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California ranking on AP exams on the rise

More high school students taking test, scoring higher

Tanya Schevitz, San Francisco Chronicle , January 26, 2005

The Value of AP Tests Questioned

California's college-bound high school students did better than most of their peers across the country on the Advanced Placement Exams, although some minorities lagged behind, a report released Tuesday says.

The first-ever comprehensive report on the College Board's 49-year-old AP program shows that an increasing number of California public high school students are taking the rigorous college-level courses and demonstrating mastery of the subjects by achieving a grade of 3 or higher on the exams' 5- point scale.

According to the report, 18.7 percent of California public high school seniors in 2004 who took the exams during their high school years scored a grade of 3 or higher, while the figure was 13 percent for the nation as a whole. California's score was an increase of 15 percent over 2000 and places the state fifth in the nation behind New York, Maryland, Utah and Florida. In the class of 2000, only 10 percent of graduating students across the country had scored a 3 or higher on the exam.

"It is encouraging news, and that is consistent with other reports," said state Superintendent Jack O'Connell. "We have more students in rigorous courses. The schools are making progress."

Critics, however, say the good news is tempered by the fact that many minority and low-income students, particularly African American, Latino and American Indian students, have limited access to Advanced Placement courses and are not prepared academically to take them.

Even so, the College Board's report notes, more minority students than ever are taking the tests and improving their scores.

Overall, the number of California seniors who took AP exams during their high school years increased from 68,648 (22.2 percent) in 2000 to 95,195 (28.5 percent) in 2004. Across the nation, participation increased from 405,475 (15. 9 percent) in 2000 to 558,993 (20.9 percent) in 2004.

"AP has become the standard for excellence in education for America," said Gaston Caperton, president of the nonprofit College Board, which owns the AP and SAT exams. "Too often when we have meetings like this about education, the results we report are discouraging, but that is certainly not the case today."

The Advanced Placement program was designed to offer high school students rigorous, college-level work. It offers 34 courses and exams in subjects ranging from U.S. history and English literature to chemistry and calculus. Students can take the courses without taking the exams but cannot take the exams without taking the courses.

Many colleges and universities, including the University of California, give student applicants a grade-point bonus for taking AP courses. In admissions, some colleges consider whether students took advantage of the AP courses that are available at their schools. In addition, by scoring high enough on the AP exams, students can skip introductory college courses, saving time and money when they get to college. It costs $82 to take each AP exam.

Increased participation in the AP program by California students may be partly a result of the state's rising student population. But College Board Executive Director Trevor Packer said it was encouraging that even with more students taking the exam, California saw a rise in the percentage of students earning a score of 3 or higher. Normally, as the pool of participants increases, scores go down. In addition, he said, much of the growth in California was from more Latino and low-income students taking the courses and tests.

Following the state trend, the San Francisco Unified School District has seen both more students taking the exam and scoring at least 3. In 2000, 1,971 students took the AP exams, and 65.4 percent had a score of 3 or higher. In 2004, 2,622 students took the exam with 69.3 percent achieving a score of 3 or above.

"It really is a sort of accomplishment to recognize and applaud,'' said Packer, who heads the College Board's AP program. "Certainly AP performance is expanding to a broader segment of California students than ever before. But that doesn't mean that all the problems have been solved. Many students are still not succeeding in AP courses, and even more students are not taking them, so there is still much more work to be done."

Participation among the minorities nationwide is increasing -- but in representation and success they still lag far behind whites and Asians, the report says.

In California, 44,582 Latino students in public schools took AP exams in 2004, a 12.3 percent increase from the year before. Over the same period, Latinos had an 11.1 percent increase in the number earning a 3 or higher on the exam.

But while Latinos were about 35 percent of the state's public high school graduates in 2004, they represented only about 30 percent of the AP test takers.

The figures were much more dismal for blacks and American Indians. In 2004, African Americans represented about 7 percent of California's public school graduates but only 3 percent of the test takers. American Indians were about 1 percent of students and less than 1 percent of test takers.

