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AP Courses Surge Even as Online AP Participation Declines

Participation in Advanced Placement courses has doubled in the last decade, and success rates have just about kept pace, according to a new report released by the College Board today. But one counterintuitive nugget that didn't make the final report: Participation in online AP courses has actually declined.

The report, The College Board's 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation, found that not only did overall participation increase nationwide, but student success — as measured by scores of 3 or better on AP tests — nearly kept pace with the increase in participation.

However, when it comes to online enrollment, the numbers are down. Participation in online courses dropped from an already nearly inconsequential 1 percent to just half a percent this year, according to information the College Board shared with THE Journal. (That represents perhaps only 5,000 individual students, based on the total number of students in the class of 2013 who took an AP exam.)

That statistic flies in the face of one long-held assumption about online education: that it's doing something face-to-face education can't do by providing widespread access to educational opportunities not found in many school districts.

Quality, Support Are Factors
According to Trevor Packer, senior vice president of the Advanced Placement Program, the reasons for the low online participation vary, but in some cases, the quality and support just weren't there.

"There was an initial burst of enrollments as online AP courses became more widely available (and in many cases free) for students, provided by more than 100 different non-profit and for-profit organizations around the world," Packer told THE Journal. "But in some cases students weren't given the support and mentorship to sustain their commitment to taking a rigorous course like AP online, so completion rates of these online courses, as is true for many online courses, were low. In addition, in some cases, the quality of the experience was not as engaging as we know great online instruction can be."

He added though that the potential for online delivery certainly does exist, given improvements in technology and instructional quality: "But we are optimistic that as the technology evolves and instructional design of these online AP courses improves, they will serve even more students," he said. "We see online AP courses as an important and valuable resource for educators and students seeking these opportunities, particularly in rural areas."

Increased Participation and Success Overall
Overall, there were slightly more than 1 million public high school students who took AP exams in the class of 2013, up more than 95 percent from the number of participants in the class of 2003. Low-income students made up more than a quarter of the total number of students who took the exam — about 27.5 percent (275,864). That's up significantly from 2003, when low-income students made up just 11.4 percent of the total AP exam population (58,489 of 514,163 examinees).

Significantly, as participation increased, there was not a commensurate decrease in the number of students who scored a 3 or higher on an AP exam.

In 2013, 607,505 students scored a 3 or better (60.5 percent of test takers, representing one in 5 high school graduates) versus 331,734 in 2003 (64.5 percent of test takers). So with an 83.1 percent increase in the number of test takers, there was only a decline of 4 percent in the success rate.

On average, students took about three AP exams in 2013, slightly more than in 2003. There were 3.15 million total AP exams taken in 2013 compared with 1.33 million in 2003. All told, 1.8 million tests were scored at 3 or higher (57.3 percent) compared with 806,891 in 2003 (60.7 percent). So all told, the number of successful tests increased b more than 1 million from 2003 to 2013.

Other findings from the report:

  • 132,555 teachers in the United States taught an AP course in 2013.
  • 17 states beat the national average of 20.1 percent of high school graduates who passed an AP exam: Maryland (29.6 percent); Connecticut 28.8 percent); Virginia 28.3 percent); Massachusetts 27.9 percent); Florida 27.3 percent); California 26.9 percent); New York 25.4 percent); Utah 25.4 percent); Colorado 24.4 percent); New Jersey 23.6 percent); Maine 22.3 percent); Wisconsin 22.2 percent); Illinois 21.5 percent); Vermont 21.4 percent); Georgia 21.3 percent); Washington 20.9 percent); and Minnesota 20.3 percent).
  • In math and science, 527,001 students from the class of 2013 took an AP exam before leaving school, with 291,946 receiving a 3 or higher (compared with 272,580 takers from the class of 2003 and 166,582 receiving a score of 3 or higher).
  • In English, history and social sciences, 828,186 students in the class of 2013 had taken an AP exam, with 468,078 receiving a 3 or higher (compared with 378,543 examinees in the class of 2003, 225,130 receiving a 3 or higher).
  • In arts and world languages, 194,452 students from the class of 2013 too an AP exam, with 139,488 receiving a 3 or higher (compared with 107,088 examinees in the class of 2003, with 76,484 receiving a 3 or higher).
  • 3,578 colleges and universities accepted AP scored for credit.

The report also hinted that despite the drastic increase in participation, as many as 300,000 students nationwide who could have succeeded in AP did not take an AP course.

"The next step toward equitable access and responsible expansion is to identify those students with potential, using validated tools, and ensure they have the AP opportunities they have earned," according to the report.

The complete report is available online in multiple formats at

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at .