According to the College Board's 9th Annual AP Report to the Nation, which was released last month, more graduates than ever before succeeded in college-level Advanced Placement courses and exams during high school. But as our nation's future prosperity will depend largely on our ability to harness the potential of an increasingly diverse student body, we must ask ourselves whether all students are getting an equal opportunity to meet their full potential.
The class of 2012 had the highest percentage of top AP scores in the past decade. Since 2002, there has been a nearly 8-point increase in the percentage of U.S. public school graduates earning a 3 or higher on an AP exam -- the score necessary to qualify for credit, placement or both at the majority of colleges and universities.
These results are encouraging because students who succeed in AP during high school typically experience greater academic success in college. American students who succeed in AP math and science courses outperform students worldwide, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Students who succeed in AP are also more likely to earn a college degree on time. Because AP students are less likely to need the fifth and sixth years of undergraduate course work that are now built into average graduate's bachelor's experience, the costs of college for AP students, their families and taxpayers are significantly lower.
AP exams contain open-ended questions that require students to engage in the sort of close reading, analytic writing and problem-solving essential to 21st-century college studies and careers. Each task on the exam is designed and scored by professors from respected colleges and universities -- including Georgetown University and the University of the District of Columbia.
Within the high school class of 2012, America's educators produced larger and more diverse group of students with access to AP course work, and the scores improved over 2011. This outcome is a testament to educators' belief that more high school students were indeed ready for the level of academic rigor that is found in AP courses.
But if we are to provide the next generation of Americans with the skills they need for college and career success, we must continue to increase diversity in AP classrooms while also improving performance.
The latest report on student demographics from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education found that traditionally underrepresented populations are the fastest-growing student population. By 2019-20, nonwhite students are projected to account for 45 percent of the nation's public high school graduates and 49 percent of public high school enrollments.
But researchers, including Howard Wainer from the University of Pennsylvania, have found that hundreds of thousands of academically prepared students are being left out of advanced courses. Underrepresented minority students who show readiness to succeed in AP are less likely to actually take AP than their white and Asian peers.
Among the students who are ready for an AP math course, 60 percent of Asian students, 40 percent of white students, 30 percent of Latino and African-American students, respectively, and 20 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students participate in the program. These numbers speak for themselves, demanding social justice.
The District of Columbia has made great progress over the past year. Only D.C. and five states achieved equitable AP participation and AP success for Hispanic graduates in the class of 2012, and the percentage of D.C. graduates scoring a 3 or higher on an AP exam who were African-American increased 17 points over the past five years.
But the ability of our nation to remain competitive in a global economy depends on harnessing the diversity and the potential within every student. Lawmakers, education experts and leaders from the private sector must encourage and support the efforts of educators to ensure all academically prepared high school students -- regardless of background -- have access in high school to rigorous college-level course work that will catapult them to success in college and in their chosen careers.
Trevor Packer is senior vice president of the Advanced Placement Program at the College Board.