Hispanic High Schoolers Taking More AP Courses

Forthe past 10 years, there have been many different initiatives in a variety of states to encourage minority and low-income high school students to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses and tests. The College Board’s 6th Annual AP Report to the Nation reports on the state of AP testing as well as the two initiatives that have resulted in successfully narrowing achievement gaps between White and non-White and low-income students.

The report underscores the fact that more students than ever before have scored 3 or higher on AP exams. In fact, 15.9 percent students across the United States had that result in 2009. The College Board has determined that a score of 3 or higher is predictive of academic success in college. Contrasting the numbers from 2004, this level of success represents a more than 3 percent improvement. Additionally, in 2009, on a state-by-state basis, 18 states equaled or exceeded the national average percentage of 15.9.

Numbers are up for African-American, Hispanic and Native American students participating in AP. In 2009, Hispanic students represented 15.5 percent of the AP examinee population. African-American students represented 8.2 percent, and American Indian or Alaska Native students represented 0.6 percent. But these numbers only represent those taking the exams, irrespective of their scores. Minority and low-income students comprise a smaller percentage of students who have successful AP scores than White students. The College Board reports that the gap between these students is narrowing.

The report notes that significant improvement has occurred among underserved low-income students in the AP program in just one year. It reveals that 18.9 percent of AP examinees in 2009 were low-income students. That number is up from 17 percent in 2008 and 13.7 percent in 2004. Low-income students made up 14.7 percent of the students experiencing success in AP from the graduating class of 2009, compared to 13.4 percent from the class of 2008 and 11.7 percent from the class of 2004.

The 6th Annual AP Report to the Nation singles out a few states for their marked improvement in 2009. Maryland ranked first in the nation for having the largest percentage of a state’s students receiving at least one score of 3 or higher on an AP exam during high school. Maryland held that distinction last year as well. Florida, which has the fourth-highest number of students taking AP exams in the nation, experienced the largest single-year increase in the percentage of its student population receiving at least one score of 3 or higher on an AP exam during high school (3.1 percent). And for the first time since the College Board has been compiling this report, Virginia saw the largest five-year increase of any state in the percentage of its student population receiving at least one score of 3 or higher on an AP Exam during high school (5.8 percent).

While the College Board credits schools and teachers for stepping up preparation for AP course work, other factors have added to success or lack of success in certain states. California, for example, has consistently been one of the leaders in the percentage of high school students who take and pass AP courses and exams. However, budget cuts have changed that landscape. AP class sizes have been increased, and in some instances, certain classes have been reduced to being offered only in alternate years. On the other hand, in Florida a standard has been established requiring all students to take at least one AP course sometime during their high school experience.

In its report, the College Board also described the results of two initiatives
designed to help schools make progress toward closing achievement
gaps – the National Governors Association’s Advanced Placement Expansion
Project and the National Math and Science Initiative.

National Governors Association’s Advanced Placement Expansion Project.

In 2005, the National Governors Association for Best Practices (NGA Center) collaborated with the College Board to establish the Expansion Project as a way to help high schools close the achievement gap between White and non-White and low-income students. Fifty-one pilot schools in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Nevada and Wisconsin received funding to expand AP courses to allow more minority and low-income students to participate.

The Expansion Project concentrated in one urban and one rural school district in each of the six states to increase exposure and access to AP courses among minority and low-income students as well as create incentives for schools and students to meet benchmarks. Each state came up with its own method and game plan to accomplish these goals.

These methods include ones that were student-centered and facultycentered. In Georgia, student leaders such as athletes or cheerleaders were called upon to encourage other students to take AP courses. Kentucky, as well as other states, offered students perks for participation. In some cases, students were offered an extra grade point for participation. Kentucky was cited as the most aggressive in offering incentives to students and schools for improving AP course participation. Gov. Steve Beshear signed legislation that created financial inducements for public schools to make AP science and math courses available, and provided supplemental college scholarship awards for low-income students based on their AP exam scores.

