WASHINGTON (AP) - Not long ago, Advanced Placement exams were mostly for top students looking to challenge themselves and get a head start on college credit. Not anymore.
In the next two weeks, 2 million students will take 3.7 million end-of-year AP exams — figures well over double those from a decade ago. With no national curriculum, AP has become the de facto gold standard for high school rigor. States and high schools are pushing AP classes and exams as a way to raise standards across the board, in some cases tying AP to bonuses. And the federal government is helping cover the exam fees.
Now, AP's rapid growth is reaching even schools serving some of the most disadvantaged students. These schools are embracing AP as a comprehensive toolkit for toughening coursework, emphasizing college preparation and instilling a "culture of excellence."
If math teacher Jaime Escalante could lead low-income Los Angeles students to AP calculus glory in the story that became the 1988 film "Stand and Deliver," why not others?
The problem is, there usually isn't a Hollywood ending.
Last year, 18 percent of U.S. high school graduates passed at least one AP exam (by scoring 3 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5), up from 11 percent a decade ago.
But there also many more students falling short — way short — on the exams.
The proportion of all tests taken last year earning the minimal score of 1 increased over that time, from 13 percent to 21 percent. At many schools, virtually no students pass.
For instance, in Indiana — among the states pushing AP most aggressively, and with results close to the national average — there were still 21 school districts last year where graduates took AP exams but none passed.
Baltimore's Academy for College & Career Exploration, where 81 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch programs in 2010, added three AP classes in recent years. Over the past two years, just two of 62 exams taken by its students earned a 3.
Passing an AP exam means demonstrating college-level skill, so a high failure rate isn't necessarily surprising or alarming. Many educators insist the AP coursework preceding those exams is valuable regardless.
Still, they acknowledge the trend raises tough questions: Is pushing poorly prepared students to take college-level classes effective? Or does it just demoralize them and divert time and money better spent elsewhere?
"It's kind of an easy reform — plunk in an AP course," said University of Northern Colorado scholar Kristin Klopfenstein, who edited a recent collection of studies on the AP program. But without accompanying steps, it's not clear AP does much good, especially for students scoring 1s and 2s. "What I've observed in a lot of cases is AP programs being helicopter-dropped in with the hope that the high standards themselves would generate results."
Perhaps surprisingly, those concerns are shared by the not-for-profit College Board, which runs the AP program and has benefited from its growth (collecting $353 million in revenue from its college readiness programs, including AP exam fees, in 2009).
"Schools that are using AP in a very deliberate way to change the culture, there's something very powerful there," said Senior Vice President Trevor Packer. But as a shortcut to avoid the hard foundational work students need, AP may be a waste — or worse, a diversion (The test fee is $87, though the College Board discounts that to $53 for low-income students, who with government grants often have no cost at all.).
"The last thing we want is (schools) spending money on test fees if that's all they're spending money on," Packer said.
The AP program dates to the 1950s, but has grown rapidly in recent years to 34 subjects, from art history to Japanese. High-achieving students and parents have driven some of the growth, but mostly it's educators and policymakers. The six states now requiring high schools to offer AP include several that have struggled the most with educational achievement — Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. (The others are Indiana and Connecticut. A half-dozen additional states require schools to offer either AP or other rigorous classes such as dual-enrollment or International Baccalaureate).
States also encourage AP in other ways. Indiana, for instance, gives schools bonuses for AP performance, and factors AP into the state's accountability formula and performance goals. Florida pays bonuses to teachers for each student earning a qualifying score. Seven states require public colleges to award credit or placement based on AP exam scores. Students, meanwhile, usually get extra weighting on their GPAs and improved chances for admission to selective colleges.
Increasingly common are school districts like East Noble in Kendallville, Ind., where the high school now offers 11 AP classes, up from three a few years ago. The district's pass rate on statewide tests ranks just above the bottom quarter in Indiana, state figures show. Superintendent Ann Linson started pushing AP when she was the high school principal, dropping a requirement that AP enrollees come from the top 25 percent of students.
"I was really put out by that," she said. "I believe every student should have the ability to be part of a more challenging course." Last year, about 42 percent of East Noble graduates took an AP exam, roughly double the percentage three years before. But the 14 percent of graduates who earned a passing score (close to the state average) was about the same as before. Indiana's statewide goal is 25 percent of graduates earning AP credit.
"If a student pushes themselves at a higher level, even if they receive a C or D, it's going to better prepare them for life after school," Linson said.
