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Here’s how Utah students scored on AP exams in 2021, their second pandemic year

The pass rate of Utah students was fifth in the nation and narrowly surpassed the state’s pre-pandemic rate.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teacher Ashley Snarr, center, works with students in her English 9 class at Cyprus High School in Magna on Thursday Jan. 3, 2019. High school students who graduated in 2021 earned college credit at a higher rate for passing AP exams than students who tested in 2019, despite learning interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

More Utah students took Advanced Placement exams in 2021 than in 2020, and the pass rate for students who graduated in 2021 was higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Students earned a passing score on roughly two out of three tests — an overall rate of 67.7% that is slightly higher than 2019′s rate of 67.4%.

“We are pleased to see our students stretching themselves academically and succeeding,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson.

Utah tied Pennsylvania for the fifth-highest pass rate in the nation, behind only South Dakota (68.7%), New Hampshire (68.6%), New Jersey (68.3%) and Connecticut (68.1%).

Fewer tests

Utah students who graduated in 2021 took 39,500 AP tests, according to results released Monday by College Board, which administers the tests. That’s down 6% from 2019.

College Board did not report the individual number of students who tested in 2021. It instead tracked the number of students who signed up for a test at any point before graduation.

Of the 44,660 students who made up the Class of 2021 in Utah, 14,361 took an AP exam during their time in high school. And 10,155 of those students, or 22.7% of the class, did well enough to earn college credit.

But that total appears to be a significant drop from pre-pandemic years. The number of Utah students who took a test in 2018 was 26,912, and that was even higher in 2019, at 28,325.

More passing scores

Despite the interruptions to learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, more students who took tests passed them.

The number of graduating students who had taken an AP exam went up by 90 last year, but the number who had passed an exam went up by 397.

And that added up to a higher percentage of graduating seniors with college credit earned through an AP exam than ever before.

When kids score a three, four or five on the exam, they can earn college credit for subjects like English, math and science. Utah’s pass rate peaked in 2018 at 68.6%, but the Utah Board of Education had noted the previous year that it expected to see a natural decline in pass rates as more students signed up for more tests.

The most passed course, of the top 10 most popular courses among 2021 graduates in Utah, was statistics at 80.7%. Latin was the most difficult class to pass for Utah students, with just 43.4% of students earning college credit.

Students steadily taking AP classes

Students who are signing up for AP classes are often signing up for multiple — three on average before graduating. English language and composition, human geography and United States history remained the most popular AP classes in Utah, as they were in 2019.

Still, the percentage of Utah students who took an AP class during high school was slightly lower in 2021, dropping to 32.2% from 33% in 2020. Nationally, the average was 34.9% in 2021.

Utah’s percentage of graduates who took an AP class has hardly budged since 2011, when it was 32.1%.

As some high schools prioritize concurrent enrollment at colleges and international baccalaureate programs, which also allow students to earn college credit in high school, AP tests are also becoming more widely available in Utah, said Mark Peterson, spokesperson for the Utah State Board of Education.

“Districts are emphasizing [AP testing] more,” Peterson said. “... It’s good to see that all three programs are growing.”

Dickson said she looks forward to seeing how next year’s results change, after HB390 was signed by Gov. Spencer Cox on March 24. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, and state Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, will allow students from low-income families to use state funds to pay for AP exams.

“What [HB 390] does is give exposure to kids who might not otherwise think about college,” Peterson said. “And even if they aren’t successful, the test will often push them to think about higher education anyway.”

Only 58.6% of public high schools in Utah offer AP classes, below the national average of 60.4%, but 48.9% offer multiple courses, which is above the national average of 42.3%

The data provided by College Board does not include demographic breakdowns for gender or race in Utah, though it does note that nationwide, 48% of test takers were white. Only 8.6% of students who took an exam and only 4.6% of those who passed were Black, despite making up 13.9% of 2021 graduates nationally. Asian students, who made up 6% of the graduating class, were 11% of test takers and 13.5% of the students who received college credit.

College Board warned people be cautious about drawing conclusions from the 2021 data, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Declines in participation and performance occurred in step with the amount of in-person learning that was disrupted nationwide, College Board said in its report. College Board did not provide testing data to the Utah State Board of Education in 2020, Peterson said.