More than 17 percent of the state's 2009 high school graduates scored a 3 or higher on at least one Advanced Placement exam, outpacing the percentage of students nationally who performed that well.
Across the country, 15.9 percent of students scored at least a 3 on a test in which 5 is the highest score.
AP tests are a gauge of how many students take challenging courses in high school. Colleges and universities routinely offer students college credit for AP courses on which they receive a score of 3 or higher. White students are overrepresented among AP test-takers, while black students are underrepresented, say data released Wednesday by the College Board.
A little more than 60 percent of the state's class of 2009 was white, while 72 percent of the AP test-takers in that class were white. More than 29 percent of the graduating class was black, but only 12.9 percent of the AP test-takers were black.
The percentage of black graduates who had taken AP exams dropped slightly, to 12.9 percent from 13.1 percent in 2008.
June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction, said she was pleased with students' performance, though the gap between white and minority students "is a nagging problem for us."
"We're going to have to look at more ways in which we can support our African-American students so they can be as successful as others in scoring 3s and above," she said.
The racial differences are an example of the academic achievement gap that also has white students scoring better on state standardized tests and graduating at higher rates than minority students, said Stephen Jackson, a policy analyst with the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, part of a nonprofit that advocates for low-income families. Jackson was a co-author of a recent report on the persistence of the achievement gap a decade after the state promised to close it.
The problem can be traced to segregation within schools, Jackson said, where white students are funneled more often toward challenging courses.
"It's a huge problem that goes back to the achievement gap in the early grades," Jackson said.
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