The percentage of students passing an AP exam has grown more over the past five years in the District than in any state, according to a February report from the College Board, which oversees the national AP program.
In the District, 54.4 percent of students in the Class of 2019 took an AP class during their high school years, a 16-percentage-point increase since 2009.
The College Board reports that nearly 20 percent of D.C. graduates passed an AP exam. Five years ago, 12 percent of students passed. A decade ago, 7 percent of graduates did.
Nationally, 24 percent of 2019 graduates passed an AP exam.
While the District’s improvements outpaced national averages, some of the city’s growth can be attributed to the passing rate in 2009 being among the nation’s lowest.
Still, more students in every corner of the city and across all demographic groups are taking the test — even if they are not always passing, according to city data.
“The trend overall in both participation and performance growth is promising,” said Hanseul Kang, the D.C. state superintendent of education. “AP exams are so important because they are really good preparation for college.”
But persistent achievement gaps remain within the city’s schools. Selective high schools experienced some of the biggest increases in students passing AP tests, while many neighborhood campuses in the traditional public school system had dismal passing rates.
In 2012, 50 students at Benjamin Banneker High School and 203 students at School Without Walls — the city’s most competitive selective high schools — passed an AP exam, according to city data. By 2019, those number had ballooned: 135 Banneker students (56 percent) passed and 312 School Without Walls students (80 percent) did.
By comparison, none of the 39 students at Dunbar High who took an AP exam received a passing score in 2012. In 2019, one of the 127 students who took an exam passed, according to city data.
“We know that we still have a long way to go in ensuring that all of our students are equitably prepared,” Kang said.
That is evident, too, when looking at data from the charter school sector. Fewer than 6 percent of high school graduates from the city’s largest charter networks, KIPP DC and Friendship Public Charter, passed an AP exam. The students in those networks are primarily black and come from low-income families.
But at least 65 percent of students who took an exam passed at Basis Charter School and Washington Latin Public Charter School — schools whose students come from far wealthier families than students at the typical D.C. campus.
The results from those schools highlight the persistence of the achievement gap: White students were about twice as likely than their black peers to pass an exam.
Roosevelt High in Northwest Washington was one of the few neighborhood high schools to experience a significant increase in the number of students passing an AP exam in 2019.
The improvements at Roosevelt are primarily attributable to students passing the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam, according to Principal Justin Ralston.
Roosevelt has a program serving students who recently immigrated, and Ralston said staff members have encouraged those students to enroll in the more rigorous AP Spanish class. In 2019, 19 of 20 students in the course passed the exam.
Because of increased interest, the school decided to offer more AP Spanish classes. In total, Roosevelt has eight AP courses in different subjects and will add an AP Research class for the next academic year, Ralston said.
“We have really viewed Advanced Placement courses as part of our equity strategy,” Ralston said. “The entire staff knows that AP is one of the key mechanisms that we need to use to advance student learning.”
Kang said school leaders citywide are thinking about how they can increase access to AP courses.
Kang pointed to Woodrow Wilson High, which is one of the city’s most diverse high schools and has a disproportionate number of white students enrolled in AP courses.
Before students enroll in AP courses as upperclassmen, they can take honors or regular courses their freshman and sophomore years.
Since students enrolled in honors courses were more likely to take an AP course, administrators decided to eliminate the regular track to ensure all students took rigorous classes early in high school, so they could be prepared to take AP courses as upperclassmen, according to Kang.
In the charter sector, a new computer-science-focused school wants every student to be able to pass the AP Computer Science exam by graduation.
Maria Tukeva, principal at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus, requires all students to take AP English courses their junior and senior years. While few students pass the English exams, the success rate is higher in other subject areas.
Even if a student doesn’t pass, Tukeva said, taking the test is a valuable experience for teens.
“We still feel being exposed to the material really prepares kids for college,” Tukeva said. “We see kids come back from college and say that it’s not hard, because they were exposed to it in high school.”