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Students Taking AP Exams in Record Numbers

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Data released by the College Board on February 9, 2011 reveals that the number of high school seniors who took at least one Advanced Placement (AP) exam before their graduation has doubled since 2001.

The number of students who performed well on AP exams is up from previous years, but the number of students that did poorly has also increased. Statistics suggest that problems exist in our nation’s high schools.

Students Take AP Exams in Hopes of Earning College Credit

Advanced Placement exams, taken by high school students during the month of May, are typically a conclusion of a year-long AP course. To provide access to AP exams to homeschooled students and students whose schools do not offer particular AP courses, though, students are not required to take the corresponding AP course in order to sit for the exam.

AP exam scores range from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest and 3 predicting success in college-level coursework. Policies vary by institution, but over 90% of 4-year colleges and universities in the United States and colleges in more than 60 other countries grant college credit or waive course prerequisites if a student receives a score of 3 or higher on an AP exam.

Although it’s not part of the official Advanced Placement program, some colleges even take students’ AP classes and scores into consideration for admission.

Record Number of Class of 2010 Students Took AP Exams

According to the College Board’s 7th Annual AP Report to the Nation, more than 850,000 members of the class of 2010 took at least one AP exam during high school. That’s an impressive increase of over 55,000 students from 2009 and nearly double the number of students who took an AP exam in 2001, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Education experts attribute the record-breaking number of AP students to the recent national effort to prepare more students for college, but many schools are pushing ill-prepared students into AP courses and “watering down” AP curriculums to accommodate these lower-performing students. Some students simply sign up for AP courses hoping it will look good on their college applications, explains the Wall Street Journal.

Passing and Failing AP Exam Scores Increased in 2010

More students performed well on AP exams in 2010 compared to the year before— 16.9% of test takers earned a score of 3 or higher on at least one AP exam, a slight increase from 16% in 2009. The number of schools offering AP courses also increased in 2010— 12,705 public schools had AP students in 2010, an increase of 165 schools over the year before.

Even though an impressive 28% of the high school class of 2010 took at least one AP exam, students failed 56% of all AP exams they took, compared with 39% in 2001. Students in the class of 2010 received a 1—the lowest score possible—on 23% of the AP exams they took. In 2001, that number was only 14 percent, reports AOL News.

Students did especially poorly on science and math exams. Data shows that the class of 2010 earned the lowest possible score on 37% of biology exams and 34% of calculus AB exams, according to the Wall Street Journal.

AP Students Ill-Prepared in Science and Math

The College Board speculates that many students were not adequately prepared for these college-level science and math courses. “We need to make sure that we’re building the strongest math and science programs in high school so we can really fortify students for what they will experience in college,” Trevor Packer, vice president of the College Board, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Simply expanding course enrollment in AP is not enough. Schools need to ensure that students exit the courses ready for college-level work,” he believes.

Packer says that some high schools rush students into AP science courses without first putting them through high-school-level biology and chemistry classes, which leads to a high volume of low scores on those exams. The new College Board AP report lists guidelines for the minimum coursework students should complete before enrolling in AP math and science courses.

AP Exam Inequities among Minority and Low-Income Students

The number of minority and low-income teenagers taking AP exams nearly tripled in the past decade, but their scores are disappointing, reports the Huffington Post. Just 14% of Hispanic and Latino students in the class of 2010 earned a passing AP grade. Only 4% of black students passed AP exams.

“I wish we could fix this overnight, but it doesn’t fix overnight. When you bring in more test-takers, you get more students who are edging over and challenging themselves for the first time. It’s a long process … to set the bar higher and help kids achieve,” Marica Cullen of the Illinois State Board of Education told the Chicago Tribune when discussing the topic.

Top 10 States with Successful AP Exam Scores

According to a press release issued by the College Board, the top 10 states with the greatest proportion of their seniors from the class of 2010 having at least one successful AP experience were:

1. Maryland, 26.4%

2. New York ,24.6%

3. Virginia, 23.7%

4. Connecticut, 23.2%

5. Massachusetts, 23.1%

6. California, 22.3%

7. Florida, 22.3%

8. Vermont, 21.8%

9. Colorado, 21.4%

10. Utah, 19.2%


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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