Friday, February 15, 2008
College Board Report on AP Exams in NY State Public Schools -- Are We Really Doing Better?
“Larger Share of Students Succeed on A.P. Tests,” the NY Times headlined its story yesterday, drawn from the College Board’s release of the 2007 results on Advanced Placement exams (see also AP Exam Grade Summary Reports by State). The NY Post seconded the Times. “The 23.4 percent of students who scored proficiently [achieving a 3 or higher out of a possible 5] on the exams is a full percentage point higher than in the previous year and an increase of 3.2 points over 2002....” The Post accompanied its article with an eye-catching chart featuring the increased percentages (20.2 in 2002, 22.4 in 2006, and 23.4 in 2007).
What was the message readers might have taken away from yesterday’s good news? At one level, the story is actually what it says: an increased percentage of NY State public high school seniors are achieving a 3 or better on at least one AP exam before they graduate. This is a commendable result in and of itself. As the newspapers left things, however, the inference is clear – public high schools appear to be doing a better job educating students. But is this the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
There are several ways a higher percentage of graduating students could be achieving proficiency on at least one AP exam:
1. Higher percentages of students may be taking AP exams;
2. Individual students may be taking more A.P. exams, thereby increasing their chances of passing at least one such exam with a 3 or better;
3. A change in the mix of tests taken may have fostered higher success rates; and/or
4. Students may be experiencing higher success rates in passing A.P. exams.
Consider the first option. From 2002 to 2007, the number of NYS students taking at least one AP exam increased from 42,365 (30.2% of public high school seniors) to 54,182 (35.5%). One could reasonably expect, all other things equal, that a five percentage point increase in participation rate should lead to a roughly three percentage point increase in students passing at least one exam (based on a 60% pass rate), and that is exactly what happened
How about the second option? In 2002, the average NY State public high school student was taking 2.84 A.P. exams. By 2007, this figure had increased 7% to 3.04 exams per student. Had the 2002 test-taking rate stayed constant, NY State graduating seniors would have taken over 11,000 fewer tests, with 11,000 fewer chances for some students to pass at least one exam.
How about the mix of tests taken? Are students declining Calculus, Physics, Computer Science, and Foreign Languages in favor of English, Economics, and Social Studies (even though one might fairly argue whether tests in these subject areas are necessarily easier to pass)? The College Board’s data suggests that this is indeed the case. In 2007, NY State graduating seniors had taken almost 44,700 more exams than their counterparts in 2002. Almost 34% (15,129) of these increased exams occurred in World History, U.S. History or U.S. Government and Politics, with another 5.9% (2,631) from Macroeconomics and Microeconomics. English Language/Composition and English Literature/Composition accounted for another 20.6% (9,214) of the increase. By comparison, Calculus AB and BC made up just 3.4% (1,534) of the increase, and even adding in Statistics (2,606) only brought the percentage up to 9.3%. Biology, Chemistry, and three different Physics exams suffered similarly, accounting for a combined increase of 5,694 exams, about 12.7% of the five-year increase.
Finally, we come to students’ success rates on exams. From 2002 to 2007, the number of students taking A.P. exams increased 27.9%, but the number of students reaching proficiency increased only 25.8%. Across all AP exams, graduating NY State public school seniors achieved a mean grade of 3.03 in 2007, down slightly from 3.06 in 2002, and pass rates dropped from 65.5% in 2002 to 64.2% last year. During that same period, the success rates of Hispanic students fell from 59.1% to 50.1% while that of black students dropped from 32.7% to 32.1%. White students remained largely unchanged -- declining from 68.4% to 68.3% -- while Asian students increased their success rates from 68.2% to 69.6%.
Thus, more NY State students are taking A.P. exams and taking more of them each, and they are also shifting their A.P. focus increasingly toward Social Studies and English areas. All good things to the extent that schools are bringing students to a level of A.P. readiness. However, their exam success rates are declining slightly overall, with marked drops among black and Hispanic students who may be feeling pressured to stay abreast in the great A.P. race for college creds and college cred.
Net net, not a bad picture, but a bit more mixed than the rather simplistic takes offered by our local newspapers. The good news seems to be more about sheer numbers than student success rates, though.