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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

AP for all: Does it help students succeed?

Kalan Houser took the AP World History at Port of Los Angeles High School in May.

As more students take Advanced Placement classes, a smaller percentage pass AP exams. Furthermore, taking an AP class no longer predicts college success — unless the student has passed an exam. Suneal Kolluri summarizes the research on efforts to expand AP to lower-income students. (His peer-reviewed article is here.)

“The dual goals of serving more students and maintaining college-level expectations have proved difficult to pursue in tandem,” he writes.

AP participation has soared. In 1994, only 14.9 percent of U.S. high school students earned AP credit. That number rose to 39 percent by 2013.

 Overall, end-of-year exam scores have been decreasing, but the declines have been especially pronounced among black and Latino AP test takers. In 1997, 61.1 percent of Latino AP students passed exams, but in 2012, that number had declined to 42.8 percent. For black AP students, a 1997 pass rate of 35.9 percent had declined to 29.1 percent in 2012. For white students, pass rates have remained largely unchanged despite an increase in exam participation. . . . While earlier studies found an association between AP participation and college outcomes, more recent scholarly reports generally find no association between merely taking an AP class and college grades or persistence. However, passing an AP test appears to be moderately associated with positive college outcomes, regardless of a student’s race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background.

AP courses often are criticized for being broad and shallow. To focus World History, which ran from the Paleolithic Era to the present, College Board decided to start in 1450. That was criticized as Europe-centric.

“If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade,” said Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, president of the World History Association and a former developer of the exam and course. “The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things.

In a compromise, World History will start at 1200. “This change will ensure teachers and students can begin the course with a study of the civilizations in Africa, the Americas, and Asia that are foundational to the modern era,” said College Board, which runs AP.

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