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Students improve in advance placement tests

Updated: March 22, 2013 10:31AM

As Advanced Placement exams have expanded to a more diverse group of high school students, more failures and lower average results seemed almost inevitable.

But recent high school graduates seem to be bucking the trend: For the first time on record, average scores, the percentage passing and top scores are all increasing.

In its annual report Wednesday on the AP Program, the College Board said nearly one-third of 2012 public high school graduates took AP tests, and nearly one in five received a passing score of 3 or higher on the five-point-scale exams offered in 34 subjects from calculus to history to studio art. Both figures are up substantially from a decade ago, when 18 percent of graduates took an exam and fewer than 12 percent earned a score of 3 or higher.

But more notably, the College Board said that for the first time since it began collecting data by class year in 2001, the mean exam score increased from the previous year, from 2.80 to 2.83. The percentage of all exams that earned at least a 3 also rose for the first time, and the 14.2 percent earning a top score of 5 was also the highest ever.

That’s significant because it could boost the College Board’s argument that there remain students out there who could succeed on AP exams if given the opportunity. And as the federal government, states and school districts aggressively push AP, the results could blunt criticism that AP expansion has become an obsession among educators, diverting resources from remedial work that low-performing students really need and setting them up to fail.

Those numbers were mirrored locally: The number of Illinois graduates taking AP exams has more than doubled in the last decade — up to 40,653 graduates last year from 18,833 in 2002, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. And more than 26,400 graduates scored a 3 or higher last year, it said.

That puts the state at No. 16 in the nation for the percentage of 2012 graduates — 19.9 percent _ who received a passing score on an AP exam during their high school career, ISBE said. That’s grown by 8.2 percentage points from 11.7 percent in 2002, it said.

The national average is 19.5 percent.

In both Elgin School District U46 and Community Unit School District 300, between 20 and 29 percent of graduates had taken an AP exam as of last year. That’s a jump from 1,299 students in 2011 to 1,459 last year in U46.

Of those students in both area school districts, 10 to 19 percent of graduates scored a 3 or higher, the state board said. In U46, 52 percent of those exams taken earned a passing score.

District 300 officials said in October the 545 students in AP classes last school year took 27 more exams than the year before (a total 795) and scored a 3 or higher on 32 more of those tests (a total 420).

Trevor Packer, the College Board’s senior vice president for the AP program, said “one year does not a trend make.”

But the results don’t look like a blip. After regular annual declines, scores stabilized last year, and early results from members of the class of 2013 who have already taken AP exams suggest the upward trend will continue next year.

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