In comparison, white California students made up about 42 percent of the student population and 36 percent of the test takers in 2004. Asians outpaced any other ethnicity for their participation, representing 14 percent of the student population and 23 percent of the test takers.

Critics say that although more Latinos are participating in the AP program, many of them are taking just one course during high school. And for many Latinos, the one AP course they take is often the Spanish language course. Without the Spanish course, participation would be much lower and the rate of success on the exam would drop, AP officials concede.

Nationally, 23 percent of the AP tests taken by Latinos were the Spanish language exam.

Many students in high-achieving, upper-income schools take more than a dozen AP courses each.

The participation of more Latinos "is not reflective of having access to a larger universe of college preparatory courses," said William Kidder, a researcher at the Equal Justice Society in San Francisco. "The pool is wider, but it doesn't have much depth. There are going to be a lot of Latinos who have taken just one or two courses. If you look at those who have taken four or five or more courses, that is going to have a different ethnic breakdown."

But while much of the growth in the participation of Latinos in the AP program is in Spanish language, Latinos are increasingly taking other AP courses and exams, Packer said.

Latina student Robin Torres said during a news conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C., that at her predominantly Latino high school in Edinburg, Texas, many students were introduced to the AP program by first taking the Spanish course.

"I took 12 AP courses," said Torres, who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I don't see anyone left behind, especially Hispanics, where taking an introductory course such as Spanish gets us going."

The full report can be seen on the College Board's Web site, apcentral.collegeboard.com.

Educators Are Split on Value of AP Program

Harvard-Westlake's outstanding exam scores are a source of pride. Meanwhile, another elite L.A. area school has opted out of the courses

By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2006

Students from Harvard-Westlake School, an elite private campus in North Hollywood, turned in a remarkable performance on the 2005 Advanced Placement exams. That's hardly surprising, but whether it's a good thing depends in large part on where one comes down in the growing debate over AP courses.

Among large high schools worldwide that offer the college-level courses, Harvard-Westlake had the largest proportion of students scoring at least a 3 (on a scale of 1 to 5) on AP exams in five disciplines: calculus AB, physics B, English language and composition, English literature and Spanish lit. The results were contained in a report released this month by the College Board, a New York-based nonprofit that administers the program.

The only school that came out on top in more categories six was Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., a large public school serving students gifted in biological, physical, mathematical and computer sciences. Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., had the widest segment of its population scoring 3 or above in three categories. Most other schools named in the report whether small, medium or large were cited in just one or two categories.

For anyone familiar with Harvard-Westlake's reputation and its glittering array of graduates (Candice Bergen, astronaut Sally Ride, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gray Davis), it's not exactly shocking news that its students would excel on AP exams. Most of the teens who attend the school have grown up in affluent circumstances, with all the attendant advantages. As a group, they are regarded as highly motivated learners who set their sights on the nation's most selective universities and colleges.

But Harvard-Westlake's exemplary performance comes against the backdrop of a growing backlash over the wisdom of emphasizing AP classes. Many critics denounce AP curricula as prescriptive and superficial.

Across town, another private school, Crossroads School in Santa Monica, made waves last year by announcing that it would stop teaching AP classes and instead develop its own college-level courses, beginning with the 2007-08 school year. Crossroads joined a small but growing list of prestigious private high schools that have moved away from providing AP classes.

"The AP, in the eyes of some critics, is a mile wide and an inch deep," acknowledged Thomas C. Hudnut, Harvard-Westlake's headmaster. "I feel more pragmatic. The UC system gives a break to students who are taking AP in determining their GPAs. We are in California. We'd be shortchanging our students not to provide this opportunity."

Harvard-Westlake opened in 1991 as a coed campus after the merger of Harvard School for Boys and Westlake School for Girls. This year the upper school has 837 students, including a senior class of 260. The 739-pupil middle school is in Holmby Hills.

