By Paul Kita
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON About a quarter of American high school students are putting their pencils to advanced placement tests in hopes of gaining an edge in the competitive college process.
According to a report released by the College Board Tuesday, the number of high school students taking AP exams has increased by about 8 percent since 2000.
“Through federal funding, low-income students in all 50 states can take AP exams virtually for free,” said Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board. “This cooperative effort has brought real and tangible results.”
A higher percentage of students taking the exams is scoring better, as well. In 2000, about 10 percent of students earned a score of 3 or higher - the equivalent of a B to C letter grade - on an AP exam. In 2006, almost 15 percent of students taking an AP exam scored a 3 or higher, according to the study. The top score is a 5.
Students who get at least 3 points on the exam gain college credits while in high school, allowing them to bypass entry-level courses at most colleges.
More students are scoring well on AP exams because of the AP Incentive Program, Caperton said. The program links students with teachers and professionals, who help them prepare for AP tests.
In addition, the College Board recently began the AP Course Audit, which helps high school teachers tailor their AP course curriculums to better match the standardized AP exams.
The College Board offers 37 AP courses and 22 subject-area exams, adding Chinese and Japanese language courses for the current school year.
Yet despite what the study calls the “increased diversification of the AP classroom,” the percentage of American Indians and blacks remains significantly underrepresented in AP courses nationwide.
About a quarter of high school students take at least one AP exam during their high school years.
While blacks make up 13.7 percent of students, they make up just 6.9 percent of test-takers. Similarly, American Indians make up 1.1 percent of students but just 0.6 percent of test takers.
The percent of Hispanics who take tests matches their representation in the student body - 14 percent. Whites, who make up 65 percent of students, account for 62 percent of test-takers. Asian students are overrepresented - they make up 5.5 percent of students and 10.8 percent of test-takers.
The College Board - a nonprofit association that connects students and universities - introduced the AP exam in 1955. The exams are intended to motivate high school students to take college-level courses in high school.
Celina Guerra, a freshman at Harvard University who spoke at the press conference, said AP exams were an “equalizer” for students of various ethnic and economic backgrounds.
Born to former migrant farm workers, Guerra said she took nine or ten AP courses while attending Edinburg North High School in Edinburg, Texas.
Most students take one AP course in high school, said Trevor Packer, executive director of the advanced placement program, in defense of recent criticism that students take on a stressful course loads laden with AP classes because it will make them more marketable to colleges.
Packer said that students like Guerra taking nine or more AP courses represent only 0.6 percent of AP students.
“There are situations in the country where students are taking tremendous numbers - eight, nine, 10 AP courses - in order to impress admissions offices,” Packer said. “Our conversations with the College Board, with admissions officers indicate that they see three, four, five AP courses and that’s sufficient. Beyond that, they are interested in students that are pursuing other forms of high school experiences.”