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California high schoolers do better and take more AP exams

February 9, 2011 |  6:40 pm

More California students are taking Advanced Placement tests for college credit, and low-income students are participating and succeeding at a greater rate than in other states, according to a report released Wednesday by the College Board. But Latino and particularly black students are still underrepresented in AP classrooms, and those who took the courses posted scores well below other groups.

Last year, 34% of California seniors took at least one AP exam, up from 28.6% in 2006. About 22.3% of public school students scored a 3 or better on one or more of the AP tests, ranking the state sixth in the nation. Maryland ranked first, with 26.4% of its students achieving that benchmark.

“As educators and policymakers have expanded AP access beyond the elite few, more students have been led to achieve,” College Board President Gaston Caperton said of the California results. “Performing well on an AP exam is a pathway to further success in college.”

Advanced Placement courses offer college-level material to high school students, with exams scored on a scale of 1 to 5. Colleges and universities typically give students credit for scores of 3 or better.
About 35% of California seniors who took an AP exam were low-income, up from 27% in 2006. Nearly one-third of those students scored a 3 or higher on an exam. Nationally, 21% of low-income seniors took an AP exam and only about 16% scored 3 or better.

But the stubborn achievement gap among black and Latinos remains a “concern,” said Trevor Packer, the nonprofit College Board’s vice president. Blacks, for example, accounted for 7% of the graduating class of 2010  in California, but fewer than 4% took an AP exam and fewer than 2% scored at least a 3.

The Advanced Placement program has come under increasing criticism by many who complain that more exams are offered in affluent, suburban schools than those in low-income, rural and minority communities. Some independent schools have stopped offering the courses. And critics complain that some students skip the exam and take the classes solely to increase grade-point averages for college.

“There’s a lot of ballyhoo about the AP, but in the overall context of education reform, it’s not a significant factor,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the Boston-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “The AP doesn’t address the needs of kids who have been left behind and in many cases just makes more opportunity available to kids who already had the best chance to succeed.”

Nonetheless, the courses remain popular and for many schools are a gauge of progress and cause for bragging rights. Wednesday’s report, for example, singled out Eagle Rock High School for its success with Latino students taking the AP Environmental Science exam.

Latinos make up nearly 69% of students at the school. More than one-third of the 97 students who took the exam scored a 3 or better. Overall, the numbers of students taking AP exams increased 33% in the last five years, said Principal Salvador Velasco.

“We have made sure that we have a culture of success and an understanding among students that you don’t need to be among an elite group of students with all A’s to take an exam,” Velasco said. “We’ve had success in motivating students to give the AP a try and presenting it as a challenge.”

--Carla Rivera