Number of AP Test Takers Has Nearly Doubled Since 2001

February 09, 2011

The number of high-school seniors who took at least one Advanced Placement examination before graduating has almost doubled since 2001, according to the College Board's annual AP report, released on Wednesday.

In 2010, 853,314 graduating seniors at public high schools had taken at least one AP exam. That's an increase of more than 55,000 students since 2009.

The number of students who performed well on the exams—a score of 3 or better—is also up from 2009. In the Class of 2010, 16.9 percent of graduates met that mark on at least one AP exam, a slight increase from 16 percent in 2009. And 12,705 public schools had AP students in 2010, an increase of 165 schools over the year before.

AP scores range from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest and 3 predicting success in college-level coursework, according to the College Board.

The report stresses the importance of mathematics and science exams and cites data from the Harvard Education Press that show that students who take AP math or science exams are more likely than their peers to earn degrees in related fields.

"We need to make sure that we're building the strongest math and science programs in high school so we can really fortify students for what they will experience in college," said Trevor Packer, vice president of the College Board.

However, disparities in students' scores on math and science exams show that many schools struggle to prepare students for AP exams in those areas. Although more than 70 percent of test takers in AP Calculus BC, Computer Science AB, and Physics C: Mechanics received a score of 3 or higher, more than 30 percent of test takers in AP Biology, Calculus AB, Chemistry, Computer Science A, and Environmental Science exams received a 1.

Mr. Packer says some high schools rush students into AP science courses without first putting them through high-school-level biology and chemistry classes, which leads to a high volume of low scores on those exams. The report lists guidelines for the minimum coursework students should complete before enrolling in AP math and science courses.

Closing the Performance Gap

Black students made up 14.6 percent of the 2010 graduating class, but only 3.9 percent of graduates who successfully completed one AP exam. The imbalance for Hispanic students was considerably smaller: Hispanics made up 16.8 percent of the graduating class, and 14.6 percent of students who successfully completed at least one AP exam. Hispanic graduates were most likely to have taken the Spanish Language exam.

Although minority students remain underrepresented in most AP classrooms, some states have reduced inequities for certain minority groups. Sixteen states have closed the performance gap for American Indian/Alaska native students, 14 have done so for Hispanic students, and two states—Hawaii and South Dakota—have done the same for black students. But no state has entirely closed the achievement gap for all underrepresented students.

"We need to focus efforts on preparing students in urban, rural, and low-income schools in the years prior to AP," Mr. Packer said. "That is where a lot of good can be done in helping prepare more underserved students to succeed."

Corrections (2/10, 12:30 p.m.): This article has been updated to correct three errors. In the third paragraph, the 16.9-percent figure refers to graduates in the Class of 2010, not all test takers in 2010. In the ninth paragraph, the 3.9-percent figure refers to the black-student share of graduates who completed one AP exam, not that 3.9 percent of black students completed an exam. Also in that paragraph, a majority of Hispanic test takers did not take the Spanish Language exam, but Hispanic graduates were most likely to have taken it.