More Students Get Passing Scores on AP Tests

New York does the best, while Louisiana and Mississippi are at the bottom.

Advance placement students entering a class at Hackensack High School in Hackensack, N.J., Nov. 22, 2005. For some, Advanced Placement is leveling the playing field. To others, it's merely feeding the admissions frenzy.

AP students exiting a class at Hackensack High School in Hackensack, N.J.

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Even as some well-known high schools have dropped Advanced Placement courses and replaced them with their own college-prep classes, a new report (.pdf) by the College Board shows that participation in the AP program is at an all-time high and that overall student achievement is on the rise.

According to the "AP Report to the Nation," there has been a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of high school students taking college-level AP exams since 2002. Nationally, the report says, 15.2 percent of public school students passed at least one AP exam before graduating last year, up from 11.7 percent of students who graduated in 2002. New York public schools had the highest passing rate, 23.9 percent, followed by schools in Maryland (22.4 percent), Virginia (21.5 percent), Florida (20.3 percent), and Massachusetts (20.3 percent). Vermont had the largest increase in students with a passing AP score over five years, going from 12.7 percent to 19.9 percent. Louisiana and Mississippi ranked at the bottom with only 2.7 percent and 3.7 percent of their students, respectively, earning passing AP scores—slight increases from 2002.

In recent years, selective private and public high schools, most notably Scarsdale High School in Scarsdale, N.Y., have dropped or resisted offering AP courses. Teachers at such schools complain that the AP curriculum puts too much emphasis on rote learning and that students often overwhelm themselves with AP courses to impress college admission deans. (AP classes are considered the equivalent of introductory courses in college, and high school students who pass AP exams can earn college credit.) But the College Board report suggests that the AP program is more popular than ever. A quarter of all graduates last year, nearly 700,000 students, took at least one AP exam at some point in high school. That is an increase of nearly 50 percent from 2002, when 473,000 graduates had taken an AP exam. Overall, 15,505 high schools offered AP exams in 2007, including 204 new public schools and 179 new private schools.

The report also shows that despite an increase in black and Latino students taking AP exams, the nationwide passing rate for these students remains low, even as overall student performance has improved. According to the report, only 3.3 percent of black students and 13.6 percent of Latino students had a passing AP score in 2007. The performance of these two groups is only slightly better than in 2002 when their passing rates on the tests was 2.8 percent and 12.2 percent respectively. Trevor Packer, vice president of the AP program at the College Board, says the results indicate that minorities, particularly, black students, "have not received fair and equitable preparation" for college-level work. His organization is working with several states, including Mississippi and Missouri, to raise the achievement of minority students by, among other things, investing in teacher training and offering more support to students in the earlier middle school and high school years.