The story behind the rise in AP testing

The U.S. Department of Education released a report last week documenting huge increases in the numbers of black and Hispanic students taking Advanced Placement exams in high school. In the nine-year period from 1997-2005, the number of Hispanic students taking the tests increased 213 percent and the number of black students taking the tests increased by 177 percent.

That sounds like good news but may not be.

The College Board has administered the Advanced Placement program since 1955. AP exams are given every May. The program was originally intended to give elite high school students a chance to take some college courses. But, as The New York Times reported last year, “in recent decades, it has morphed into something quite different — a mass program that reaches more than a million students each year and is used almost as much to impress college admissions officers and raise a school’s reputation as to get college credit.”

Referring to the 2006 exams, Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, announced early in February that “all 50 states and the District of Columbia have increased the percentage of students succeeding in AP.”

Success in AP courses is defined as achieving a three or better on a five-point scale on the exam because that is the number the College Board has arbitrarily decided should qualify for college credit. Many colleges disagree, however, at least in part because they believe AP expansion has resulted in erosion of program standards.

William Lichten, an emeritus physics professor from Yale, released a report earlier this year highlighting that fewer and fewer colleges are giving students credit for scores of three on the AP exam. According to Lichten’s research, the average “cut score” at which colleges grant placement credit for AP has risen about a half a point since 1998.In other words, many schools will only give students credit for grades of four; some of the most selective schools such as Harvard will only give credit for grades of five; and, at Stanford and other institutions, many departments give no AP credit at all.

Last week, Trevor Packer, executive director of the College Board’s Advanced Placement program, told Education Week of another drawback to the AP exam-taking trends. Packer mentioned that there is a “dark underbelly” to the growth of AP because “there have been entire schools or districts where almost no students are scoring 3 or higher.”

The minority numbers are particularly discouraging.

Nationally, the most frequent score on 30 out of 35 tests for African-American students in 2006 was a 1, the score an examinee gets for signing her name to a test. The average score for African-American students was under 2, over a full point lower than the mean for Asian students. For Hispanic students, on a majority of the tests, the most frequent score was also a 1.

Between 1997-2005 AP passing scores for exams taken by Hispanics, the fastest-growing percentage of test takers, dropped more than 14 percent from 61.1 percent to 46.7 percent. During the same time frame, black passing scores decreased from 35.9 percent to 28.6 percent. Sending unprepared or underprepared students to take college-level tests does not benefit those students.

The backstory of AP expansion is not that it is a means to benefit minorities but that it has become an out-of-control shootout for top students vying for spots at selective colleges.

The College Board’s agenda is to continue the expansion of the AP program. Before we invest more dollars in expanding the AP program, the public has a right to know that there is a growing test failure rate, that colleges are becoming more and more wary of granting AP credit, and that the intended targets of AP expansion are not being particularly well-served.

Patrick Mattimore teaches AP psychology at a college preparatory school in San Francisco. He is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism.


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