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Advanced Placement

AP Exam Pass Rates Rise Even as Participation Doubles

The College Board, which runs the Advanced Placement program, with courses that grant college credit to high schoolers, used the timing of its release of 2016 AP results to encourage states to continue subsidizing access to AP exams for low-income students and to promote its newest AP course, AP Computer Science Principles.

First, the results from 2016. According to the non-profit, which also runs the SAT college entrance exam program, the number of public high school students (typically juniors and seniors) taking at least one AP exam has doubled over the last decade, from 645,000 in 2006 to 1.1 million in 2016. The pass rate (those high school students who have scored 3 or higher) has also gone up, from 14 percent in 2006 to almost 22 percent in 2016.

Among individual states, the top scorers in 2016 were:

  • Massachusetts, where 31 percent of students passed an AP exam;
  • Maryland, where 30.4 percent passed;
  • Connecticut, where 30.1 percent passed;
  • Florida, where 29.5 percent passed; and
  • California, where 28.5 percent passed.

Even as more students are taking part in the AP program, performance hasn't declined. "There is a widespread belief in education that it is impossible to expand access while maintaining high performance. The AP program tells a different story," said David Coleman, president and CEO of the College Board, in a prepared statement. "Across the country AP participation rates are rising, as are passing rates for AP exams. State and district leaders who have acted decisively to increase AP access are seeing those efforts pay off for students."

Access encompasses two aspects. First, there's access to college credit — the guarantee that a state's public colleges and universities will award credit for AP exam scores that qualify. The College Board said currently 22 states have AP credit policies in place.

Second, there's access to the exams themselves. Starting in 1998, the federal government dedicated funding for AP exam fee discounts for low-income students, and the College Board itself reduced the fees for a total of 450,000 students. Changes to school funding introduced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) eliminated the direct federal coverage and put the burden on states and local education agencies to pick up the slack, tapping their own budgets or using funding under ESSA Title IV or Title I.

That was the case in Kentucky, which announced in December that its department of education would use state funds to cover the gap posed by ESSA, and Texas, where the state's education agency recently said that it would provide funding for each AP exam taken by low-income students through a combination of state subsidies and ESSA Title IV-A federal funds.

Starting in summer 2017, Title IV-A funds may be used to cover part or all of the cost of AP exam fees for low-income students in any school, to fund specific AP courses and exams, and to increase student access to postsecondary-level instruction and exams, including AP.

Also, under the new education regulations, states will be allowed to set aside three percent of their Title I funds from fiscal year 2017 to provide grants to districts for "direct student services," which may encompass helping to fund AP exam fees and offering AP courses not currently provided. That option will be available beginning with the May 2018 exams.

The organization behind the AP program also heralded the popularity of its new course, AP CS Principles, which launched in fall 2016 and has been picked up by more than 2,500 schools. According to the College Board, the classes in this program can be led by teachers from myriad backgrounds, enabling schools that lack dedicated computer science teachers to deliver the course.

"We believe all students deserve to attend a high school that provides coursework like AP Computer Science Principles, a class designed to prepare students for the incredible career opportunities of our century," noted Trevor Packer, the College Board senior vice president responsible for the AP CS program.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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