More than 1.2 million high school students in the U.S. took an Advanced Placement course in 2019, an increase of 57% over the past decade. And the number scoring high enough to earn college credit on at least one AP exam has increased 60% over that time, College Board officials announced Thursday.
The number of high schools offering AP courses has also grown, from 17,374 schools in 2009 to 22,678 in 2019. Higher education systems in 31 states also now have a uniform policy for granting course credit to students who pass an AP exam with a 3 or higher, compared to 14 states in 2014.
In essence, the AP program has accomplished something rare in education — to “expand at scale without sacrificing rigor,” David Coleman, CEO of the College Board, said Wednesday during a press call. “This is of immense political and historical significance.”
But while participation and performance have grown “in tandem,” he said a “real crisis” still exists in rural America and noted a recent report showing many students in rural communities lack access to AP courses — because there aren’t enough students to make up a course. Districts are often choosing between AP or dual-enrollment programs, rather than making both available.
“We need to do more about it,” Coleman said. “We don’t think online alone is an answer to this. We think students need helping adults.”
Finding ‘more talent’
The organization also noted growth in AP computer science participation — from almost 58,000 students when it launched in 2016 to more than 164,000 students last year. Participation among girls and students in rural areas has more than doubled over that time, and the percentage of black and Hispanic students in AP Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science A has more than tripled.
By opening the doors to more students, “we found far more talent than had been seen,” Coleman said.
Reframing computer science as a way to solve problems rather than just to learn coding has also increased the participation of girls and girls of color, added Stefanie Sanford, the College Board’s chief of global policy and external relations. She disagreed with those who argue girls aren’t interested in computer science.
“The numbers can move, and they can move in a big way,” she said.
But some advocates for poor and minority students note students of color still don’t have equal access to advanced courses, such as AP and International Baccalaureate. In January, The Education Trust released a report noting schools predominantly serving black and Hispanic students don’t enroll as many of those students in advanced courses as do schools serving fewer students of color.
“Nationally, what we’ve found is that Black and Latino students can be successful in advanced courses when given the opportunity, but unfortunately, they are not fairly represented in advanced courses,” Ivy Smith Morgan, an associate director of P-12 analytics at The Education Trust, said in the report. Their analysis also shows wide variation from state to state and within-state differences for black and Hispanic students.
Black and Hispanic students were least-represented in AP courses in South Carolina but were well-represented in Iowa and North Dakota.
But Coleman noted the Ed Trust report was based on the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection, and since then, the organization has worked to expand access among underrepresented students.
Trevor Packer, senior vice president for AP and instruction at the College Board, added state and local policy plays a large part in whether students of color and students from low-income homes enroll in AP courses. College Board data shows 12 states provide funding for students to take AP exams, and 17 states and the District of Columbia cover costs for students from low-income households.
Mixed reviews on registration change
Some educators have argued the change the College Board made last year requiring students to register for an AP exam in the fall instead of spring wouldn’t benefit disadvantaged students. The new policy, which includes a $40 fee for students who register late or cancel, took effect this school year.
“Forcing high school students to register six months in advance will inevitably result in many more people signing up late because they don’t know if they’ll be ready or canceling because they are not prepared when the time comes,” Jennifer Wander, a high school counselor and AP coordinator in New Richmond, Wisconsin, wrote in an op-ed last year.
Some students have also criticized the new exam registration policy. “By increasing students' stress, racking up the costs associated with standardized testing and wasting staff members' time, the changes are clearly lacking,” Shifra Dayak, a student at Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, wrote in her school newspaper.
But Packer said since the change, the percentage of black and Hispanic students registering for AP exams has increased. The new policy was based on two pilot studies — one involving 40,000 students from 100 schools and a second, nationally representative study of 800 schools and 180,000 students.
“We’re really excited about it,” he said, adding more information of the effects of the change could be available next year. He added about half of AP teachers are also taking advantage of new resources to help students prepare for exams, but the College Board wouldn’t “strong arm” teachers to use them.
A ‘broader, richer view’
The College Board officials also talked about growth in AP courses that provide alternative types of assessment. “We are concerned about the narrowness of traditional assessment,” Coleman said.
For example, the AP Capstone program — which began in 2015 — is a two-year program including a seminar course and a research course involving interdisciplinary projects, demonstrations and essays. The program has grown from 5,288 students in the first year to 59,165 last year and emphasizes teamwork and critical thinking.
Giving students opportunities for service learning within AP courses is another way the organization, Coleman said, is focusing on a “broader, richer view” of student success. Since 2017, more than 10,000 students have participated in the College Board’s AP with WE Service program. The program partners with organizations such as the National Constitution Center for lessons on the First Amendment and with Generation Citizen for lessons on elections and federalism.
Sanford added integrating service learning into computer science, for example, allows students to see how “technology and democracy intersect in complicated ways.”