Plenty of upside for AP push

Between 2003 and 2012, the number of low-income graduating seniors passing at least one AP exam climbed from 32,523 to 120,254. That’s an increase of 270 percent. That’s amazing.
Between 2003 and 2012, the number of low-income graduating seniors passing at least one AP exam climbed from 32,523 to 120,254. That’s an increase of 270 percent. That’s amazing.

Every few months, a major media outlet writes an expose about Advanced Placement classes. The stories (like this one and this one and this one) question the success of large-scale campaigns to expose minority and low-income students to the rigors of AP, using a jumble of numbers to make their case. Unfortunately, they’re often unfairly selective and tend to ignore an undeniably inspiring trend: More poor students are taking and passing AP courses than ever before.

I covered the AP push as a reporter in Florida. There’s plenty that merits scrutiny. I don’t think AP is the end-all, be-all. But on balance, the evidence suggests it has been a good thing – and the kind of good thing public school champions should be the first to highlight.

In the Florida case, public schools showed they can be responsive to low-income kids. For decades, and for no good reason, low-income kids were denied access to college-caliber AP classes, the nearly exclusive domain of white kids in the ‘burbs. So better late than never, schools in the Sunshine State opened the doors, raised expectations and gave students and teachers extra support.

I don’t know off-hand what the AP numbers are like from state to state; I don’t doubt some states have done a better job than others. But the national numbers, like the ones I got to know pretty well in Florida, suggest a lot of positive.

So I’m stumped as to why many stories are so negative – and why they leave out key numbers. The recent Politico story noted that between 2002 and 2012, the pass rate on AP tests fell from 61 percent to 57 percent. That’s true. But the story minimized the fact that because of vastly higher participation rates – and the success of so many of those new participants – hundreds of thousands of additional students are not just taking the tests every year, but passing them.

Forgive me while I highlight my own jumble of numbers: In 2002, 305,098 graduating seniors in the U.S. had passed at least one AP exam. By 2012, the number was 573,472. That’s an 88 percent increase. That’s excellent.

The numbers for low-income students are even more impressive. Between 2003 and 2012 (2002 figures were not available from the College Board), the number of low-income graduating seniors passing at least one exam climbed from 32,523 to 120,254. That’s an increase of 270 percent. That’s amazing.

Passing an AP test is a pretty good indicator those kids are college ready. More important, it shows they belonged in those classes all along.

The AP story is much the same in Florida. Again, it’s true pass rates fell (with a caveat I’ll get to in a sec). They reached a high of 55.6 percent in 2000, and a low of 41.1 percent in 2010. But again, the raw numbers exploded because of increased participation.

In 2002, 17,256 graduating seniors passed an AP exam. In 2012, 39,306 did. That’s a 128 percent increase.

Over the same span, the number of low-income seniors passing an AP exam jumped from 1,403 to 10,897. That’s a 677 percent increase.

Plenty of well-intended reforms flop. This isn’t one of them.

And here’s the caveat: In four of the past five years, overall pass rates in Florida rose. So despite all those extra bodies taking 90,000 more tests than they did five years ago, and despite the media’s misplaced emphasis on pass rates, the truth is even the pass rates are inching back up.

Now with that said, the AP effort isn’t without challenges and trade-offs and missteps. In Florida, some districts are getting better results than others, some subjects have been overlooked, and some subgroups aren’t getting as much traction. I think there is something wrong when the vast majority of students in some AP classrooms get A’s and B’s but bomb the exams. I also think costs should be weighed, anecdotes considered and the legitimate frustrations of some teachers addressed. In some classrooms, the doors of access were opened too wide, or too quickly. Either students didn’t get enough prep, or teachers didn’t get enough training, or both. None of that should be minimized. But it should also be kept in context.

As a reporter, I talked to plenty of AP teachers who saw more upside than down, even as they had to work harder to reach a broader spectrum of kids. I talked to parents who were thrilled that their kids, after the drone of too many regular and honors classes, were finally being challenged. I also talked to plenty of these new-wave AP kids themselves. Some told me they weren’t sure they could do it. Some struggled to tears in the beginning. Some “failed” their first AP test or two.

But many of them were too proud to quit, and had teachers who wouldn’t let them. And the stats show many of them made it.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at


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