AP Courses Grow in Popularity – But So Do Failure Rates

The interest in Advanced Placement classes is growing in schools, as districts around the country are working to improve their academic ratings by increasing the curriculum choices offered in even the most under-performing students. Once offered only to the most advanced kids, the courses, and the exams, which can be used for college credit after graduation, are now available to a wider pool of students. Educators see them as a useful tool in toughening up academic programs and also as a good way of helping kids lower their college tuition bills.

After all, taking an exam costs hardly anything, especially for low-income students whose fees are partially or fully subsidized by the federal government, but passing one can replace a year-long college course which costs many times as much as the test.

Although the trend recalls the popular and inspirational film “Stand and Deliver,” which told a story of an Calculus teacher dragging minority students, sometimes kicking and screaming, towards passing the end-of-course exam, the real world results are not quite a Cinderella story.

According to the Boston Globe, although the number of students passing the exams has grown over the last ten years, so has the number of students failing them.

Last year, 18 percent of U.S. high school graduates passed at least one AP exam (by scoring 3 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5), up from 11 percent a decade ago.

But there also many more students falling short — way short — on the exams.

The proportion of all tests taken last year earning the minimal score of 1 increased over that time, from 13 percent to 21 percent. At many schools, virtually no students pass.

One of the examples cited in the story, that of Indiana, which is one of the states most committed to expanding their AP programs, has more than a handful of school districts where despite having an average number of AP test takers, haven’t got a single students who passed.

Baltimore’s Academy for College & Career Exploration, where 81 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch programs in 2010, added three AP classes in recent years. Over the past two years, just two of 62 exams taken by its students earned a 3.

Still, some argue that just taking college-level coursework in high school is beneficent, even without the added reward of college credit. Furthermore, it will soon be possible to use AP courses to plug an educational hole that is suffered by many current high school graduates: the ability to research, put together and write a “term” paper. A new AP class, currently being trialled in 15-18 schools in the U.S. will teach students research writing, which will entail a small group of classmates working together to write a 5,000-word paper for their final grade.

Of course, the College Board, which administers AP classes and is running the pilot program, is still behind the curve on the importance of the written word. Its main competitor, the International Baccalaureate, which offers its own college-level courses and tests, has had an long essay as part of its requirement for many years.

05 8, 2012