Nearly a quarter of Maryland's graduating seniors passed at least one Advanced Placement exam last year, the highest passing rate among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to a report from the College Board released today. New York, Virginia, and Connecticut trailed Maryland, but not by much. Louisiana did the worst, with only 3.7 percent of its seniors passing an AP exam, which was a modest improvement over last year.
High school students who pass an AP exam can earn credits and advanced standing at colleges and universities. Research also shows that students who do well on the tests are more likely to graduate with a bachelor's degree in four years. It remains to be seen whether these credits will financially help this year's entering freshmen who are worried about paying for college in a recession. Not all colleges accept AP credits, and students typically don't use them to graduate early. (U.S. News uses AP data for its Best High Schools rankings.)
The fifth annual "AP Report to the Nation" shows that 15.2 percent of the nation's seniors who graduated in 2008 passed one or more AP exams with a score of 3 or higher, an increase from 14.4 percent for the graduating class the previous year. There were nearly 758,000 students in the class of 2008 who took at least one AP exam, up from 516,000 students in 2003. Maryland, which boasts a 23.4 pass rate on AP exams, outperformed New York (23.3), Virginia (21.3), and Connecticut (21).
Despite the expansion of the AP program, the report shows that states continue to struggle to ensure that minority high school students enroll and succeed in AP coursework. African-American students seem to be especially at a disadvantage. None of the 50 states or D.C. has been able to close what the College Board calls the "equity and excellence" gap for these students. For example, in Alabama, where black students make up 32 percent of the state's student population, only 7 percent of the students who score a 3 on at least one AP exam are black.
Trevor Packer, who heads the AP division of the College Board, points out that California, Florida, and Texas have seen improved results for Latino students. He says those states have used the AP program longer than many states and have more initiatives to help minority students succeed in AP classes. But only 18 states have closed the access and performance gap for Latino students.
Asian-Americans students are the only demographic group overrepresented in AP classes.
It's too early to know how the recession will affect the number of students taking AP exams. Each exam costs $86. Many states wave the exam fee for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. But students who don't qualify for fee waivers may be forced to be more selective about which tests they take this spring, College Board officials acknowledge.
Packer says he expects the federal government will continue to offer assistance to states that want to expand AP classes, especially at high schools in low-income communities. His organization, which in recent years has expanded training for AP teachers, is also concerned about high schools that will lose their most experienced AP teachers in the next five years. He estimates that 39 percent of AP teachers will retire during that time.
Clarification added on 02/05/09: Additional detail was inserted to the statistic about Alabama's black students and AP exams.