For the 10th year in a row, the College Board has propagated a fiction about the Advanced Placement program and no one seems willing to call them on it.

The AP program is a series of 34 college-level courses and exams students can take in high school for which they may receive college credit.

The nationally administered AP exam is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 3 generally being considered a passing score.

When the College Board releases statistics each year about the results of the prior year AP tests, the upfront information lets states know the percentages of tests that received passing scores. The problem is that the passing percentages are spun from whole cloth, based not upon students who actually took the exams, but as a percentage of all the graduating seniors, the bulk of whom never took an AP exam.

So, why should that matter? Largely, because by denominating "all graduating seniors" as the eligible pool, states are encouraged to throw many students into AP, since failing the exam is counted no differently than not taking it. Further, without going to the College Board's website and crunching numbers in appendices, it's impossible to know the true percentages of exams receiving passing scores in various states.

The College Board believes that hiding the ball is a good thing. As administrators of the exam, they are pushing the program and, indeed, despite increases of about 200,000 exams per year, the College Board claims that many students who should have taken AP classes and exams last year were denied access to the program.


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That would be well and good if in fact it were true, but the reality is that as the numbers of test takers and exams increases each year, the scores are dropping.

Since 2003, the percentage of students passing the exams nationally has dropped by about 4 percent, based upon students who actually take the tests. The percentage of tests earning the lowest possible grade of 1 has climbed by more than 7 percent. What that suggests is that too many unprepared students are being placed in AP classes and forced to take the exams.

Yet some states have become so caught up in the hype to push AP, that they now routinely have more than 50 percent exam failures, based on tests actually taken. Still, a state with a less than 50 percent success rate can nevertheless claim that it is a spectacular success by working with the College Board's magical cloth.

Consider Florida, for example.

For several years, Florida's media has made a big deal out of the state's educational accomplishments with regard to AP, reporting this year, for example, that "Florida ranked among the top five states in the percent of high school graduates who passed an Advanced Placement with a score of 3 or higher" ("Sunshine State News").

But, Florida students passed only 48 percent of the AP exams they took last year. The national average was nearly 60 percent. Florida's mean score was 2.56 with more scores of 1 than 4's and 5's combined. The national mean score was 2.87. Yet the state is lauded as among the top five states in percentages of students passing AP exams. That's because the reported passing percentage is based upon graduating seniors, not test takers.

Fortunately, most districts in California have not succumbed to AP frenzy yet. About 60 percent of exams earned a passing score last year (same as the national average) and the mean score 2.92 was slightly above the national average.

One of the questions states should be asking is whether having so many obviously unprepared students shoved into AP classes hurts those students who might otherwise succeed if the class could truly be taught at a college-level.

AP teachers apparently think so.

A report published in 2009 by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute documents concerns expressed by AP teachers that the program was over-enrolled five years ago. A majority of the teachers surveyed said that only students who are deemed capable to handle AP material should take the courses. Nevertheless, 69 percent of the teachers reported that AP classes at their schools were open to all students.

While overwhelmingly positive about the AP program, 63 percent of AP teachers in the Fordham study suggested that more screening of students to make sure they are ready to do AP level work would improve the program.

AP courses are challenging. California high schools should keep them that way and only add AP classes and exams when they have students capable of doing college-level work.

Patrick Mattimore formerly taught AP psychology in the Bay Area and now lives in Thailand.