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Failure Rates for AP Tests Climbing

The number of students taking Advanced Placement tests hit a record high last year, but the portion who fail the exams - particularly in the South - is rising as well, a USA TODAY analysis finds.

Students last year took a record 2.9 million exams through the AP program, which challenges high school students with college-level courses. Passing the exams (a score of 3 or higher on the point scale of 1 to 5) may earn students early college credits, depending on a college's criteria.

But the findings about the failure rates raise questions about whether schools are pushing millions of students into AP courses without adequate preparation - and whether a race for higher standards means schools are not training enough teachers to deliver the high-level material.

"The standards don't teach themselves," says Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond, a noted teacher-quality expert who says schools shouldn't treat AP as "another silver bullet" that will raise standards and assure academic success.

"You have to build the whole system. You can't just bring in one thing and think that it's going to solve everything," she says.

The newspaper's analysis finds that more than two in five students (41.5 percent) earned a failing score of 1 or 2, up from 36.5 percent in 1999. In the South, a Census-defined region that spans from Texas to Delaware, nearly half of all tests - 48.4 percent - earned a 1 or 2, a failure rate up 7 percentage points from a decade prior and a statistically significant difference from the rest of the country.

College Board officials say it's misleading to lump all scores together because different tests have vastly different historical pass rates. Scores on AP Physics tests, for example, are consistently up; those for AP English Literature are dropping. The physics success builds through a sequence of courses, says Trevor Packer, a College Board vice president who oversees AP. He also says enrollment growth means the raw number of students earning passing scores is climbing, even if the overall failure rate is up.

Statistical models predicted a rise in failure rates, because students took about 1.8 million more AP exams last year than in 1999. Typically, standardized test scores fall as more students - many of them with weaker academic records - take them.

Once a hallmark of elite, college-bound high-schoolers, AP has exploded in the past decade because of higher student aspirations as well as efforts by reformers to push students into challenging courses. Enrollment has grown from about 704,000 students in 1999 to 1.7 million last year.

Data suggest that more students, rewarded by weighted grades and, in some cases, cash payments, are taking the bait: 76 percent of AP students sat for an exam last spring, up from 66 percent in 2000.

Joan Lord of the Southern Regional Education Board says there's more than meets the eye to the South's AP results. For instance, while College Board data show Arkansas has the USA's highest failure rate (70.3 percent), she says it has made the most progress of any Southern state, boosting participation among seniors from 11 percent in 2003 to 33 percent in 2008. And the percentage of students who passed at least one AP exam rose from 6 percent to 11 percent.

"We've democratized the test and haven't dropped the scores," Lord says. "We're excited."

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