Advanced Placement courses nearly double in popularity in past decade

The Associated Press

Students Julian Lopez, 12th grade, second left; Ben Montalbano, 11th grade, second right; and James Agostino, 12th grade, right; listen during their Advanced Placement (AP) Physics class at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. The College Board says in a new report that the number of U.S. public students taking Advanced Placement classes doubled over the last decade. The class of 2013 of took 3.2 million AP exams. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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By KIMBERLY HEFLING, AP Education Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Columbus McKinney is taking his fifth Advanced Placement course at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, undeterred even though he didn't score high enough to get college credit on two of the AP classes he took previously.

McKinney said he thinks the extra workload is worth it no matter the grade on the final exam. "It prepares you for what it's going to be like when you get to college," the 17-year-old said during a break from his AP Physics course.

McKinney is part of a larger trend: The number of U.S. public school students taking Advanced Placement classes nearly doubled over the last decade. The class of 2013 took 3.2 million AP exams, according to a College Board report to be released Tuesday.

Advanced Placement exams, which started in the 1950s, offer a way for students to earn college credit while still in high school and are offered in 34 different subjects. The classes are designed to be rigorous and are graded in a uniform way, meaning students' grades from one school can be matched up against those from another. Proponents say they help transition students to college and allow graduates to stand out in the college admission process.

Much of the expansion stems from an effort at the district, state and federal levels to make AP classes available to low-income and minority students. The report finds that the number of low-income graduates who took an AP exam has quadrupled in the last decade.

The College Board points out there's room for more expansion: About 40 percent of public U.S. high schools don't offer any AP classes. And nearly 300,000 students who were identified by standardized tests as having potential to succeed in AP graduated without taking the classes. It is reaching out directly to students identified as potentially ready for AP classes to encourage them to take them and has teamed with Google to get more female and minority students into AP science and math classes.

There are questions, though, about whether doors to AP classes have been opened too wide and whether schools are doing enough to assist students in them.

In 2013, about 57 percent of AP exams had a score of 3 or higher — the grade many colleges and universities require to award college credit — compared with 61 percent a decade earlier, according to the College Board. That means students did not score a 3 or higher on about 1.4 million exams.

Looking at it in another way, about 20 percent of graduates in 2013 earned a 3 or higher on an AP exam, compared with about 12 percent of graduates in 2003.

Research is unclear on whether there are long-term benefits to taking an AP class if the student fails, said Kristin Klopfenstein, executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado, who has studied the issue. Among those students, she suspects it's only those who were on the cusp of passing who get much benefit.

Klopfenstein said from an equity standpoint, it's good to increase the availability of AP classes. But students may not truly have "access" to the exams unless they've been given a quality education to prepare them for the class or extra support to help them succeed.

"Access is much more than about offering the courses, it's about offering wrap-around support, so that kids who are coming in farther behind have a chance to take AP and actually be successful," Klopfenstein said.

Philip Sadler, a Harvard University professor who has also studied AP outcomes, said that for some students coming in unprepared for AP level work, it would be like enrolling in an advanced French class without having taken a previous French class. "AP can be a really good thing for the right student," Sadler said.