Advanced Placement classes in high schools across the country are becoming more diverse, and students are scoring higher on the exams than ever before.
College Board, the organization that handles the AP program, released an annual report this week that shows an overall increase in scores, as well as an increase in the number of students performing at the most elite levels on the test.
And it's not just traditionally high-performing demographics driving the numbers up. More Latinos are taking the test than in previous years, according to the report, and more of them are succeeding.
"As we increasingly diversify, we can increase achievement at the same time," David Coleman, president of the College Board, said during a call with reporters on Wednesday.
But the data is not all positive. Only a small percentage of the Hispanic students who qualify for AP classes actually take them. Of the 20 percent of public school graduates in the class of 2012 who scored a three or higher on at least one AP test in high school, only about 15 percent were Latino, according to the report. A three is the base score needed to get credit or advanced placement at most universities.
The problem is particularly acute in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, a set of industries currently clamoring for qualified American workers. That's particularly dire, because, according to College Board, that means those students are even less likely to pursue STEM degrees in college. Fewer than one-third of Hispanic high school graduates in the class of 2012 with AP potential in math took an AP math exam.
So why are many minority students not enrolled in advanced placement classes?
One reason for the low number of Hispanic students in AP courses is a lack of access. Many attend schools where the coursework is simply not available.
"Among the factors contributing to this disparity is the lower availability of a variety of AP courses in schools with higher numbers of low-income and traditionally underserved minority students," reads a news release about the report.
The report offers several suggestions for improving access to AP courses. While the obvious solution is for schools to offer more AP courses, the problem is more nuanced. Schools can run into obstacles, such as a lack of funding or properly trained teachers.
One way to increase AP participation, according to the report, is to offer better outreach to disadvantaged students. Many schools use PSAT scores as a marker of which students are prepared to succeed in AP courses. Schools need to do a better job of notifying students that they are eligible for the courses, the report says. Once students are enrolled, the report says that schools should provide support, in the form of peer-to-peer mentoring, counseling and tutoring.
Some Latino students have parents who are not familiar with the U.S. education system, and sometimes lack English-language proficiency. The reports suggests offering support to parents so that they are better equipped to help their kids enroll and succeed in AP courses. According to a 2010 Associated Press-Univision poll, just 20 percent of mainly Spanish-speaking parents say they are able to communicate "extremely well" with their child's school. The poll also showed that Hispanic parents were less likely to seek help from the school on their own. Outreach in Spanish, for example, would allow Spanish-speaking parents to be more involved in their student's education.
More AP teachers also need to be trained on how to teach advanced classes and engage kids who may be wary about enrolling in them.
Some states are already succeeding.
Maryland, which has the highest percentage of 2012 graduates who scored a three or higher on an AP exam during high school, took an interesting approach: they worked backwards.
The state started by looked at the knowledge and skills that a senior would need to pass an AP test. Officials then developed each year of high school curriculum to make sure that students acquired those skills bit by bit throughout high school.
In Florida, a state with a large percentage of Hispanic students, Latinos are actually slightly over-represented as AP test-takers. Nearly 25 percent of the high school seniors who graduated in Florida in 2012 are Hispanic, and 26 percent of Hispanic seniors took AP exams. More importantly, they succeeded at disproportionate levels. Nearly 30 percent of all Florida seniors who took AP exams and scored a three or higher in 2012 were Hispanic.
There are several national efforts underway to increase minority access to AP courses, and unsurprisingly, the tech industry is playing a role in recruiting more talented students to the courses that increase their likelihood of pursuing careers in STEM fields.
Take Google, for example. The tech giant partially funds a program called AP STEM Access, which is aimed specifically at increasing the number of minority students who take AP STEM classes. The idea is to get more schools to set up and maintain more science and technology classes in areas with high percentages of minority students.
"There are hundreds of thousands of talented students in this country who are being left out of the STEM equation," Jacquelline Fuller, director of Giving at Google, said in a statement when the grant was announced. "They're not being given the opportunity to find their passion or pursue today's most promising career. We're focused on creating equal access to advanced math and science courses, and ensuring that advanced classrooms become as diverse as the schools themselves."