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National Data

According to the College Board, 33.2 percent of the class of 2013 took an AP exam during high school, and 20.1 percent of this total number scored a three or above on one or more of their AP exams.

The number of low-income students having taken at least one AP exam in high school has risen from 179,774 in 2010 to 275,864 (27.5 percent of total exam takers) in 2013.

Data Source

The College Board releases data on the number of students who take and pass AP exams each year. The data is available at the state, district, and school level. Basic state-by-state test-taker information can be found on the site. You need to sign a licensing agreement and pay a fee to obtain school-level data. For more information, see the College Board’s Guidelines for the Release of Data.

Summary

Although there are many potential measures of student access to rigorous coursework, students taking AP exams is one of the best, since the AP program allows students to get credit for college-level work while still in high school and most of the students who take AP tests are enrolled in the AP course.

The AP program offers courses in nearly two dozen different subject areas, and over one million high school students enrolled in at least one AP class last year. The program’s classes are very rigorous, with only 15.9 percent of the students in the class of 2009 earning a passing score on at least one AP exam.

How to Use the Data

You can use this data to see if students have access to rigorous courses and evaluate how well their schools compare to national and state averages. Research has shown that high school students who score well on AP exams are more likely to graduate from college on time. According to the College Board, 45 percent of students who have taken one AP course complete their bachelor’s degree in four years or less. In contrast, only 29 percent of students who enroll in college without an AP course finish on time.

How the details were measured

The data is reported as the number of students in the class of 2009 who took an Advanced Placement exam at some point in high school. The College Board releases the data broken down by race, gender, and grade level. The AP exam is reported on a five-point scale, with a score of three or above indicating that the student is qualified to receive college credit, and the percent of students who passed the exams is also available on the site.

Limitations of the data

Students who took an AP exam may not have taken an AP course. The College Board allows any student–even students who did not take an AP course–to take an AP exam. AP courses also vary in their content and focus. While the College Board has published detailed curriculum for each subject, individual teachers still have significant control over what they teach. The College Board is currently auditing local AP programs to see how they match up to College Board standards.

Key Questions to Ask

Do students at all achievement levels have access to rigorous coursework?

In many schools AP courses and other high level courses are only available to high-performing students. However, some schools have shown the benefit of having students at all achievement levels taking at least one AP course.

Do all student subgroups have access to rigorous coursework?

The number of students taking AP exams can be broken down by economic and racial backgrounds, and you should be sure to examine individual student subgroups to evaluate the degree to which all students have access to high-quality coursework.

How did students perform on the AP exam?

Measures of student access should always be examined in conjunction with performance measures, so that the you can be sure students are fully engaging in the material. For example, in addition to how many students are enrolled in AP courses, it’s also important to know how many students ultimately passed the exam.

Learn More

A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum is one of the single best predictors of college success. However, there isn’t much solid data on student access to a rigorous curriculum. At the high school-level, the International Baccalaureate, an alternative to the AP program, offers some state-by-state data, and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) publishes state-by-state data on high school students taking Algebra 2 and science courses. (Some researchers have reservations about the use of CCSSO data because the course definitions are not strictly defined.) At the elementary and middle school level, the background questionnaire on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) offers some insight into student access to a rigorous curriculum. The NAEP data include information on the percent of students who write essays in English class and conduct science experiments in science class. That data is available state-by-state.

Many states and districts have been trying to improve student access to a rigorous curricula. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, has significantly subsidized the cost of the AP exam for any student eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch. California has also given grants to high schools to increase AP enrollment. Other states and districts have tried to increase the quality of their curriculum by increasing standards. Indiana requires all students to take a more rigorous high school curriculum called the Core 40. Under the new course requirements, all students must take either physics or chemistry and four years of English in order to graduate with a standard diploma.

To know if an AP exam serves as an accurate measure of a school or district’s performance, you need to evaluate who took the exam and how well the students were prepared. In many schools and districts, only high-performing students enroll in AP courses and the school or district’s AP score is typically not representative of the performance of all the students in that school or district. In fact, if a school or district pushes more students to take an AP course in a given year, the scores typically go down because more lower-achieving students are taking the exam.

The Center has more on information and data on the preparation of high school students that is continually updated.

Additional Resources

Demonstrating success:

Community connects with Kodiak High School—This Alaskan district uses the school improvement service overseen by the Association of Alaska School Boards called Quality Schools/Quality Students to involve the local community and boost student achievement.