AP courses falling short as a tool for narrowing equity gaps

Decades ago, policymakers embraced the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program as a path to greater educational equity, pointing to the high school courses’ standardized curricula and rigorous content. But that vision never materialized: AP has actually “had the opposite effect,” magnifying structural inequities in K-12 education, the Washington Monthly reports.

AP’s benefits—exposing high school students to college-level work, giving their college applications an edge, providing them an opportunity to earn college credit—have “have so far flowed disproportionately to white students in affluent school districts.” That gap could have especially significant implications in the coming admissions cycles, as colleges and universities reduce their reliance on SAT/ACT scores and instead look to students’ high school transcripts and grades.

Rapid growth in recent decades

Now 66 years old, AP was originally created “as an academic challenge to a small, elite group of able students,” according to the College Board. Citing studies that correlated AP course participation with bachelor’s degree completion, federal officials in 2000 called on every U.S. high school to offer AP as a way to close educational achievement gaps and increase college readiness. Congress has invested billions in AP’s expansion across the last two decades.

Around 70 percent of the nation’s public high schools now offer at least one of the AP’s 38 available courses. AP reached 2.6 million high school students in 2020, up from just 55,442 in 1970.

Racial disparities in participation, pass rates

However, access is uneven. Schools in lower-income communities are far less likely to offer AP courses than schools in more affluent areas. Moreover, the Washington Monthly notes that Black students are “consistently under-enrolled in AP even where the availability of classes is not an issue.”

In 2019, Black students accounted for 15 percent of all students in U.S. public schools but just 6.3 percent of all AP exams administered. Gaps between Black and white students’ AP enrollment rates have grown as wide as 50 percentage points in some school districts.

According to Suneal Kolluri, a professor at San Diego State University, some high schools disproportionately discourage students of color from taking advanced courses like AP. That tracking, Kolluri says, “become mutually reinforcing when African American students who may be capable of AP work shy away from predominantly white AP classes that make them uncomfortable.”

The isolation experienced by Black students who do enroll, meanwhile, can compromise their performance. “If you don’t have the support you need or feel excluded going into the classroom every day, it’s not a great learning environment for you, and you’re not going to thrive,” Jennifer Jessie, who runs an AP tutoring and test-prep service, told the Washington Monthly.

Black and Latinx students’ AP performance also has suffered in the absence of resources and support. The College Board says that AP teachers should have at least 5 years of experience and a master’s degree—credentials less prevalent among teachers in lower-income communities. Students with a lackluster K-8 foundation also are less likely to succeed.

In 2019, 31.8 percent of exams taken by Black students and 44.5 percent of those taken by Latinx students received passing scores, compared with 72.4 percent of Asian students’ and 65.1 percent of white students’ exams. These racial disparities in exam scores have actually grown since 2003 and are even larger in states with the greatest racial gaps in K-12 resources.

Rethinking students’ exposure to, prep for advanced courses

Eliminating AP is not necessarily the answer, experts say, noting that the program’s disparities signal much deeper rifts in K-12 education. “The disease is in a K–12 system that is incubating an excellence gap and sustaining an excellence gap,” Chester Finn from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute told the Washington Monthly. “This is like a thermometer showing you a result you don’t like. You don’t throw away the thermometer just because it’s demonstrating a fever.”

Stakeholders say that AP’s trajectory should prompt policy and educational leaders to explore ways they can offer more equitable access to meaningful, rigorous, college-preparatory experiences. Some districts, for instance, are changing their approach to teaching AP courses. Schools with large Latinx populations have had success incorporating Spanish-language materials and culturally relevant examples into their AP classrooms.

Dual, or concurrent, enrollment programs—in which high schools partner with a two- or four-year college to offer classes—also could be a viable alternative. The increasingly popular model is offered by more than 80 percent of U.S. high schools and appears to enroll a more diverse array of students. Dual-enrollment programs can provide a larger assortment of course options than AP, and allow students to prove themselves across a semester rather than in a single culminating exam.

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