- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - A report released Tuesday shows Illinois is at the national average for high school graduates scoring high enough for college credit on exams, but low-income and black students still lag in performance and participation in the college prep courses.

According to an Advanced Placement Program report, 21 percent of the state’s high school graduates in Illinois received a three or higher on at least one AP exam, which is typically the score needed for college credit. The national average was 20 percent in 2013. Participation and performance in Advanced Placement coursework is up across the country and in Illinois the past 10 years.

“The latest AP exam results are further proof that our efforts are on the right track,” Christopher Koch, the state’s superintendent of education, said in a statement.

For the state’s low-income and black students, though, a significant gap remains between those taking the college prep courses and total proportion of graduates. This follows a national trend school officials call an “equity gap.”

About 47 percent of all high school graduates came from low-income households, while just 29 percent of graduates taking advanced placement tests came from low-income families.

Additionally, about 16 percent of all graduating student are black, but they represent just 11 percent of all graduates taking AP exams.

Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the state Board of Education, said the agency has seen a similar pattern in other data.

“Closing that equity gap is a huge issue,” Fergus said.

Fergus said the department created the Center for School Improvement to support lower-performing schools, which sometimes may include more black students.

For the state’s Latino students, however, AP exam participation is trending up. Last year, the percentage of Latino graduates taking AP exams surpassed the total percentage of Latino students who graduated in 2013.

Koch said this is step forward in closing the equity gap for minority students he says have less access to college.

One district in Illinois with a Latino student population of about 60 percent received the Advanced Placement Program’s national award for small-size schools. Leyden High School District in the Chicago suburb of Franklin Park was recognized for increasing access to the college prep courses and improving exam performance.

Nick Polyak, the district’s superintendent, said the success starts with hiring high-quality teachers, but he also noted a laptop program started in 2012 and removing barriers from students entering AP courses.

“We’re thrilled,” Polyak said. “This isn’t an award just for our AP teachers. It’s an award for every teacher of the kids who have taken these courses.”

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