High-school students taking Advanced Placement examinations last year got some of the highest scores since the College Board published its first AP report, in 2001. The highest proportion ever of test takers, 14.2 percent, last year received the highest possible score, of five. The percentage scoring a three or higher, and the cohort's mean score, also increased for the first time. The success came even as test takers grew more numerous and more racially and socioeconomically diverse.
"What we see here through AP is some evidence that you can both increase the number of students involved in rigorous coursework ... and keep high standards of equity and excellence in the true sense of both words," said Peter Kauffmann, the College Board's vice president for communications.
In its latest report on the AP test, the College Board also described the participation of traditionally underserved minority groups in each state, praising states like Florida, where the percentage of test takers identifying as Hispanic/Latino was actually larger than that group's statewide share of high-school students.
But Trevor Packer, senior vice president for the AP program, also called attention to the "distressing results" for minority students in most states, especially African-American and American Indian students.
Even as ever-increasing numbers of students take AP courses and exams, the program's benefits continue to be part of a long-running debate.
Dartmouth College announced late last year that, beginning in the fall of 2014, it would no longer award college credit for high scores on AP exams. The scores will still be used to place students in appropriate courses and to evaluate applications in the admissions process, said Justin Anderson, the college's assistant vice president for media relations. "Ultimately, we would like a Dartmouth education to take place at Dartmouth," Mr. Anderson said. "We would like our students to take classes, to the extent they can, with Dartmouth faculty."
David W. Oxtoby, president of Pomona College, in Claremont, Calif., said Dartmouth's decision reflected higher education's over all frustration with the attention paid to the tests at the expense of other educational goals.. Pomona students may use high AP scores to receive credit for up to two courses and to be placed in higher-level courses. Mr. Oxtoby said AP courses are often "a bit too formulaic," but he still advised students to take them for exposure to a more rigorous curriculum.
Rob Jenkins has written about Advanced Placement courses from the perspective of both a parent and an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. "In high school, you have tons of graded assignments, so one or two low ones don't matter," said Mr. Jenkins, who writes a regular column for The Chronicle. "Then they get to college, and they're taking English classes like mine, and they have six grades all semester."
High-school AP teachers increase the number of assignments to make classes more difficult, he said, but that reinforces a grading structure that's the opposite of how college works.
But several studies have linked AP participation to student achievement, college readiness, and college completion. Just last week, the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address included a call from Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to create incentives for school districts to teachoffer more AP courses.
"The idea of offering rigorous courses at the high-school level is a very good thing," Mr. Oxtoby said. However, he added, Advanced Placement courses invite academic challenges along with additional pressures on students. "There is so much to learn in college," he said. "It's discouraging when students get so focused on the test."