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Despite AP Access Limited Among Minorities, Exam-Taking on the Rise

The number of high school seniors taking Advanced Placement exams is steadily rising, but a significant gap persists with lack of exam-taking among African-American students, according to a report released Wednesday by the College Board.

The report, “7th Annual AP Report to the Nation,” shows that the raw numbers of students taking at least one AP exam has grown from 432,343 for the Class of 2001 to 853,314 for the Class of 2010.

The number of students who scored a 3 or better on the exam has also grown, from 277,865 to 508,818 during the same years, although the overall percentage has dropped from just over 64 percent to just under 60 percent. A score of 3 means a student is “qualified” to receive college credit in that subject, although experts say colleges are increasingly requiring a score of 4 or better in order to earn college credit.

Still, the increase in the number of students taking the AP exam — just one of several indicators of college readiness — is a welcome development, even if the percentage of students scoring a 3 or better has gone down.

Observers say the lower percentage of students scoring at least a 3 suggests that AP exams are being offered to broader groups of students than in the past.

“I certainly think that there’s a broader base of students who are getting access to AP, and that is good,” says Lisa Sohmer, director of college counseling at Garden School in Jackson Heights, N.Y., and a former board member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “I still think there are a lot of schools where AP is not available, and it’s important for people to understand that while AP is valuable, it does not define the quality of a student’s high school experience.”

Bob Schaeffer, public education director at FairTest, a group that advocates for equality in educational testing, voiced similar concerns, arguing that AP exams are still a “relatively minor factor in secondary education in this country.”

“The courses are offered in less than half the nation’s schools,” he says. “Typically, they’re offered in upper income communities. They are offered less frequently in schools that serve low income and minority students.”

Schaeffer says he was particularly concerned about the rates at which Black students were taking, or perhaps more specifically, not taking AP exams.

“There’s a large gap between the African-American overall student population and the AP examination population,” he says. “That’s disturbing. To the extent that AP gives a leg up in college admission, this leaves African-American kids further behind.”

He was referring to a statistic in the report showing that while African-American students represent 14.6 percent of the student population, they only represent 8.6 percent of the AP examinee population.

Hispanic students were relatively well-represented, as they account for 16.8 percent of the overall student population and 16 percent of AP test takers. White students, who account for 60.5 percent of the student population, were slightly underrepresented at 57.9 percent of all AP examinees. American Indian/Alaska Native students, who account for 1.1 percent of the student population, were underrepresented at 0.6 percent.

Asian students, who account for 5.5 percent of the student population, were the only group that was over-represented in AP test-taking, at 10.2 percent.

The College Board report — available at — goes beyond the latest AP results and examines AP test-taking and success rates over time.

Several charts, for instance, break down AP test-taking and scores over the past decade. While Figure 6 detailed the Black test-taking rates, Figures 7 through 10 also offer information potentially impacting diversity in higher education.

Figure 7, for example, charts a slow but steady growth among the Black student population, from 336,176 in 2001 to 441,946 in 2010. During the same time period, however, the Hispanic/Latino student has increased by more than two-thirds, from 296,776 to 505,777.

Figure 8 shows growth in AP participation among the same groups, from roughly 5 to 8 percent among African-Americans, and from roughly 11 to 16 percent among Hispanic/Latino students. It also shows growth in AP test-taking among low-income students, which increased from roughly 16 to 21 percent over the past half decade.

Sohmer says it is important to note that absence of AP is not necessarily harmful, although AP participation is generally helpful.

“Colleges want to see students challenging themselves in the most demanding classes they can successfully complete that are available at their schools,” she says. “Students improve their chances of getting into college when they do their best work in the best classes they can get into. AP can help, but I don’t think the lack of AP is necessarily a real roadblock. But I do like the idea that more and more students are having the opportunity to choose this kind of college preparedness.”

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