More California high school students are taking Advanced Placement tests for college credit, but the state's black and Latino students are still underrepresented in AP classrooms, according to a report released Tuesday by the College Board.
Of the 358,266 students in the state's class of 2006, 31% took at least one AP exam, up from 22% in 2000. Nationally, about 24% of students took an AP test in 2006, compared to about 16% in 2000.
California ranked seventh nationally in participation of students in the AP program, and was cited for its outreach to Latino students in particular.
Also, several schools were praised for achieving success in certain AP exams, including Fullerton's Troy High School in computer science, San Francisco University High School in French language, French literature and U.S. history, and Pico Rivera's El Rancho High School in biology.
Advanced Placement courses are college-level classes offered in a variety of subjects that culminate in an exam, scored on a scale of 1 to 5. Colleges and universities typically give students credit for scores of 3 or better.
State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said the College Board report reflected several positive trends.
"This report shows that more California students than ever before are taking Advanced Placement courses in high school and succeeding on AP exams," O'Connell said. "It also shows a positive trend over the last five years of increased participation in AP by students in all ethnic subgroups and students who are low-income.
"While we must continue to work hard to close the achievement gap that persists in California schools, it is encouraging that so many students are reaching for a higher bar and succeeding."
O'Connell seized on rising participation rates in AP classes and algebra II to begin his annual State of Education address Tuesday with a pat on the back for teachers and other educators while acknowledging that stubborn disparities persist.
In 2006, for example, whites were at least twice as likely to score "proficient" or better than African Americans in the state's English-language arts exams. In mathematics, the gap has actually widened slightly since 2003.
Similarly, the AP report produced a mixed picture of improving participation and persistent inequity. Black students were 7.3% of the state's student population but only 3.6% of those taking AP courses in 2006, up from 3% in 2000.
Latinos made up 36% of the student population and 30% of those in AP classes, up from 26% in 2000. Despite efforts to provide access to more AP courses, black and Latino students tended to score below whites and Asians nationally and in California. It's a troubling indication, according to the report, that neither "teachers nor students are receiving adequate preparation for the rigors of the AP course."
The finding is important because research suggests that those who participate in the AP program have better college grades and college graduation rates than similar students who did not take the courses and exams, according to the report.
"If the AP really does have the benefits the research points to in helping to develop critical thinking and writing skills, it is not fair if key segments of our population are not being given access to these courses or not even being prepared for the courses," said Trevor Packer, executive director of the AP program for the College Board.
The situation has improved recently in California since a lawsuit was filed several years ago based on a lack of access to AP courses, said Russlynn Ali, executive director of the nonprofit Education Trust-West, an advocacy group for low-income and minority students. But many school districts still lack enough resources and teachers with credentials to tackle standard academic courses, let alone the rigorous AP classes, she said.
One local school finding success, El Rancho High, was cited for having the largest proportion of Latinos scoring a 3 or better in AP biology. The school is 97% Latino and 67 students took the biology class, Principal Julie Ellis said. Only about 21% of them passed the exam. But what's more important, Ellis said, the scores are remaining consistent as more students opt to take the course.
The classes are open to sophomores, juniors and seniors and, to encourage participation, the school places few restrictions on who can take them. Counselors and teachers coordinate to support students.
Sandy Arias, a 17-year-old senior, took AP classes in biology, U.S. history, English and Spanish. "It did help me a lot for my college education, because any AP class I can get credit for will make it that much easier," said Arias, who has applied to Columbia University, New York University and USC.
Steven Vega, 18, who took AP biology, said part of the benefit was just persevering and not missing classes, which he believes will help him in college.
"It's really attuned my skills so that I know what to expect in college and what the pace is going to be," said Vega, who wants to major in computer engineering and has applied to USC and Cal Poly Pomona. "It was very rough. My counselor definitely encouraged me, and the teachers were helpful."
Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.
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Accelerating AP programs
Both in California and nationwide, more high school seniors are taking Advanced Placement exams to earn college credit.
Percent of U.S. seniors taking AP exams
Percent of California seniors taking AP exams
Source: The College Board