California students’ improvement on AP exams deserves more attention

There is some good news in California student achievement trends. High performers, as measured by passage of the Advanced Placement exam, are increasing, and rank very high in interstate comparisons.

AP is college level work in high school, and indicates that students attending California’s most selective colleges are better prepared than ever. This positive trend is obscured by national studies, like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), that do not focus on the highest achieving students when making interstate and racial/ethnic comparisons. In California, Hispanic growth in both taking and passing the AP exam is especially impressive.

According to the the Eighth Annual AP Report to the Nation, 23.4 percent of California’s 2011 public school graduates were successful on one or more AP exams – seventh highest in the nation. Overall, 19 states’ graduates exceeded the national average by scoring 3 or higher, out of 5, on one or more exams during their high school careers. Maryland was number one, with 27.9 percent. The U.S. average is 18.1 percent. This high national ranking for California does not receive the public attention that it deserves in a sea of negative reports on state education.

California ranked second to New Mexico on the College Board Hispanic Index for Equity and Excellence on AP. This calculation combines percent of successful AP exam takers in the graduating class with the percent of Hispanics in the graduating class. About 27 percent of California students take the AP Spanish exam, and almost 80 percent of those score 3 or higher. This compares favorably to Texas, where only 17 percent of the students take the AP Spanish exam and 60 percent score 3 or higher.

In California, 136,787 students, from the graduating class of 2011, took an AP exam during their high school career.  From that number, 90,409, or 66 percent, achieved at least one AP exam score of 3 or higher – scores that are predictive of enhanced college success, according to the College Board, the not-for-profit membership organization that administers the AP Program. In 2010, the most current data available, California’s 12th grade student population numbered 405,087.

In California, the AP performance gap between Hispanic and African American graduates compared with Asian and white graduates continues to exist. For example, 61 percent of Hispanic graduates and 39 percent of African American graduates score 3 or higher on AP exams, compared with 71 percent of Asian graduates  and 74 percent of white graduates. All of these scores represent an increase in AP performance over the previous five years, but if California is truly going to close the AP equity gap, educators and students alike will need to continue to find ways to increase AP  participation and improve performance on these exams.

Source:  College Board California State Integrated Summary Report for Public Schools, 2010-11
Source: College Board California State Integrated Summary Report for Public Schools, 2010-11

California’s Hispanic students are the fastest growing population and the largest individual group taking AP exams in public schools and the second largest group including public and private schools. Their  AP participation and performance rates show a five-year increase in the number of Hispanic students taking AP exams, from 57,700 (2006-07 school year) to 85,638 (2010-11 school year) – a 47 percent increase.  The number of Hispanic students receiving an AP score of 3 or higher – 29,664 (2006-07 school year) to 43,650 (2010-11 school year) – also represents a 47 percent increase.

The five-year AP data trends for California’s Hispanic public and private school students shows the same pattern of increases in participation, from 62,135 (2006-07) to 91,452 (2010-11), for a 47 percent increase. The AP performance trend over the same period shows increases from 32,720 to 47,515, an increase of 45 percent.

Nationally, students who find success on AP exams lessen their chances of being required to take remedial college courses and increase their chances of graduating from college on time. These remedial courses cost taxpayers an estimated $1 billion each year. Educators in California and throughout our nation must continue to target the divide between high school graduation standards and the skills needed for all students to be successful in college. Finally, we must examine and address equity and access issues that hinder academic excellence for all California students.

Michael Kirst is a Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University, where he has been on the faculty since 1969, and president of the California State Board of Education. He thanks Don Mitchell of the College Board and Russ Rumberger of the University of California Office of the President for data help and advice on this article.


Sources for this article:

* The 8th Annual AP Report to the Nation California State Supplement, February 8, 2012. The College Board.

* California State Integrated Summary Report, 2010-11. The College Board.

* California Department of Education Statewide Graduation Rates, 2009-2010.

* “Preparing Students for Success in College,” Policy Matters (2005), American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

* Chrys Dougherty, Lynn Mellor, and Shuling Jian, “The Relationship Between Advanced Placement and College Graduation” (2005), National Center for Educational Accountability.

* The College Completion Agenda 2011 Progress Report (New York: The College Board, 2011).

California plunges into the unknown in expanding class sizes

Even before the negotiations concerning tax extensions collapsed, California’s class sizes were ballooning. Now we are exacerbating class size increases, but there is no research to predict or understand future implications. Class size studies have focused on ranges from 30 to 15. Results are contested, but no study has examined California’s “natural experiment” of moving many classes in K-4 from 20 to 1 to 35-40 to 1 in a few years.

Moreover, almost all research is on grades K-8, but high school classes in social studies, for example, are climbing into the 35-40 range in several districts. We are flying blind into an uncertain future. The only cap on class size in California seems to be the square-foot size of the classroom.

The latest round of class size reductions came in the 1990s, spurred in part by a well designed random control experiment in Tennessee. But the Tennessee classes were reduced from 25-27 to 15. The greatest impact in Tennessee seemed to be in K-2 grades for disadvantaged children. In 1996, California Gov. Pete Wilson sponsored a bill to reduce class sizes to 20 to 1 in grades K-3. This reduction has been eviscerated by the recent state budget cuts, and most districts will probably exceed 30 students in K-4 in the future.

Research on class size impact in secondary grades is very scant across the United States. The secondary grades in California often have class sizes in the 30-40 range, but we know little about how the impact varies depending on secondary subjects. For example, now Grade 9 English classes are rising from 20 to 37 in the Chaffey High School District. California reduced English class size in grade 9 to 20 pupils, but no definitive evaluation was ever conducted.

Not only are class sizes being increased, but the support personnel for teachers (coaches, aides, curriculum specialists) are also gone. I talked recently with a staff development expert in math who took his promising approach to other states because of California’s huge classes and inadequate infrastructure to support teacher development. I was a part of the team that evaluated the 20 to 1 classes in California from 1996 to 2002. One thing was clear: parents preferred smaller classes even if they had some concerns about teacher quality. What will gigantic classes do to parental support for California schools? What types of teachers succeed in very large classes?

California research organizations need to study the impact of such large classes immediately. They will find little guidance from the most current research base, which uses a 30 to 1 ratio as its ceiling – a class size California will only be able to dream about. Perhaps there are strategies to reallocate limited district and school funds that will reduce class sizes, but research is not clear on how to do this in such a constrained fiscal environment.

Michael Kirst,  Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University, is  President of the California State Board of Education, a position  he held from 1977 to 1981 as well. Before joining the Stanford faculty in 1969, he held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty, and Director of Program Planning for Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Office of Education. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. His latest books are From High School to College with Andrea Venezia (2004) and Political Dynamics of American Education (2009).