Advanced Placement Exams are developed by The College Board and offered to high school students nationwide in subjects ranging from English Literature to Calculus to Art History. Results from the AP Exams let students know if they are ready for college-level work and provide the rest of us with one of the few available measurements of student achievement based on national standards.
Given that over 65% of the nation’s high school graduates have headed right to college in recent years, AP results matter – not just to individual students, but to anyone who cares about the quality of public education.
In response to a request from The Dagger, Harford County Public Schools has released detailed AP results for the 2008-09 school year. The report includes many bright spots. But the results also serve as a sobering reminder that the celebrated passing rates on the Maryland High School Assessment do not necessarily mean that our students are prepared to reach their higher aspirations.
In Harford County Public Schools, approximately 11% of the high school population took at least one AP Exam in the spring of 2009. The average passing rate was just under 63%, meaning that at best, about 7% of our high school students demonstrated success on the college-level exams. Since students can, and often do, take more than one AP Exam, the actual results could be lower.
Overall, 1,253 students took a total of 1,986 exams in a total of seventeen reported subjects.
English and social studies subjects dominated the list of the most popular exams. The highest numbers of test-takers by far were in U.S. History with 290, followed by Psychology (193), English Literature (190), Calculus A/B (188), European History (186), English Language & Composition (181), World History (180) and Environmental Science (117).
Student participation was lower in science and math (except as noted above) and in the foreign language exams. Less than 100 students took AP Exams in Biology (95), Statistics (93) and Calculus BC (64). Even fewer took exams in Chemistry (36) and Physics (21) and less than 20 students took exams in Computer Science, Spanish, German and French. None of which is good news, given the global economy and the opportunities presented by BRAC.
In terms of performance, HCPS reported that the average passing rate on all AP Exams in Harford County was down slightly from last year and for the past five years, falling from 65.1% in 2005 to 62.8% in 2009. But the passing rate still compared favorably with the national rate of 58.8%. Passing is defined as a score of “3” or higher on a scale of 1 – 5.
Performance also varied widely by subject area, with 88% of students passing the AP Statistics Exam and zero passing in AP French. Although it’s important to note that the reliability of data decreases when exams are taken by small numbers of students. Among the more widely taken tests, the passing rates ranged from a high of 83% in English Language & Composition to a low of 40% in World History.
Harford County students performed better than the State average in ten out of seventeen exams reported – Biology, Calculus A/B, Calculus BC, Computer Science, English Language & Composition, English Literature, Environmental Science, Physics, Psychology and Statistics.
Areas of relative weakness were Chemistry, European History, French, German, Spanish, U.S. History and World History.
But the averages masked some extreme disparities among schools. For example on the Calculus AB Exam, over 90% of test-takers at Fallston High School had a passing score, compared to 12.5% at North Harford.
And comparing schools or school systems by passing rates alone can be tricky.
Case in point: Aberdeen and Bel Air High Schools started out with nearly the same number of students taking the course in AP Biology, and it appears that Aberdeen had a much lower passing rate on the exam compared to Bel Air. (45% vs. 71%). But that’s only because more Bel Air students chose not to take the exam.
There are a lot of reasons why individual students might take an AP course and not the corresponding exam. Students may not be able to pay $86 to take the test; they may have taken the course solely to bolster their college applications; they may have been accepted to a college that won’t grant credit for passing scores, the list goes on. But it’s also true that students who believe they are not prepared to do well on the exam tend to opt out. Since high opt-out rates can inflate passing rates, opt-outs should also be factored into comparisons.
One way to account for students who opt out of taking AP Exams is to consider the number of students who passed the exam in a particular subject as a percent of all course-takers in that subject. By that measure, passing rates naturally dropped in HCPS, significantly in many cases, and Aberdeen actually showed slightly better performance on the Biology Exam than Bel Air (20.8% vs. 19.2%).
With all of the above in mind, and with thanks to HCPS for providing comprehensive data, here are the results broken out by subject and by high school for the 2009 AP Exams. You will note that AP coursework and exams were offered at all ten county high schools, but varied by school. HCPS explains that this was a function of teacher supply and student demand. Exams taken by fewer than 5 students are marked with an asterisk by HCPS, to protect student anonymity.