Though recent studies have suggested the majority of American students lag behind foreign peers in math and science education, a report released last week highlights the positive strides U.S. public schools have made in advanced math and science education during the past decade.
The number of Advanced Placement test takers—and high scorers—in public high schools has increased significantly since 2001, according to the College Board's "7th Annual AP Report to the Nation." High school student involvement in advanced math and science courses, in particular, has surged. In 2010, 312,803 pubic high school seniors had taken a math AP test at some point in high school, up from 166,905 students who had in 2001. Science fields also saw a strong boost in AP test participation; 288,554 public high seniors in 2010 took an AP test in a science discipline in high school, more than double the 134,957 seniors who had taken a test in 2001.
In both disciplines, more students are now scoring at least a 3 out of 5—a score largely considered an indicator of future college success—than the total number of students who simply took the tests in 2001.
AP courses and tests do more than gauge a student's mastery of an in-depth subject. Female and minority students who take an AP course in a math or science discipline are much more likely to pursue and excel in that subject in college, according to a previous report by the College Board. And domestic students who succeed in advanced placement science and math courses have higher proficiency levels than most foreign competitors, according to an often-cited report from 2001 released by Boston College's TIMSS Center.
"Because of the dire statistics showing that America has fallen behind, educators do consciously see AP as a way of elevating the level of rigor and quality in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] education in the country," says Trevor Packer, vice president of the Advanced Placement Program for the College Board.
AP courses are not "magic," Packer notes, but are valuable to students because the curricula are created by college professors who endeavor to introduce students to a discipline and prepare them for the college major.
"It gets students excited to become STEM majors," says Gregg Fleisher, national AP training and incentives program director at the National Math and Science Initiative, which aims to better STEM education in schools across the country. "A lot of kids don't think they can handle it, and when they know in high school that they can handle college-level work, it inspires them. AP math and science classes are really a starting point for which they begin their career."
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For Rohit Agrawal, a high school senior at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minn., the six AP courses he took gave him an introduction to a broad range of STEM disciplines. Agrawal, who was recently recognized as the nation's top-scoring male student on STEM AP tests by the nonprofit Siemens Foundation, says because the AP tests are a nationwide standard, his high scores gave him confidence. "It gives me some indication of 'Do I actually know the material?'" Agrawal says. "I wasn't just fooling myself or anyone else into thinking that I did."
The wide variety of AP courses he was exposed to have helped the high school senior to narrow his college focus to a STEM major, perhaps in computer science, he says. Agrawal is deciding between attending Harvard University or MIT, with a hope of one day becoming a professor of math or science.
For schools with less robust AP programs than Agrawal's, simply adding more advanced courses is not enough, College Board's Packer says. He claims a concerted curriculum should begin in middle school, with step-by-step increases in complexity so students can handle AP courses in high school, and, in turn, courses in college. "What happens too often now is we don't worry about college readiness until it's too late," Packer says. "You put a student in an AP class and it's just too challenging because it's such a jump."
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This continued attention to improving STEM education, coupled with nationwide initiatives, is reason to be optimistic, says Jeniffer Harper-Taylor, president of the Siemens Foundation. "There's been so much spotlight put on math and science that it really is becoming the rockstar of what's happening in educational research," Harper says. "There can't be enough people that can invest in this for us to be part of the global fabric of leaders in the area of STEM."
See U.S. News's coverage of the country's Best High Schools.
Corrected on 2/15/11: An earlier version of this story did not specify that an AP test-taking statistic reflected math tests only.