Why has AP become a gold standard? One reason is schools can slap the label "honors" on any class, but AP requires outside validation, said David Conley, a University of Oregon professor and CEO of the Educational Policy Improvement Center. To offer official AP courses, teachers and principals must develop a curriculum that the College Board attests meets standards set by college faculty (Conley's group does that validation work for the College Board). Many AP teachers also undergo special training.
Also, Conley says, the seemingly endless battery of state-level tests that have emerged over the last two decades focus on setting a "floor" — minimum skills for all students. AP lets schools and policymakers talk about raising the "ceiling," elevating students beyond the bare minimum and pushing them toward college.
One other possible factor: For years, Newsweek magazine used a school's number of AP tests per graduate as the sole factor for inclusion on its annual list of "Best American High Schools". (That list's inventor, Jay Mathews, moved it to the Washington Post in 2011. Newsweek developed a new list with a formula where AP factors into three categories totaling 40 percent).
Nationally, 56 percent of AP exams taken by the high school class of 2011 earned a 3 or higher, but there are wide disparities. The mean score is 3.01 for white students and 1.94 for blacks. In New Hampshire, almost three-quarters of exams earn a 3 or higher; in Mississippi, it's under a third. In the District of Columbia, more than half of exams score a 1.
At Detroit's Mumford High School last year, none of 62 AP exams earned higher than a 1. But at the nearby Renaissance magnet high school, a quarter of the 113 AP exams earned a 3 or higher, and the school had the second most black students scoring 3 or higher in literature in the country.
When Kayla Morrow began teaching social studies at Baltimore's Academy for College & Career Exploration five years ago, the school offered no AP courses and barely any honors.
"We were just kind of graduating kids from high school and just pushing them out the door and just hoping something positive would happen," Morrow said. When a grant arrived for Morrow and others to get training and develop AP courses, "pretty much all the teachers were like, 'yes, we really need this, we all did this when we were in high school, it's a crime that we don't have this.'"
Last year 36 students took AP exams in three subjects, scoring on average 1.4.
The AP government class Morrow teaches, she says, isn't just harder than regular classes. It's fundamentally different, and — surprisingly — less test-driven.
"What AP is really trying to teach you is for a lot of things, there's really not a right and wrong answer. It's, 'how do you get to that?'" she said, adding the AP training improved her teaching in regular classes, too.
As for not passing the exams, "students take ownership of that," she said. "They'll work harder for you. In fact, they'll be more appreciative for knowing where they stand."
Sean Martin, who helped start an AP literature program at Heritage High School in Baltimore before moving this year to another school, said some of his AP students read at a seventh-grade level.
"I knew for a lot of them ... it was going to be very difficult to get them even to the level of a 2," he said. Still, he said, simply putting students who want to push themselves together in a class with a goal is valuable.
"We set a higher bar and we could do things a little differently, and really have meaningful class discussions," he said. Classes "take on a different feel when every student in the room is success-oriented."
The two teachers note advanced college credit isn't the only worthy goal: Both have heard former students report their AP preparation helped them place out of remedial college classes, which also saves time and tuition.
Klopfenstein, however, is skeptical. While data show students who do well in AP courses do better in college, it's not clear whether that's because they took AP. And the evidence is weak for any college benefit for students who take AP courses but do poorly on the exams. Schools with many students struggling in AP may need more focus on skill-building.
"If you have kids that are not necessarily being successful in high-school level courses, it seems like a logical fallacy to think what they need is college-level courses," she said. "AP without sufficient supports is worse than no AP at all."
She notes AP carries a cost — to students, in time they could spend on other things, and to schools, in assigning the strongest teachers to an often small group. In an era of tight budgets, more schools may conclude AP is a luxury they can't afford. Martin says Baltimore's Heritage, where he previously taught, has cut back on AP (Heritage's principal didn't return phone messages seeking comment).
But there's also a cost of not offering AP: students who might benefit but never get the shot. That's why the College Board believes there's still room for AP to grow.
One figure stands out. Of last year's roughly 3 million high school graduates, the College Board believes that based on prior academic performance, 770,000 had a strong chance of passing an AP exam.
But of those students, nearly two in three didn't have access to an AP course. Among black students, nearly 80 percent who might have passed never took an exam. That adds up to countless missed opportunities for rigorous coursework, and countless potentially saved tuition dollars left on the table.
Packer cites the Baltimore academy as an example of places building up an AP program the right way, using it to inject a culture of high expectations and college focus where it might not otherwise exist.
"In those cases, who am I to say from the College Board 'you should not offer AP courses because your kids are getting 1s and 2s'?" he said.
Still, "it all depends on what educators do with the program," he said. "No program is a silver bullet."