California students’ improvement on AP exams deserves more attention

There is some good news in California student achievement trends. High performers, as measured by passage of the Advanced Placement exam, are increasing, and rank very high in interstate comparisons.

AP is college level work in high school, and indicates that students attending California’s most selective colleges are better prepared than ever. This positive trend is obscured by national studies, like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), that do not focus on the highest achieving students when making interstate and racial/ethnic comparisons. In California, Hispanic growth in both taking and passing the AP exam is especially impressive.

According to the the Eighth Annual AP Report to the Nation, 23.4 percent of California’s 2011 public school graduates were successful on one or more AP exams – seventh highest in the nation. Overall, 19 states’ graduates exceeded the national average by scoring 3 or higher, out of 5, on one or more exams during their high school careers. Maryland was number one, with 27.9 percent. The U.S. average is 18.1 percent. This high national ranking for California does not receive the public attention that it deserves in a sea of negative reports on state education.

California ranked second to New Mexico on the College Board Hispanic Index for Equity and Excellence on AP. This calculation combines percent of successful AP exam takers in the graduating class with the percent of Hispanics in the graduating class. About 27 percent of California students take the AP Spanish exam, and almost 80 percent of those score 3 or higher. This compares favorably to Texas, where only 17 percent of the students take the AP Spanish exam and 60 percent score 3 or higher.

In California, 136,787 students, from the graduating class of 2011, took an AP exam during their high school career.  From that number, 90,409, or 66 percent, achieved at least one AP exam score of 3 or higher – scores that are predictive of enhanced college success, according to the College Board, the not-for-profit membership organization that administers the AP Program. In 2010, the most current data available, California’s 12th grade student population numbered 405,087.

In California, the AP performance gap between Hispanic and African American graduates compared with Asian and white graduates continues to exist. For example, 61 percent of Hispanic graduates and 39 percent of African American graduates score 3 or higher on AP exams, compared with 71 percent of Asian graduates  and 74 percent of white graduates. All of these scores represent an increase in AP performance over the previous five years, but if California is truly going to close the AP equity gap, educators and students alike will need to continue to find ways to increase AP  participation and improve performance on these exams.

Source:  College Board California State Integrated Summary Report for Public Schools, 2010-11

Source: College Board California State Integrated Summary Report for Public Schools, 2010-11

California’s Hispanic students are the fastest growing population and the largest individual group taking AP exams in public schools and the second largest group including public and private schools. Their  AP participation and performance rates show a five-year increase in the number of Hispanic students taking AP exams, from 57,700 (2006-07 school year) to 85,638 (2010-11 school year) – a 47 percent increase.  The number of Hispanic students receiving an AP score of 3 or higher – 29,664 (2006-07 school year) to 43,650 (2010-11 school year) – also represents a 47 percent increase.

The five-year AP data trends for California’s Hispanic public and private school students shows the same pattern of increases in participation, from 62,135 (2006-07) to 91,452 (2010-11), for a 47 percent increase. The AP performance trend over the same period shows increases from 32,720 to 47,515, an increase of 45 percent.

Nationally, students who find success on AP exams lessen their chances of being required to take remedial college courses and increase their chances of graduating from college on time. These remedial courses cost taxpayers an estimated $1 billion each year. Educators in California and throughout our nation must continue to target the divide between high school graduation standards and the skills needed for all students to be successful in college. Finally, we must examine and address equity and access issues that hinder academic excellence for all California students.

Michael Kirst is a Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University, where he has been on the faculty since 1969, and president of the California State Board of Education. He thanks Don Mitchell of the College Board and Russ Rumberger of the University of California Office of the President for data help and advice on this article.


Sources for this article:

* The 8th Annual AP Report to the Nation California State Supplement, February 8, 2012. The College Board.

* California State Integrated Summary Report, 2010-11. The College Board.

* California Department of Education Statewide Graduation Rates, 2009-2010.

* “Preparing Students for Success in College,” Policy Matters (2005), American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

* Chrys Dougherty, Lynn Mellor, and Shuling Jian, “The Relationship Between Advanced Placement and College Graduation” (2005), National Center for Educational Accountability.

* The College Completion Agenda 2011 Progress Report (New York: The College Board, 2011).

This entry was posted in 10.1Assessments, Achievement Gap on by .

About Michael Kirst

Michael Kirst, Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University, is President of the California State Board of Education, a position he held from 1977 to 1981 as well. Before joining the Stanford faculty in 1969, he held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty, and Director of Program Planning for Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Office of Education. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. His latest books are "From High School to College" with Andrea Venezia (2004) and "Political Dynamics of American Education" (2009).

4 thoughts on “California students’ improvement on AP exams deserves more attention

  1. Rob Manwaring

    Michael makes a good point that not enough attention is paid to these measures. What is great is that Michael is in a position to permanently change the level of attention that AP, International Baccalaureate (IB) and community college dual enrollment receive. Doing well on one of these tests is a great measure of college readiness because it is effectively doing college level work in high school. If you can do this you are ready. Several states have incorporated measures of student success on these tests into their state’s version of the API. For example, Florida uses a combination of the percent of students taking an AP test and the percentage passing an AP test in their high school accountability system. Studies have shown that exposure to AP level work is predictive of future college success even if you don’t pass the exam. People pay attention to what gets measured and how they are held accountable. How about if the state reduced the importance of the high school exist exam set at the 8th grade level for many skills, and replaced that with a measure of success on these advanced tests. Such a change would quickly lead to even more attention being paid to these successes, and would change the focus of what is taught in high school from a focus on basic skills to a focus on advance college and career ready skills. My old colleague Chad Aldeman at Education Sector has a nice paper that shows how measures of AP success and other indicators of college/career readiness can be used in a state accountability system.

    Report this comment for abusive language, hate speech and profanity

  2. John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

    Submitted on behalf of Doug McRae:

    I agree with both Mike and Rob.  We can use AP scores instead of STAR end-of-course scores when appropriate for API calculations and eliminate unneeded redundant STAR end-of-course test administrations. We also can use STAR end-of-course scores for early qualification for the CAHSEE graduation requirement and eliminate unneeded redundant CAHSEE test administrations.  And we can weigh both AP and STAR end-of-course scores more heavily than CAHSEE scores for API calculations to better reflect across-the-board priorities for high school instruction. 

    CAHSEE has a role for determining a minimal level of achievement needed for a California high school diploma, but there is no need for a census 10th grade administration of CAHSEE when STAR end-of-course and AP scores can serve the same function. These changes would not only save California time and money, but if combined with better use of STAR end-of-course scores for individual student purposes (for instance, perhaps contributing to grades, or to higher ed entrance and/or placement via an expanded EAP program) they would greatly increase the acceptability and effectiveness of statewide testing for the high school grades.

    Report this comment for abusive language, hate speech and profanity

  3. Pingback: June 19, 2012 « tigersteach

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>