More students are taking–and passing–Advanced Placement (AP) exams in every part of the country, as college-level work in high school becomes increasingly common, the College Board reported Jan. 25. Many state education officials attribute the gains in participation at least in part to online courses that expand the reach of advanced-level instruction.

In every state and the District of Columbia, the percentage of public school students who took–and who passed–at least one AP test was up in 2004, compared with the graduating class of 2000.

Passing-rate gains ranged from just six-tenths of a percentage point by Louisiana and Mississippi to 5.7 percentage points by Florida, reported the College Board, the nonprofit organization that runs the AP program.

Significant gaps remain, however, even as AP participation booms nationwide, according to the first state-by-state report in the 50-year history of the college-level testing program.

Many students enter college without having passed an AP test, the College Board reported; and black students have low test participation and scores that average a full level behind those of whites.

The Bush administrations in Washington and Florida, which have been pushing to increase high school rigor, embraced the positive news, which followed other reports that have underscored how unprepared many high school graduates are for college or work.

“Florida has developed a strong and unique partnership with the College Board that has expanded college preparatory course work to more minorities and under represented youth,” Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, said in Tallahassee, Fla.

College Board President Caston Caperton cited Florida’s progress, saying it “presents a national model.”

The AP program, which began as an experiment for elite students seeking college courses and credit, has now become a fixture in more than 14,000 U.S. public schools. Beyond gaining experience, a student gains an edge; college admission officers say they place more importance on grades in college-prep courses such as AP than they do on any other factor.

Across the country, 20.9 percent of the public school class of 2004–one in five students–took at least one AP exam, compared with 15.9 percent four years earlier. More significantly, 13.2 percent mastered an AP exam last year, up from 10.2 percent in 2000.

Research shows that success on AP exams is a strong predictor of success in college.

“This new report provides further proof that our children respond when we challenge them academically,” said U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who began her term last week. Spellings said she was especially happy to see more minorities taking AP courses. That has been a long-standing challenge for the College Board.

Hispanics made up 13.1 percent of AP test-takers last year, up from 10.9 percent. Their participation slightly exceeds their share of the public school population. AP Spanish appears to be influencing those numbers, because 53 percent of its participants are Hispanic.

Black students remain underrepresented in the AP program. They account for 13.2 percent of the students but only 6 percent of AP test-takers, up from 5.3 percent four years ago.

About two in three AP test-takers are white.

To avoid inflating state performance, the College Board counted students once regardless of how many AP subject tests they passed. But that obscures the point that students in wealthy areas often have access to multiple AP courses while other students do not, said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, which monitors standardized testing.

“Unfortunately, despite the value of AP courses, they end up reinforcing huge gaps between haves and have-nots because of differences in where courses are offered,” he said.

Online instruction is quickly changing that, however–especially in rural areas.

Michelle Mehlberg, head of South Dakota’s office of curriculum, technology, and assessment, said the advent of virtual learning has greatly increased student participation in AP courses across South Dakota, especially in remote districts, where access to these and other opportunities is traditionally lower than in more urban or affluent areas.

This year, Mehlberg said, at least 86 of the state’s students are enrolled in an online AP course from Seattle-based APEX Learning. She said South Dakota boasts a 95-percent pass rate for its students enrolled in AP courses–including those who take classes via the internet.

Mary Haas, AP mentor for the 1,000-student Del Rapids Public School District in rural South Dakota, said online courses offer “a great opportunity” for students in rural districts, noting that kids are leaving high school feeling better equipped to succeed at the next level.

Before online AP courses, Haas said, districts like Del Rapids “were pretty much limited to what they had on staff.” While the school system boasts a corps of intensely committed educators at every level, she said, no one is an expert on every subject.

Deborah Hinckley, public affairs director for the Wyoming Department of Education–yet another system that relies heavily on the internet to help bridge the rural divide–said the online AP courses and other opportunities available through the state’s high-speed data and video network have opened the door for children to learn and succeed in ways she never would have thought possible.

To date, she said, there remain only approximately eight districts throughout the state that offer no form of online learning for students. Aside from the dozens of AP courses available on the network, she said, the state also offers foreign-language instruction and other difficult-to-staff subjects.

On a 5-point scale, the typical AP test score is 2 for black students, between 2.5 and 2.8 for Hispanic students, and 3 for white students, the College Board reported.

New York is the first state to have more than 20 percent of its graduating class achieve a grade of 3 or higher on the exam, the level considered to be mastery. New York’s challenging standards and state testing have encouraged AP enrollment, state officials said.

Other states were close to New York; Maryland, Utah, Florida, California, and Massachusetts, with anywhere from 18 to 20 percent of students earning the passing score.

Besides Florida, the states with the greatest increases in successful AP scores were Maryland, North Carolina, Colorado, Connecticut, and Washington.


Advanced Placement program

Interactive map of AP results by state