for well over a decade), you can expect that more will pass.

    Some newspapers have chosen to concentrate on the negative aspect of the Report- the fact that blacks, especially, are underrepresented in the AP test numbers and that those minority black and Hispanic students who do take the tests have much lower passing percentages than their white and Asian counterparts.

    There is a piece of news from the report, however, that is both significant and has generally been ignored. For the first time, while the numbers of test-takers increased significantly, the passing percentages (based on those students taking the tests, not the number of graduating seniors) remained constant. That was a reversal of a trend that has been prevalent this entire decade in which the percentages of students passing the tests, based on the numbers of test-takers, has declined by about 1% per year. Even more significant, black and Hispanic percentages of tests with passing scores remained nearly constant, after the period 2004-2007 in which Hispanic passing exams had dropped by 5.5% and black passing scores slipped by nearly 4%.

    Despite that good news, it is impossible to ignore the racial performance gap. The percentage of all graduating seniors taking an AP exam who passed at least one AP exam during their high school years was 61%- the same percentage as in 2007. Of the over 2.1 million exams taken by students who graduated last year, 57% earned passing scores- the same percentage as in 2007. Contrast that with exams taken by blacks and Hispanics. Though underrepresented in the exam-taking pool, only 25.5% of  exams taken by black students earned passing scores and only 42% of Hispanic exams passed. In addition, the Hispanic student numbers are somewhat misleading because so many of the passing scores were earned on a single exam- the Advanced Placement Spanish test.

    AP is the country’s largest accelerated high school curricula. A primary goal of our late middle school and early high school programs should be to insure that more and more of our students are prepared to tackle it. That will mean beefing up pre-AP services to our non-Asian minority students.   

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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