As access to AP exams
grows, more students are doing better
By Joe Heim
The percentage of the country’s public high school students who scored
three or higher on AP exams continues to grow, according to results
released Wednesday by the College Board. Nationally, just under 22
percent of the class of 2016 achieved a three or better mark, up
slightly from 2015 and nearly eight points up from 2006.
Scores for Advanced Placement exams are on a five-point scale, with a
three generally considered passing. Higher AP scores allow students to
obtain college credits or skip entry-level college classes.
Massachusetts led all states with 31 percent of its students scoring
three or higher. Maryland, which had held the top spot since 2008,
dropped to second position with 30.4 percent of its students achieving
passing grades. Connecticut (30.1), Florida (29.5) and California
(28.5) rounded out the top five.
Seventeen states scored higher than the national average, including
Virginia (28.3). In the District of Columbia, which is included in the
results but whose test results cannot be easily compared with those of
states, 13.8 percent of the class of 2016 achieved three or better on
Last year, the District’s results were better than about half of all
states’. This year, 34 states performed better than the District.
Mississippi trailed all states with just under 6 percent of its
students achieving three or better. Louisiana, North Dakota, Nebraska
and Kansas were among the five worst-performing states.
AP exams are offered in a wide variety of subjects, and each year, more
students are taking them. In 2006, 645,000 students took at least one
AP exam each. In 2016 that number had grown to 1.1 million.
College Board President David Coleman said in a conference call with
reporters that while the number of students taking AP tests continues
to grow, the bigger news is that performance on the tests continues to
Citing research by Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute,
Coleman pointed to achievement gains on the AP after the tests were
made available to more students.
“Most people tend to believe that if you increase access in a big way,
you’re likely to compromise on quality,” Coleman said. “Against all
those instincts . . . the Advanced Placement program has radically
expanded access without compromising quality.”
Trevor Packer, a senior vice president at the College Board, said the
research was a “landmark” finding that showed more students had the
same academic ability “as the much smaller population that was getting
into AP classrooms so many years ago. In other words, educators have
been eradicating both the written and unwritten rules that restricted
college credit opportunities to artificial thresholds like the top 10
percent of a high school.”
A significant part of the increased participation in AP testing has
been by low-income students whose test fees have been paid in part with
federal funds. More than 450,000 students who took AP tests in 2016
received federal funding to help pay for the exams. Under a new federal
law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal funding for test fees
will be given to states to distribute.
That change worries Coleman, who said it has caught states and school
districts off guard.
“There’s a huge danger that without dedicated resources, these
participation rates shall be in danger, particularly among the most
vulnerable,” Coleman said.
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