More Long Island students than ever before are taking and passing college-level Advanced Placement exams — assessments widely recognized as the academic “gold standard” in determining national high school rankings, a Newsday analysis of state Education Department data shows.
Across the Island, 73,472 AP exams were administered in the spring, according to figures the agency compiled at Newsday’s request. That number was up about 2.8 percent from 2015 and 31 percent from 2009, the earliest year for which state data are available.
An additional 5,971 International Baccalaureate exams were taken in the spring in the nine Long Island districts that currently give those tests.
Many students use high scores from AP and IB exams to obtain course credits from colleges and universities and to secure placement in upper-level classes on those campuses.
In recognition of the growing importance of these advanced tests, Newsday calculated public school districts’ achievement proportionately, taking into account the size of high school enrollments. Data cover the 99 public school districts on the Island that operate high schools; another 25 school systems have only elementary or middle schools.
Two numerical ratios were calculated for each district — one for test achievement, the other for test participation. To calculate achievement, Newsday divided total exams with passing scores in each district by 12th-grade enrollment. To calculate participation levels, total exams administered were divided by 12th-grade enrollment. District-by-district results can be found at newsday.com.
A test-achievement ratio of 1.00, for example, indicates that one exam was passed for every 12th-grader enrolled in a district. The higher a district’s ratio, the better the level of student performance.
A ratio is simply a means of comparing districts proportionately. It is not meant to describe how many 12th-graders actually took exams; many students take multiple AP and/or IB tests. Newsday’s calculations compare district test results on the Island, using methodology similar to that employed in national school rankings by The Washington Post and other media.
Here’s what the numbers show:
- Of the total exams given, passing scores of 3 to 5 on the AP tests’ five-point scale were achieved on 49,625 exams in the spring, up about 30 percent from 2009. Passing scores were reached on another 4,498 IB tests. Such scores are regarded as evidence that students have performed college-level work.
- The Island’s average passage rate on AP tests held steady even as student participation grew. It was 68.1 percent from the spring test season, virtually unchanged from the 67.8 percent recorded in 2009. Though enrollment numbers have been declining, generally speaking, nearly 25 percent more students in Nassau and Suffolk counties took AP exams this year than six years ago.
- High-scoring districts tend to be clustered along the North Shore in Nassau County and western Suffolk. This applies to most districts with test-achievement ratios of 3.00 or better — meaning that three or more exams were passed last year, proportionately speaking, for every senior enrolled. Eleven districts in Nassau and two in Suffolk meet that criterion. They are, in descending order: Jericho, Manhasset, Roslyn, East Williston, Great Neck, Rockville Centre, Cold Spring Harbor, Syosset, Locust Valley, Garden City, Port Washington, Herricks and Harborfields.
- The majority of districts in Nassau and Suffolk rank well above the state average in terms of student participation in AP and IB courses. This is demonstrated by comparing test-participation ratios in each district against the state’s average ratio of 0.69. That ratio means that, on average, less than one exam was administered statewide, proportionately, for every 12th-grader enrolled. Ninety of the Island’s 99 districts in the analysis exceed the statewide average, and 77 of those districts have ratios at least double the state average.
- A wide gap separates the Island’s lowest test-participation districts from the highest. Five districts in the region, for example, show test-participation ratios of 0.50 or less, which is below the state average.
AP exams are scored on a range of 1 to 5 under the system set by officials at the Manhattan-based College Board, the private, nonprofit organization that also sponsors the SAT college admissions test. International Baccalaureate exams are scored on a range of 1 to 7, with scores of 4 to 7 correlating with AP scores of 3 to 5. IB courses and exams are sponsored by a nonprofit organization based in Geneva, Switzerland.
AP and IB exam results provide much of the data for national high school rankings published each year by U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post and other media outlets.
On the Island, where nearly 90 percent of high school graduates go on to two-year or four-year colleges, many district officials agreed that AP-level studies set the pace for achievement. The International Baccalaureate program serves a similar role in the 10 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties where it is offered, nine of which currently administer IB exams.
Opportunities vary widely
Opportunities for students to engage in advanced coursework vary widely by locality, depending on the financial status of each district. Many high schools offer dozens of AP courses each year, while others offer relatively few.
The Wyandanch district, for example, included only one AP course, in calculus, during the 2015-16 school year, according to College Board.