The upper campus could pass for a tiny liberal arts college, with an emerald-green football field, fountains, lush landscaping and a courtyard where students dine al fresco under umbrellas. Classes tend to be no larger than 15 students, and some have as few as a handful.

The College Board launched the Advanced Placement program 50 years ago, in the midst of the Cold War, to encourage accelerated learning and to allow academically advanced high school students to earn college credits. The program has boomed. More than 15,300 schools worldwide, including 60% of U.S. high schools, now participate in the AP program. One-fifth of the participating schools are private.

Schools can select from 35 AP courses and exams offered in 20 different subject areas. The College Board enlists a panel of college faculty and experienced AP teachers to develop each course description and exam.

The courses are intended to give students the experience of learning a rigorous, college-level curriculum. On average, schools offer eight different AP courses; Harvard-Westlake provides 32.

In 2005, according to Harvard-Westlake data, 554 students (including 30 sophomores) took 1,719 AP exams, with 91% earning scores of 3 or better; 40% achieved scores of 5. Many colleges and universities allow students scoring 3 or higher to receive college credit, to place out of introductory courses or both.

Even at Harvard-Westlake, where enthusiasm for the AP program runs high, opinions among students and teachers differ on the courses' value.

Remy Greeno, a senior who has already won early admission to Princeton, is taking four full-year and two one-semester AP classes this year; last year, she took five yearlong AP classes. "I think it's a great opportunity to learn more information if you want to," she said. "It's neat that other schools are taking the same class; you're able to relate to people at other schools."

Joey Katona, a classmate, is less enamored. "I feel that [AP teachers] are confined to teaching toward the test," he said. "It's sort of a necessary evil. My favorite classes this year are not AP."

Teachers are similarly divided. One recent morning in his physics B class, teacher Jesse Reiner was zipping through a lesson about series and parallel circuits. "This is a very theoretical topic," he told the 15 juniors, some of whom were struggling with the concepts of resistance and negative potential energy. "I'm going to suggest you do extra practice problems because we don't really assign enough homework for you to get this."

The College Board recommends that students take the AP physics B exam after two years of physics, but Harvard-Westlake teaches it as a "first-year" course for juniors. "I couldn't believe, when I first came, the pace we'd have to achieve," Reiner said after class. "But the kids rise to the occasion." Of 93 students who took the exam in 2005, 36 achieved a 5 and 34, a 4.

In his regular physics class, he said, "we don't feel the compulsion to make it through as many topics."

Not all Harvard-Westlake teachers subscribe to the AP mantra. "I think Harvard-Westlake is an exceptional school with incredible teachers," said Kevin O'Malley, a photography and film teacher. "I think they can do it [course planning] better than a committee of people" who don't live in Los Angeles.

It was that sort of reasoning that prompted Crossroads to begin backing away from its AP program and tailor its own curriculum. "We don't want kids choosing courses because they're AP," said Roger Weaver, headmaster. "We want them choosing courses because they have an interest. We hope that by letting go of this AP tag we're going to have a stronger curriculum and will get kids taking courses they ought to take." Crossroads has said it would continue to offer AP tests to any student who wants to take them.

Trevor Packer, executive director of the AP program, said Harvard-Westlake should be commended for "spreading that high-quality AP experience" across such a wide range of students. Having so many students who do well on the exams, Packer said, "puts them in a category of about 130 schools worldwide."

Signs are popping up that some colleges and universities are making it tougher for students to gain credit for AP courses. For example, the UC faculty admissions committee has been considering whether to recommend that the system drop the AP credit altogether.

And the University of Pennsylvania is raising the bar. In years past, the school would grant credit to students who scored 4s or even 3s in high school AP classes. Now, said Lee Stetson, dean of admissions, "we are really asking, for credit purposes, to see a score of 5."

"That reflects a concern," he said, "that, as the AP program has broadened its scope and been instituted in many schools, sometimes the quality of courses was not at the level we would like to see."

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Last modified: February 23, 2006

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