Hispanic students make strides on AP exams, College Board reports

The number of Hispanic students taking AP exams has increased dramatically, the College Board says. Hispanic students are a bigger percentage of those passing the exams than ever before.

Hispanic high school students in the US now make up a greater share of those achieving a passing score on an Advanced Placement (AP) exam than at any other point in the past decade, according to a report released Wednesday by the national College Board.

According to the College Board's annual report, the "AP Report to the Nation," 14.6 percent of US high school seniors who passed an AP exam in 2010 were Hispanic, an increase of 2.6 percent since 2001. The rise follows an effort by the College Board to recruit more minority students to take the demanding tests.

AP exams measure college-level competency in a wide range of subjects, from English and calculus to Spanish and US history, which test takers have usually studied in AP courses taught according to a standardized curriculum. The exams are graded on a 5-point scale and may confer college credit if a student passes with a score of 3 or higher.

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The increased representation among successful AP test takers by Hispanic students coincides with an even larger increase in their representation in the nation's high school population. There were 5.2 percent more Hispanic students in the graduating high school class of 2010 than in the class of 2001, according to the College Board.

While the overall number of AP test takers has nearly doubled since 2001, the College Board says, the number of Hispanic AP test takers has nearly tripled, increasing from 48,354 in 2001 to 136,717 in 2010. The number of passing Hispanic test takers grew from 33,479 to 74,479 over that period.

The news that more Hispanic students are taking and passing the AP exam comes at a time when 41 percent of the Hispanic population in the US above the age of 20 does not have a regular high school diploma, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

'More work needs to be done'

The overall percentage of American high school students who passed an AP test increased modestly between 2009 and 2010, rising from 16 to 16.9 percent.

Despite their progress, Hispanic students were still somewhat underrepresented among those who passed an AP test last year. While Hispanic students were 14.6 percent of those who passed an AP test, they made up 16 percent of AP test takers overall and 16.8 percent of the graduating high school class of 2010. Some 54.5 percent of all Hispanic test takers passed at least one AP test, compared with 59.6 percent of all students and 61.8 percent of white students.

That’s why Sue Landers, executive director of the AP program for the College Board, says more work needs to be done to improve minority test performance. “We would really like to see the diversity of our country reflected in our AP classrooms and in the demographics of students who succeed on the AP test,” she says in an interview.

For that reason, Ms. Landers explains, the AP program has made a “concerted effort” to recruit test takers from minority groups. Since 2001, the number of African-American AP test takers more than tripled, increasing from 23,906 to 73,270. Yet African-Americans remain underrepresented among AP test takers. While African-American students made up 14.6 percent of the 2010 senior class, they made up only 8.6 percent of AP test takers and a mere 2.3 percent of those who passed an AP exam that year.

Questions about recruitment

The move to increase access to the AP exam has not been without criticism. Robert Schaeffer, public-education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, says he has reservations about the recruitment campaign.

"It's questionable whether there's real educational value in getting everybody to take the AP exam even if they are not academically prepared," he says in an interview. "It's not clear that this benefits anyone except for the College Board."

However, AP calculus teacher Dixie Ross disagrees. Her school in Pflugerville, Texas, is very diverse, with a third of students identifying themselves as Hispanic and a quarter as African-American, she says. Her classes were once filled almost exclusively with white students but now include more minorities, a change she welcomes. The increased number of minority AP test takers is a sign of progress, Ms. Ross says in an interview.

“Historically, we’ve had huge wells of untapped talent, because we didn’t let people develop themselves if they looked different,” she says. “That’s been our country’s loss. We need to educate people from all walks of life.”

Students say AP helps

Ross says her students have told her that their AP experiences helped them succeed in college, and she says this was even true of some students who did not pass the exam.

Many academics have argued that those who perform well on AP tests are better prepared for higher education than those who do not, including researchers at the National Center for Educational Accountability and the College Board. Studies from both groups have shown a direct correlation between AP test performance and college graduation rates.

But Mr. Schaeffer argues that expanding the number of AP test takers has "diluted the pool" and produced high failure rates, particularly in math and science. According to the College Board's own report, the percentage of AP test takers who passed a single exam has dipped since 2001, from 64.3 percent to 59.6 percent. The report also acknowledges that more than 50 percent of biology AP test takers fail the exam.

"The increase in AP test takers is not the tremendous leap forward that people who sell the AP exam say it is," he said. "The AP is being pushed as yet another magic bullet solution to the problems in education, but is it really helpful for kids who are extremely unlikely to succeed" on the test?

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