One of the media’s regular sources of information about education is the College Board.
The College Board administers standardized tests and curricula, which are used by K-12 and post-secondary education institutions as part of the college admissions process. One of the College Board’s main programs is the Advanced Placement program (AP).
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.
Since 2005, the College Board has reported AP passing percentages to the states based upon each state’s class of graduating seniors, whether the students took an AP test or not.
What that has done is encourage some states to push more and more students into AP, even though many of those students are not qualified to take college-level courses. Since 2003, the number of tests administered annually has risen from about 1.7 million to over 3.9 million.
During that period, the percentage of students passing the exams has dropped by 4 percent, based upon students who actually take the tests. The percentage of tests earning the lowest possible grade of 1 has climbed by over 7 percent. What that suggests is that too many unprepared students are being placed in AP classes and forced to take the exams.
But that is not the hymn sung by the College Board nor echoed by the media chorus. Since the College Board administers roughly 200,000 more exams each year, there are quite naturally more exams with passing scores.
So states dutifully report that more students are taking and passing the tests each year. The problem is that some states have become so caught up in the hype to push AP, that they now routinely have over 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.
Consider Florida, for example. When the scores from the 2013 AP exam were reported last month, Florida newspapers championed that state’s success rates: “Florida Education Continues to Reach New Heights,” as “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.”
Missouri didn’t fare so well in the media. This newspaper reported in its graphic accompanying the AP story that “Missouri Ranks in Bottom Five States for Qualified Advanced Placement Scores.”
But that news was tempered by the fact that the Missouri papers could report that more Missouri students took and passed more exams than in 2012.
Here’s the rub. A state like Missouri is a slow-growth AP state. In 2013, 65 percent of the AP exams taken here earned a passing score. The national average is slightly below 60 percent.
Nevertheless Missouri is “ranked” in the bottom five states because it hasn’t pushed unqualified students into AP classes and therefore isn’t administering as many exams as its neighboring states.
Florida students, on the other hand, who passed only 48 percent of the AP exams they took, 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, and Florida is a rapid growth AP state.
In his book, "Real Education," Charles Murray, writes: "Widespread statistical illiteracy ... is cause for immediate concern because none of us, no matter how thorough our training, has the time to assess the data independently on every topic. We all have to rely on the quality of information we get from the media-and, as of today, that quality is terrible.”
The media has a responsibility to the public to illuminate the full story about the College Board’s Advanced Placement growth rate and why such unbridled growth might not be such a good thing.
Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism and formerly taught AP psychology. He lives in Thailand.