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AP pass rates rising

Utah students also outscore averages for the 13th year in a row

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Utah high school students this year passed Advanced Placement tests at accelerated rates and outscored national averages for the 13th year in a row, according to test scores released by the College Board Friday.

Utah students taking AP exams this year scored a 3, 4 or 5 69 percent of the time, up 0.2 percent from last year, the State Office of Education reported. The national average pass rate was about 64 percent.

AP exams, administered through the College Board, are scored on a scale of 1 to 5. A score of 3 or better qualifies the student for college credit.

"I think it's just excellent," Barbara Lawrence, state coordinator of evaluation and assessment, said of the scores. "We have historically as a state always had an extremely high participation in Advanced Placement, with very positive results and a high pass rate. And we've maintained that and exceeded it."

Utah students have done better in the past, however. Pass rates were in the 70 percent range between 1990 and 1995.

More Utah students have taken AP tests every year since 1982. Last spring was no exception: 12,145 students took 19,641 tests, a 6 percent increase from 1999.

"I think we've got to be pleased more students are taking the test and results are improving and continuing strong performance," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Laing said.

Students also qualified to earn college credit in 32 subjects, most often in biology, English language and literature, European and U.S. history, and calculus. Fewer students took tests in environmental science, economics and computer science.

But performance this year did not remain as strong in all areas. While pass rates mirrored or slightly rose above last year's in four subjects, it dipped 3 percentage points in U.S. history and calculus.

Neither Laing nor Lawrence was too concerned, however. They say scores typically fluctuate a little from year to year, and no trends have been spotted.

There is a trend, however, in how well minority students score compared to white students, both in Utah and nationally. While scores are not too different, minorities typically don't do as well.

For instance, white Utah students received a mean grade of 3.13 on all exams, whereas Mexican-Americans scored 2.97, American Indians and Eskimos scored 2.86, blacks scored 2.67, and Asian Americans scored 3.07, The College Board reported. Students identifying themselves as "other Hispanic," however, outscored whites with a 3.26 mean score.

Numbers of students taking those tests may be a factor. For instance, 45 black students took exams, compared to 17,563 white students. Statistically, the smaller the sample size, the more volatile the numbers.

Also, 394 students taking the test did not state their ethnicity and scored a 3.17 mean grade.

Still, the difference in scores "bothers me," Lawrence said.

"I would like to see them be more equal. Our population is changing rapidly and our educational system is not keeping up with the rapid change."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com