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Colorado: AP participation, success up

More Colorado students are taking Advanced Placement classes and more are succeeding in them, according to a national report released Wednesday by the College Board.

One in five Colorado students – or 20.1 percent – in the class of 2009 scored a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam during high school, compared to 15.9 percent nationally, the report notes.

Five years ago, 15.1 percent of Colorado’s class of 2004 achieved a 3 or above on at least one AP exam in high school.

But as the number of students statewide taking AP classes has grown, the actual percentage of test-takers earning that 3 or higher – considered the passing rate on an AP end-of-course exam – has declined.

Consider that in 2004, 10,454 Colorado students took at least one AP exam and 6,746 achieved a 3, 4 or 5 – for a 65 percent success rate. In 2009, 15,499 students took at least one AP exam and 9,476 passed it, or 61 percent.

AP classes are college-level courses that students take in high school under a program administered by the College Board, which also produces the SAT college-entrance exam. Students who earn a 3 or above on an AP exam can receive credit for that course at many colleges and universities.

Nationally, the number of students taking AP courses has surged, with more than one in four members of the U.S. class of 2009 – or 26.5 percent – taking at least one AP exam during high school. That compares to 32.9 percent for Colorado.

But, as in Colorado, as more students nationally take AP classes, the number of failing exam scores has grown.

In 2009, about 43 percent of the 2.3 million A.P. exams taken earned a failing grade of 1 or 2, compared with 39 percent of the one million exams taken by the class of 2001, according to The New York Times. See story here.

“Are we getting more 1s and 2s? Absolutely,” Trevor Packer, vice president of the Advanced Placement program, told the Times. “But are we getting more 3s, 4s and 5s? Even more so.

“So the question is whether that increase in the percentage of low scores is a reasonable tradeoff for the even larger growth in high scores, and I don’t know an educator who wouldn’t think it’s a good tradeoff to take the risk and give more courses that we know have been good for the few.”

Colorado ranks 8th in the nation in the percentage of its high school seniors earning a 3 or above on AP exams, and 5th in the country in expanding that percentage over the past five years.

Districts such as Denver Public Schools have sought to increase enrollment in AP classes in recent years as a way of strengthening the high school curriculum and giving students a taste of college.

Denver school board members have set a goal of annually increasing student participation in AP classes by 3.5 percent, along with increasing those students earning a 3 or above on their AP exams by 3.5 percent yearly.

The district released data last week showing the number of all high school students taking AP classes has more than doubled since 2003-04, to nearly 4,500. The number of students passing AP exams has increased by 97 percent in that same period. Not all students who take AP classes sit for the exams.

As in the state and the nation, the percentage of DPS students failing their AP exams also has risen. In 2004-05, DPS administered 2,021 AP tests and 808 earned a 3 or higher, for a passing rate of 40 percent. In 2008-09, DPS gave 3,369 AP exams and 1,127 scored at least a 3, for a passing rate of 33 percent.

DPS’ goals, statistics and plans to improve AP access and success are outlined in this report, pages 25 to 32.

Still, according to DPS and the College Board report, Hispanic and black students continue to be underrepresented among those taking and passing AP exams in Colorado.

In DPS, for example, 42 percent of students who took AP exams this past fall were white, 38 percent were Hispanic and 15 percent were black. DPS’ overall student enrollment is 25 percent white, 54 percent Hispanic and 16 percent black.

Statewide, 69 percent of Colorado’s class of 2009 was white and 72.6 of the state’s students taking AP exams was white.

Similarly, low-income students are underrepresented among Colorado’s AP students though the number is growing. In 2004, 6.6 percent of AP exam-takers were low-income and, five years later, the percentage is 10.6.

Other highlights of the College Board report for Colorado:

  • 32.9 percent of the state’s public high school class of 2009 took at least one AP exam during high school, compared to 30.5 percent of the class of 2008 and 23.3 percent of the class of 2004.
  • 20.1 percent of Colorado’s class of 2009 earned a score or 3 or above on at least one AP exam during high school, compared to 19 percent for the class of 2008 and 15.1 percent for the class of 2004.
  • 12.1 percent of the state’s students who took at least one AP exam during high school were Hispanic, compared to 11 percent for the class of 2008 and 8.4 percent for the class of 2004.
  • 9 percent of students who earned a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam in high school were Hispanic, compared to 8.1 percent of the class of 2008 and 7.2 percent for the class of 2004.
  • 10 percent of Colorado’s class of 2009 took at least one AP exam in science and 13.4 percent took at least one AP exam in math, compared to 8.8 percent and 9.7 percent respectively for the nation.
  • The most popular AP exams in Colorado were English language, English literatue, U.S. History, Calculus AB and U.S. Government and Politics.

Click here to read the College Board’s AP Report to the Nation and here to read the state report on Colorado. Click here to see the College Board’s press release on Colorado.

Also, click here to read about the debate among AP teachers over the expansion of AP classes and see a survey of those teachers here.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.

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