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In the 2010-2011 school year, approximately 903,630 U.S. public school graduates took at least one Advanced Placement exam and 540,619 achieved a passing score of 3 or higher, according the College Board. That is a huge achievement: a rise of 34% from five years ago in the number of students passing, and a 40% increase in the same period for the number of students taking the exam. These gains are an important step for students preparing for the rigors of college-level courses.

benefits of AP classes
Gregg Fleisher

But those students who took the exam represent just under a third of the more than three million high school seniors in the U.S. We know that students taking and passing A.P. exams matriculate at higher rates and perform better in college than their peers, as shown by a 2007 College Board study by Rick Morgan and John Klaric. That’s why, if we’re serious about closing the much-talked-about skills gap in the U.S., and improving opportunities for our  students, it’s crucial that we enroll more students in rigorous programs such as the A.P. and give them the tools to do well.

A.P. classes do more than teach integrals or The Canterbury Tales. By challenging and empowering high school students to successfully complete college-level coursework, A.P. classes dramatically increase students’ college readiness, according to a study by the National Center for Educational Accountability. Students earning a three or higher on A.P. exams are three times more likely to earn a college degree than students who do not pass, and African-American and Hispanic students who pass an A.P. exam are four times more likely to earn a college degree than those who do not pass, according to the study.

More broadly, A.P. classes help students realize their potential as scholars and problem solvers. The experience of tackling a seemingly insurmountable goal—mastering college-level content knowledge in less than a year—and ultimately triumphing is a powerful one for students of all backgrounds, and most especially those African-American and Hispanic students who are traditionally underrepresented in A.P. classrooms. When students take A.P. classes and pass the A.P. exam, it proves they have the potential to excel in college and beyond. When all students are given the opportunity to participate—and the incentive to succeed— in the most challenging high school courses, they’re more prepared to succeed at the college level.

At the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit that supports efforts to bolster math and science education in the U.S., we have an A.P. program, active in 462 schools in nine states, that encourages all students—not just “honors” students—to try their hand at A.P. classes and see what they can do if they put their minds to it. We want students to study challenging topics in high school classrooms before facing them in college lecture halls.

To achieve the best possible results in getting more students to pass, we try to remove barriers that hinder schools’ and teachers’ best efforts. For example, we provide professional development for teachers in the summers and during the school year that schools can’t often afford. And because A.P. teachers often are not able to discuss concerns or difficulties they have in class with colleagues because they are often the only A.P. teachers in their subject at their school, we provide an A.P. expert whose job it is to support and be on call for the A.P. teachers in the program. And because schools often cannot afford the math and science equipment needed to start an A.P. class, we provide funding for equipment with support from a public-private partnership whose grants come from foundations, large companies and the U.S. government.

What we’ve found is that, on average, in the first year the program is implemented in a school, the number of math, science, and English A.P. exams that students pass almost doubles. That means a sharp increase in the number of students taking college seriously and putting themselves on a path to completing a college degree.

Are A.P. classes hard? You bet.  Can many more high school students handle them and succeed in them? Definitely—especially if they have the opportunity and the right support.

Gregg Fleisher is senior vice president of the National Math and Science Initiative.

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  1. Frankly, I’m not sure having access to APs should be the principal concern. I took 9 APs in high school and even ended up trading them in for a year’s course credit, so I could graduate Georgetown in 3 years, rather than 4.

    What good has it done me? Little that I can see. Adjusted for inflation, I’m still earning ($29,000) approximately what I earned in 1994 ($20,000), in my first real job after college. Unless one has a graduate degree, there is often little hope for advancement in this country.

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