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More Students Could Likely Excel in AP

Today, the College Board came out with new numbers for high school students taking Advanced Placement courses and passing the exams. (See complete story here.)

More students than ever are taking the exam, but the proportion of those getting a passing score of 3 or higher remains stagnant. The classrooms continue to be filled with a disproportionate number of white and Asian students, compared with underserved minorities.

An interesting new statistic that this year's 8th Annual Report to the Nation provides is a snapshot of students with the PSAT/NMSQT scores that indicate they would likely succeed in an AP class. Of the 771,000 students who have potential in a certain subject, just 62 percent took on the challenge.

Why the gap in ability versus participation?

For 33 percent of the students, their school did not offer the course, Trevor Packer, senior vice president of AP and college readiness for the College Board, said in a conference call with reporters this morning.

As for the rest?

Some students fear the course is too hard and they worry that won't be able take on the challenge of a college-level class in high school, he said. For others, the culture of the course seems forbidding and minority students sometimes express a feeling of being out of place in a course with students who are not from their same background, said Packer.

There are also issues of artificial gatekeeping. Some schools only let the academic top 10 percent of students enroll in AP. These policies are troublesome, said Packer, especially in light of this new data that show many more students are prepared for AP classes than participate.

With 68.5 percent of the class of 2011 going to college, it's not in the best interest of getting students ready for college to limit AP enrollment. "If you have that large of a college-going population, we would argue that students deserve a taste of college or what college is going to be like in the more familiar environment of a high school classroom, and AP can provide that," said Packer.

To increase participation, more schools need to offer AP and, where it exists, improved counseling and supports for students could help, he said.

Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former governor of West Virginia, said he's surprised that gatekeeping policies still exist. "That sends a message to the other 90 percent: Don't aspire," says Wise. "Every place I've seen where students were challenged to do more, and were given the supports to do that, they rose to that challenge."

In the conference call today, Packer said the report's findings that there were greater gaps in ability versus participation among underserved minorities was both "haunting and powerful." The PSAT scores showing more students have potential than participate, underscores the need for increasing access to AP for all students, said Packer. "While AP is not for the elite, it is for the prepared," he said.

The College Board has found that students who take an AP class and score 3 or higher (on the 1-5 point scale) are more likely to get higher grades in college and finish a degree.

Of the students who participated in an AP course, 80 percent took the AP exam, added Packer. Wise maintains that even if students don't do well on the final exam, that exposure to the advanced course is worthwhile to prepare for college.

For the complete report, with a breakdown of state performance, click here. There are also examples of districts that have been successful simultaneously expanding the pool of AP test-takers and increasing scores, as well as strategies for policymakers to promote AP equity and access.

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