DC Schools Expand AP Courses, But Pass Rates Remain Low


As part of the Year of the High School initiative started by Washington, DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, the district is moving forward with plans to increase the number of Advanced Placement courses offered at all DCPS high schools.

Beginning this year, the minimum number of AP courses offered at DCPS high schools will rise from four to six.  Next year, all high schools will need to meet the increased minimum of eight courses.

The expansion comes as part of a nationwide effort to offer all students the opportunity to benefit from the college-level courses no matter how prepared they are to do so, writes Natalie Wexler for The Washington Post.

Across the country, the rate of students participating in AP courses have more than doubled over the past ten years, as 2.5 million students took at least one AP exam in 2015.  However, the failure rate has grown even more rapidly as a direct result of more low-income and minority students are participating, signalling that they haven’t been prepared for the advanced coursework.

Scores are offered on a scale of 1 to 5, with the College Board, who administers the exams, considering 3 to be a passing score.  Students who earn a 3 can receive college credit for the class, although many universities will only accept a 4 or 5 in exchange for credits.

While 60% of all test takers across the nation earned at least a 3 on an exam, the pass rate for African-American students was found to be only half of that for white students.

Within the DCPS school system, the percentage of students who earned a 3 or better has risen from 27% in 2010 to 33% in 2015.  However, those figures do not show how students in individual schools are faring on the exams.  Students at some schools could be taking several exams and performing well on them.

School-by-school pass rates have not been released for DCPS, with spokesperson Michelle Lerner saying that some AP courses are so small that doing so could identify individual students.  However, Eric Martel, a retired DCPS teacher, was able to calculate school-level scores based on information received from an internal source.

Using data from tests taken in 2012 and 2013, he found that at some schools, almost every test taken received a score of 1.

While the overall pass rate for 2013 was 31%, at some high-poverty schools the passing rate was less than 4%.  Across the district, around 46% of tests taken received the lowest possible score of 1.  However, advocates of AP expansion continue to argue that even if students do not pass the exams, participation in the classes and exams still offer benefits for students.