Increased AP Participation: Blessing or Curse?

As high school students hunt for ways to distinguish themselves for colleges, the number taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes—the rigorous courses that can earn students college credit—has spiraled upward. But more AP test-takers has meant a higher failure rate, sparking a debate over whether students benefit when exposed to challenging material—or are being set up for failure.

Today, schools across the country are encouraging more and more students to take AP classes, which have become almost a requirement for applicants to top- and mid-level universities. In 2000, 768,586 students took almost 1.3 million tests. By last year, both numbers had more than doubled: 1.7 million students took 2.9 million tests. The odds a high schooler will take an AP test in a year are 1 in 10.47.

Many of the new test-takers are low-income students, who are being increasingly exposed to the high-level coursework that used to be the domain of students in better-funded districts. In 2004, low-income students made up just 13.7 percent of AP test takers; in 2009, the figure was 18.9 percent. But as the number of test takers has increased, scores have dropped. The average score fell from 3.02 in 2000 to 2.89 last year, when 1 in 2.41 students scored a 2 or lower—below the 3 that is needed to be considered a passing score.

Even though students from a broader economic range are taking AP tests, participation for some minority populations remains low. Black students represented 14.5% of last year’s graduating class, but made up only just over 8% of the AP exam population. And only 3.7% of black students who took an AP test scored a 3 or higher.

Critics say the high failure rates mean students aren’t ready for the tough classes, or that teachers aren’t adequately preparing students. The assumption that the more AP classes a student takes, the higher the chance that student will succeed in college, has led many high schools to mandate “‘helicopter drops’ of AP programs into schools that have neither a rigorous academic pipeline nor the resources to support the program,” according to Kristen Klopfenstein, a prominent AP critic and contributor to a new book tackling the debate. But supporters of the expansion say the courses can challenge and motivate students who wouldn’t normally be exposed to tougher classes. And a recent study by three Texas researchers—which followed hundreds of thousands of students—shows that students who take an AP exam but fail often still do better in college than students who don’t take AP courses at all.

In any case, school districts are prodding students to take more AP tests any way they can. The St. Paul Public Schools district recently earned a $1 million grant from the federal government to offer more AP classes online. In Houston, the new school superintendent is making a push to require students who take AP courses to take the AP test along with them (about a quarter of AP students don’t take the exam). And a new Indiana state law will require public colleges to award students credit for scoring a 3 on an AP exam—an added incentive for students, since some colleges currently accept only 4s and 5s.

New York has perhaps the most unorthodox method of all. There, a program started in 2008 pays students at some schools up to $1,000 for scoring a 4 or 5 on an AP test.

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