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California students among the most successful on AP tests

Report finds 21% of high school seniors had passed at least one Advanced Placement exam by 2009. The passing rate among Latinos and African Americans in the state also slightly increased.

February 10, 2010|By Nicole Santa Cruz

California boasts one of the nation's highest percentages of public school students passing AP tests, but educators are concerned about a dramatic slowdown in the rate of students taking those college-level courses, according to an annual report released Wednesday.

In 2009, about 21% of California's senior class earned a score of 3 or higher on one or more Advanced Placement exams. The national rate was 16%. The tests are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with scores of 3 and above accepted for college credit at many colleges and universities.

The number of high school students taking AP exams nationally almost doubled from 2001 to 2009, but course enrollments are slowing, particularly in California, said Trevor Packer, vice president of the College Board, which administers the tests and released the report.

In the last decade, California saw 8% average growth in AP course enrollment each year. In the 2008-2009 school year, that growth slowed by almost half, and the current year's growth is only 1%. California schools have been experiencing declines in enrollment in recent years.

"In the 2010 exams, we expect to see a further slowing down," Packer said.

Some schools lack the budgets and resources to train teachers for the advanced classes, Packer said. AP teachers, who are primarily baby boomers, are also retiring at twice the rate of regular instructors, he said.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the Boston-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said AP courses are expensive and usually require smaller class sizes.

"Money is the driving factor," he said. "If you don't have the flexibility in your budget to send a potential new AP teacher off for the necessary training, you won't have a quality course and maybe you won't have a course at all."

California saw slight increases in the percentage of minority students who passed the tests.

From 2008 to 2009, the percentage of black students who passed the tests increased minimally, from 1.9% to 2%. The passing rate among Latinos increased about one percentage point, from 30.8% to 31.7%, and the percentage of American Indian or Alaska Native students decreased 0.1%.

The percentage of white students who passed the test decreased by almost 2%.

As more students take the exams, more are earning scores of 1 or 2.

Nationally, 421,013 students in the Class of 2001 scored a 1 or 2, compared with more than 1 million in the Class of 2009. The number of students who scored a 3, 4 or 5 jumped from 653,376 to 1,307,287 in the same period.

The College Board has received criticism about the increased number of students who don't pass the exams. Some educators question whether students benefit from taking AP courses, which some say lack an in-depth curriculum.

The report also identified 15 schools in the U.S. with the highest percentage of Latinos and African Americans scoring 3 or higher.

The only California school on that list is Calexico High. In 2009, 92% of Calexico students who took the AP Spanish exam passed, said Principal Gilbert Barraza.

Since Barraza took over the predominantly Latino school in 2004, aiming students toward two-year or four-year colleges has been a main focus.

The 2,100-student school beefed up AP courses, added multimedia presentations to classrooms, expanded arts and athletics and made the campus wireless.

Administrators also emphasize professional development and transparency.

"There's collegiality among our staff," he said. "When you have teachers teaching teachers, that's very powerful."

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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