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Every state sees gains in students passing AP

Participation rises in college-level work, but racial gap exists

WASHINGTON -- More students are passing Advanced Placement exams in every part of the country, as college-level work in high school becomes increasingly common -- and competitive.

In every state and the District of Columbia, the percentage of public school students who passed at least one AP test was up in 2004, compared with the graduating class of 2000. The Bush administration, which has been pushing to increase high school rigor, embraced the news, which followed other reports that have underscored how unprepared many graduates are for college or work.

Significant gaps remain, even as AP participation booms nationwide, according to the first state-by-state report in the 50-year history of the college-level testing program. Many students enter college without having passed an AP test. And black students, as a whole, have low test participation and test scores a full level behind those of whites.

The AP Program, which began as an experiment for elite students seeking college courses and credit, has now become a fixture in more than 14,000 US public schools. Beyond gaining experience, a student gains an edge; college admission officers say they place more importance on grades in college-prep courses such as AP than they do on any other factor.

Across the country, 20.9 percent of the public school class of 2004 -- one in five students -- took at least one AP exam, compared with 15.9 percent four years earlier. More significantly, 13.2 percent mastered an AP exam last year, up from 10.2 percent in 2000.

Research shows that success on AP exams is a strong predictor of success in college.

''This new report provides further proof that our children respond when we challenge them academically," said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who began her term this week. Spellings said she was particularly happy to see more minorities taking AP courses. That has been a longstanding challenge for the College Board, the nonprofit that runs the AP Program.

Hispanics made up 13.1 percent of AP test-takers last year, up from 10.9 percent. Their participation slightly exceeds their share of the public school population. AP Spanish appears to be influencing those numbers, as 53 percent of its participants are Hispanic. Black students remain underrepresented in the AP Program. They account for 13.2 percent of the students but only 6 percent of AP test-takers, up from 5.3 percent four years ago.

About two in three AP test-takers are white.

To avoid inflating state performance, the College Board counted students once regardless of how many AP subject tests they passed. But that obscures the point that students in wealthy areas often have access to multiple AP courses while other students do not, said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, which monitors standardized testing.

''Unfortunately, despite the value of AP courses, they end up reinforcing huge gaps between haves and have-nots because of differences in where courses are offered," he said.

New York is the first state to have more than 20 percent of its graduating class achieve a grade of 3 or higher on the exam, the level considered to be mastery. New York's challenging standards and state testing have encouraged AP enrollment, state officials said.

Other states were close: Massachusetts, Maryland, Utah, Florida, and California had 18 to 20 percent of students earning the passing score.

The states with the greatest increases in successful AP scores were Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, Colorado, Connecticut, and Washington. Gains ranged from just 0.6 percentage points by Louisiana and Mississippi to 5.7 percentage points by Florida.

The College Board recognized four Massachusetts schools for getting a high percentage of students to pass the Advanced Placement exams in certain subjects when compared with schools of similar sizes worldwide.

It said Boston Latin School, Commonwealth School, Phillips Academy in Andover, and Roxbury Latin School -- one public exam school and three private schools -- had the strongest college-level Latin, physics, and statistics programs, respectively, in the world.

Boston Latin School, the nation's oldest public school, was commended among large high schools for having the largest percentage of its 2,400-student population pass the AP Latin exam. Nationally, the college board estimates that only one in 1,000 students take and pass the AP Latin test, Packer said. At Boston Latin, that number is closer to one in 10, said Trevor Packer, executive director of the Advanced Placement program.

Commonwealth School, a 145-student private high school in Boston, was recognized among small schools for having the largest percentage of students to pass the AP Physics C exam. Commonwealth students take a two-year, calculus-based physics sequence that headmaster William Wharton described as ''blackboard physics" instead of laboratory-based physics. Students take the mechanics AP Physics C exam after the first year, and the electricity and magnetism AP Physics C exams after the second year. Of the 31 students who took the exams, 81 percent passed, he said.

Phillips Academy in Andover earned the same recognition in physics among large high schools. The Roxbury Latin School, a 285-student day school for boys in grades 7 to 12 in West Roxbury, was noted for getting the largest percentage of students to pass the AP statistics exam. Of the 200 students in the high school, 43 students took that exam and 77 percent passed, said Tom Walsh, the director of college guidance. Some students take the exam after a yearlong statistics class; others with stronger math skills take the exam after just half a year of statistics and half a year of precalculus, he said.

While Massachusetts did well overall -- with 18 percent of its public high school students demonstrating college-level mastery of an AP course compared with the national average of 13 percent -- state Education Commissioner David Driscoll said the state's school systems should not rest on their laurels.

''On the surface that's all very good news," Driscoll said yesterday. ''The problem is this underlying achievement gap which we're not closing the way we ought to. This just highlights the fact that we can't stay complacent simply because we look good."

Driscoll noted that the four Massachusetts schools highlighted by the College Board educate a narrow spectrum of students and that the state needs to do more to challenge its urban population, primarily black and Hispanic students. Like other states, too few minorities, especially black males, take AP exams and do well, he said. ''I take the good news as simply a challenge," Driscoll said.

Globe staff writer Tracy Jan contributed to this report.

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