As Advanced Placement exams have expanded to a more diverse group of high school students, more failures and lower average results seemed almost inevitable. But recent high school graduates seem to be bucking the trend: For the first time on record, average scores, the percentage passing and top scores are all increasing.
In its annual report Wednesday on the AP Program, the College Board said nearly one-third of 2012 public high school graduates took AP tests, and nearly one in five received a passing score of 3 or higher on the five-point-scale exams offered in 34 subjects from calculus to history to studio art. Both figures are up substantially from a decade ago, when 18 percent of graduates took an exam and fewer than 12 percent earned a score of 3 or higher.
But more notably, the College Board said that for the first time since it began collecting data by class year in 2001, the mean exam score increased from the previous year, from 2.80 to 2.83. The percentage of all exams that earned at least a 3 also rose for the first time, and the 14.2 percent earning a top score of 5 was also the highest ever.
That's significant because it could boost the College Board's argument that there remain students out there who could succeed on AP exams if given the opportunity. And as the federal government, states and school districts aggressively push AP, the results could blunt criticism that AP expansion has become an obsession among educators, diverting resources from remedial work that low-performing students really need and setting them up to fail.
"What we see here through AP is some evidence you can both increase the number of students engaged in rigorous coursework, you can increase the diversity of students who take it, and you can keep those high standards and performance," said College Board vice president of communications Peter Kauffmann.
Trevor Packer, the College Board's senior vice president for the AP program, said "one year does not a trend make." But nor do the results look like a blip. After regular annual declines, scores stabilized last year, and early results from members of the class of 2013 who have already taken AP exams suggest the upward trend will continue next year.
Packer said it wasn't clear why results were improving, but said possible factors include colleges and universities taking AP scores and coursework more seriously (though Dartmouth College recently announced it would no longer accept AP credit). Course redesigns may also have helped, particularly in reducing the number of students getting the lowest score of 1.
Another factor could be the rising cost of college, with students taking more seriously the opportunity to get college credit and reduce the time it takes to earn degrees.
More than 954,000 of last year's graduates, or 32.4 percent, took an AP exam, compared to 471,000 a decade before. But the College Board contends despite the growth, wide gaps in access remain, particularly for low-income and minority students. It estimates more than 300,000 students nationwide with "AP potential" — defined as a 60-percent predicted likelihood of passing an AP exam based on PSAT performance — did not take an AP exam.
Disparities by race remain substantial, even among students who appear to have a good chance at a passing score. Six in 10 Asian students with "AP potential" took math and science AP exams, compared to four in 10 white students, and three in 10 black and Hispanic ones.
Still, 26.6 percent of AP test-takers in last year's class were low-income, compared to just 11.5 percent for the class of 2003. That translates to more than 250,000 low-income students taking an AP exam, quadruple the figure from a decade ago.
The College Board, a not-for-profit membership organization that also operates the SAT exam, also said many states have made progress in narrowing AP access gaps for low-income and minority students.
It singled out Florida as the only state with a large Hispanic population to eliminate the "equity gap" in both AP participation and success with respect to Hispanic students. Hispanics account for 24.8 percent of Florida's graduating high school class, but a higher percentage of its AP test-takers and those passing the exam there.
For black students, however, there is not a single state with a substantial black population where black students have eliminated their AP "equity gap." Nationally, blacks accounted for 14.5 percent of high school graduates, but just 9.2 percent of those taking AP exams and 4.4 percent of those scoring 3 or higher.
Among other findings in the report:
—There remain large state-by-state disparities in participation and performance. Maryland had the highest percentage of graduates earning at least one score of 3 or higher (29.6 percent) and Mississippi the lowest (4.6 percent).
—The three most popular exams are English language and composition, U.S. history, and English literature and composition, each taken by more than 300,000 students last year. The rarest are Japanese and Italian language and culture, taken by fewer than 2,000.
—The annual report doesn't include results from private schools or overseas students. But among overseas AP test-takers, China for the first time surpassed Canada as the top country of origin.