Not long ago, Advanced Placement exams were mostly for top students looking to challenge themselves and get a head start on college credit. Not anymore.
In the next two weeks, 2 million students will take 3.7 million end-of-year AP exams — figures well over double those from a decade ago. With no national curriculum, AP has become the de facto gold standard for high school rigor. States and high schools are pushing AP classes and exams as a way to raise standards across the board, in some cases tying AP to bonuses. And the federal government is helping cover the exam fees.
Now, AP's rapid growth is reaching even schools serving some of the most disadvantaged students. These schools are embracing AP as a comprehensive toolkit for toughening coursework, emphasizing college preparation and instilling a "culture of excellence."
If math teacher Jaime Escalante could lead low-income Los Angeles students to AP calculus glory in the story that became the 1988 film "Stand and Deliver," why not others?
The problem is, there usually isn't a Hollywood ending.
Last year, 18 percent of U.S. high school graduates passed at least one AP exam (by scoring 3 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5), up from 11 percent a decade ago.
But there also many more students falling short — way short — on the exams.
The proportion of all tests taken last year earning the minimal score of 1 increased over that time, from 13 percent to 21 percent. At many schools, virtually no students pass.
For instance, in Indiana — among the states pushing AP most aggressively, and with results close to the national average — there were still 21 school districts last year where graduates took AP exams but none passed.
Baltimore's Academy for College & Career Exploration, where 81 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch programs in 2010, added three AP classes in recent years. Over the past two years, just two of 62 exams taken by its students earned a 3.
Passing an AP exam means demonstrating college-level skill, so a high failure rate isn't necessarily surprising or alarming. Many educators insist the AP coursework preceding those exams is valuable regardless.
Still, they acknowledge the trend raises tough questions: Is pushing poorly prepared students to take college-level classes effective? Or does it just demoralize them and divert time and money better spent elsewhere?