Nevada and Wisconsin focused on instruction to improve their AP numbers. These two states put in place a weeklong, statewide summer institute for teachers. Maine set up a mentoring program for new AP teachers as part of a larger effort to build what it referred to as a “collegegoing culture.” Nevada, Alabama and Kentucky employed “virtual learning technology” to expand access to AP courses and exams in rural areas. In two years, the number of students taking AP courses in the 51 schools participating in the Best Practices program increased by 65 percent, and the number of minority and low-income students taking AP exams more than doubled. The percentage of the student population taking an AP course and scoring a 3 or higher increased from 6.6 percent in 2005-06 to 8.3 percent in 2007-08. Approximately 3,500 more students were taking AP courses in 2007-08 than at the start of the project in 2005-06; minority students comprised approximately 2,500 of the 3,500 students.

The National Math and Science Initiative

The origin of the the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) is the
training and incentive program launched in Dallas, Texas, in 2000.
Because Dallas reported an increase in the number of students taking and
scoring a 3 or higher on AP math, science and English exams, and in
expanding access to traditionally underserved students during the years the
program was in place, the NMSI rolled out this same program in six states
in the 2008-09 school year. 

NMSI’s state affiliates partnered with 67 public schools in Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Virginia to study its effect on public high schools each year over the next five years.

The essentials of the Dallas plan include active student recruitment and counseling to instill the confidence and support students need to take AP courses, and financial incentives such as partial scholarships for students who pass AP exams. It also incentivizes teachers with stipends and bonuses for putting in extra time for AP instruction. In addition, schools in the program have improved their supplies and updated their equipment so students can learn in state-of-the-art learning labs.

The results of this program, the College Board reports, include a 71.5 percent increase in the number of successful AP exams in math, science and English for African-American and Hispanic students in participating schools. In these same schools, there was a 52 percent increase in AP test scores of 3 or higher in math, science and English from May 2008 to May 2009.

Finally, the College Board has gone through some alterations in its scoring policy. Subsequent to the 6th Annual AP Report to the Nation, it announced new changes that will make AP exams less stressful and more user friendly. Beginning in May 2011, the College Board will no longer base test scores on the total number of correct answers minus a fraction for every incorrect answer. The SAT already doesn’t do this. The College Board has also announced course redesigns that promise “an increased emphasis on conceptual understanding and discipline-specific skills, resulting in fewer and more complex multiple-choice questions.”

Native Speakers and AP Language Exams

In 2008, according to the College Board’s Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups report, Hispanic students took about 338,700 AP exams. The most common exam taken by Hispanic students was Spanish language, which had the highest scores for this group.

Some students have questioned the fairness of having to compete in these
classes with native speakers. School officials and native speakers defend the practice by explaining that verbal fluency is only one part of AP language course requirements. They claim that grammar use and writing skills challenge students as well. And though Hispanics took 57,200 Spanish-language exams in 2008, they also took 40,300 exams in English language and composition as well as 39,400 exams in U.S. history during that same period.

The College Board acknowledges the questions raised about native speakers, particularly Hispanics, taking AP Spanish Language courses and exams in its 6th Annual AP Report to the Nation this way: “Although 16 states have closed the equity and excellence gap for Hispanic or Latino students, when you exclude from the successful AP examinee population Latino students whose only AP exam score of 3 or higher was on the Spanish Language Exam, the number of states who have eliminated the gap shrinks to six. AP Spanish Language often serves as a gateway course for Latino students, providing students with a rigorous and confidence-inspiring experience that leads them to take AP courses in other subjects. Even so, much work remains to increase access to and foster Latino student success in AP courses beyond Spanish Language, as looking at these gaps illustrates.”

Teachers also point out that having native speakers in AP language classes actually improves the classroom experience for non-native speakers. Native speakers bring a cultural flavor to the classroom as well as a language-immersion experience that aids the learning process. But perhaps the biggest benefit of allowing Hispanics and other native speakers to take an AP language and literature course and test is that it may prompt otherwise reluctant students to take additional AP courses and tests. This is especially important with students whose first language is not English and who might be wary of taking science or math AP courses because they are not confident that they will be successful. Being successful in one AP course is the building block of confidence to take other courses.