Michelle Lainez-Pixtun, 18, who graduated from Wyandanch High School as a valedictorian last spring, said she was disappointed when told by school staffers that the district could not afford additional AP courses.
“I think there aren’t enough opportunities in low-income communities, and if opportunities were available, it would help students in college,” Lainez-Pixtun said in a phone interview. She now is enrolled at Suffolk County Community College and plans to transfer to Stony Brook University next fall.
A Wyandanch spokesman, Nathan Jackson, said the district hopes to expand AP offerings if it can find the money to do so. “We need more classroom space, more training to bring teachers up to speed,” Jackson said.
New York historically has ranked high among states in AP participation, though its standing has slipped a bit in recent years, according to a 2014 report by College Board. State education officials last week issued a statement reiterating their support of high academic standards and emphasizing the need for high school students to engage in advanced coursework and testing.
“The number of students who take and pass AP exams is an important indicator of their intent to move on to higher education — and their readiness to succeed there,” spokesman Jonathan Burman said. “So it’s important for the department to track this data, make it available to the public, and continue to do everything we can to prepare all students for success after high school.”
In the weeks ahead, the Education Department plans to release achievement data based on state Regents exams, which are at an easier college-prep level than AP and IB tests.
Many local officials cautioned that college-level tests are only one measure of student performance and that accomplishments in other areas — including art, music, technology and sports — also warrant attention.
College Board currently offers AP exams in 38 subjects. Most tests are two to three hours long and include multiple-choice and essay questions.
Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools, said one key to the district’s success was its decision more than 15 years ago to open up enrollment in AP courses to any high school student who wishes to apply. Such open-enrollment policies are increasingly popular across the region.
“It is an interesting phenomenon that a privately produced test is becoming what you might call the gold standard of evaluating a high school’s academic program,” said Grishman, a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Jericho High School offers AP coursework in 23 subjects, including art history, calculus, Chinese and computer science — a factor in some families’ homebuying decisions.
“My dad wanted me to be in a top school where a lot of AP courses are available,” said Faisal Karim, 17, a senior enrolled in four AP classes this year. He was a sixth-grader when his family moved to Jericho from Flushing, Queens.
Some resistance Islandwide
Islandwide, the drive to boost AP enrollments and school ratings has encountered a certain degree of pushback.
Alan Baum, principal of Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, posted a letter on his district’s website last month, explaining why he has refused over the years to provide data to media representatives seeking to include the school in their rankings.
Baum said such ratings are based on a “simplistic formula” that ignores students’ extracurricular and sports activities, and noted many local colleges and universities sponsor advanced courses for high school students, in addition to those offered by the AP and IB programs.
“We are a community of learners and we are more than a number,” wrote Baum, whose school is part of the Three Village system.
Another frequent complaint across the region is that AP participation can be expensive for students whose districts don’t pick up the tests’ cost — currently $93 per exam, according to College Board’s website.
East Islip’s school board adopted a policy last month that allows students enrolled in AP courses to skip tests offered by College Board. As an alternative, those students will have the option of taking final exams written by their own teachers.
William Carpluk, vice president of East Islip’s school board, said the board’s decision was based largely on advice from district administrators who noted the AP exams’ expense.
“That’s a lot of money for a kid who might take three AP courses as an 11th-grader,” Carpluk said.
District resident Andrea Vecchio, who heads a local taxpayer group, told Newsday after attending the board meeting that she disagreed with the board’s decision.
“Why would you take the course and not take the test?” said Vecchio, who said that AP exams help in holding districts accountable. “If we’re funding this, we should have some way of knowing whether the teacher is teaching it adequately, and whether the students are learning what is taught.”
Elsewhere across the Island, supporters of AP programs noted that students often save money in the long run by getting college credit for advanced courses completed during high school. Supporters added that the extra workloads required by such courses are more than balanced by the opportunity to prepare well for college.
“If I weren’t going to Jericho, I wouldn’t be taking four AP courses a year,” said Jack Miller, 17, a senior who hopes to enter premedical training in college next year. “When I talk about this to friends in other high schools in Westchester or New Jersey who are taking maybe one or two AP courses, they usually laugh and say, ‘That’s tough.’ But when you apply to colleges, you’ve got to stand out in comparison to your class.”
With Michael R. Ebert