AP’s Equity Face-Plant

Expanding advanced placement was supposed to reduce racial disparities in college. It’s had the opposite effect.

In a year when the coronavirus pandemic threw college admissions into chaos, 18-year-old Chloe Pressley of Prince William County, Virginia, succeeded beyond her wildest expectations. She got into multiple prestigious colleges, including Caltech, the University of Virginia, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The University of Richmond offered her a full ride. This fall, she’s headed to Yale.

Check out the complete 2021 Washington Monthly rankings here.

One secret to her success, she says, was a class schedule loaded up with the College Board’s Advanced Placement courses. “I feel like AP is the only way to get to a good college,” she told me. “It provides you with a pedestal above other graduates.” As a senior at C. D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, Pressley took five AP classes, including AP Chemistry, AP Calculus BC, AP Psychology, AP Comparative Government, and AP Literature and Composition. 

But she had to fight to get this schedule. 

Pressley, who is Black, attends a predominantly Black and Latino school in suburban Washington, D.C., where more than 40 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch (meaning their families’ incomes fall below 185% of the federal poverty line). Although her home high school offers 18 AP classes, according to federal civil rights data, Pressley said she did not have the option to take AP Chemistry or other high-level STEM classes at her school. She petitioned her counselor, her principal, and, eventually, her local school board member in order to attend another high school in her district—Charles J. Colgan Sr. High—that offered the AP classes she wanted. “I’m very persistent,” she said. 

Pressley also discovered that Colgan, where fewer than one in five students receives free or reduced-price lunch and a majority are white or Asian, offers a wealth of AP classes unavailable at her base school. “There are so many classes that I wish I could have taken, like AP Computer Science,” she said. “That was never an option to me. I didn’t even know the class existed until I heard one of my Colgan friends talking about it.” 

Over the past 20 years, state and federal policy makers have heavily subsidized AP’s expansion, both to promote greater college readiness and to catalyze educational equity. “Our hope (is that AP) can serve as an anchor for increasing rigor in our schools and reducing the achievement gap,” then College Board President Gaston Caperton said in 2006. Today, about 70 percent of all U.S. public high schools offer at least one AP class, and the number of students taking AP courses has more than tripled since 2000. AP has benefited hundreds of thousands of students who otherwise would have had no exposure to the rigors of college-level work. 

Yet these benefits have so far flowed disproportionately to white students in affluent school districts. As a broader mechanism for equity, AP has fallen short, unable to overcome the powerful structural forces that disadvantage far too many students. 

The program has left behind Black students in particular. In 2019, Black students made up 15 percent of all public school students, but they took just 6.3 percent of all AP exams. For every Black student who scored a 5 on an AP exam (the highest possible score), 10 students scored a 1 (the lowest possible). Among white students, by contrast, 5s outnumbered 1s. Black students are only about half as likely to pass an AP exam as all students nationwide, and the difference in overall exam pass rates between Black and white students has worsened since 2003 (excluding the statistically strange pandemic year 2020). 

“AP was designed in the 1950s to be a program for precocious high schoolers who were very privileged,” says Kristin Klopfenstein, a nationally recognized expert on Advanced Placement at the University of Denver. “AP is serving exactly who it’s designed to serve, which is mostly upper-middle-class whites.”

As more colleges and universities go “test-optional” with the SAT and ACT, AP could end up playing an outsized role as admissions officers scramble for alternate standards by which to judge applicants. According to a 2019 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, “grades in college prep courses” and “strength of curriculum” are among the top three factors considered by colleges in making admissions decisions. For many students, access and success in AP—or the lack thereof—could become even more determinative. 

Over the past 20 years, state and federal policy makers have heavily subsidized AP’s expansion, both to promote greater college readiness and to catalyze educational equity. Yet these benefits have so far flowed disproportionately to white students in affluent school districts.

If the ultimate goal of K–12 education is to offer equitable access to high-quality curricula leading to greater college access and success, policy makers need to rethink their approach to AP and look beyond it. Some schools, for instance, are experimenting with ways to ensure that more minority AP students are likely to succeed, such as adding Spanish-language instruction and class materials for AP courses at predominantly Latino schools. For some students, models other than AP might be a better way to experience college-level work. Dual or concurrent enrollment at a partnering community college or local four-year college is gaining in popularity and so far seems to have a better track record than AP at enrolling minority and low-income students. In the 2017–18 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 80 percent of high schools offered dual enrollment, including 90 percent of schools in rural areas. 

In the meantime, students like Chloe Pressley remain the exception, not the rule. And instead of closing educational divides, AP is widening them. 

Launched in 1955, Advanced Placement was originally intended “as an academic challenge to a small, elite group of able students,” according to a 2001 report commissioned by the College Board. In 1970, just 55,442 students took AP courses. 

Reformers who discovered AP soon embraced it as a potentially pivotal tool for achieving educational equity. Studies from the 1980s and ’90s linked AP course taking to superior college performance. In 1999, the Department of Education released a highly influential report, Answers in the Tool Box, which concluded that “Advanced Placement course taking is . . . strongly correlated with bachelor’s degree completion.” With its standardized curriculum, rigor, and apparent results, AP seemed an obvious way to close gaps between higher- and lower-
performing schools and students.

In 2000, then Secretary of Education Richard Riley paved the way for an explosion in AP enrollment when he called on every American high school to offer AP. “Going backwards to a time when we watered down the curriculum for poor children is not an option,” he said. “We do these children a great injustice if we allow the old tyranny of low expectations to prevail, once again.” In 2002, Congress added funding for AP expansion in its landmark education reform legislation, No Child Left Behind, and has invested billions more since. In fiscal year 2020, the federal government provided $1.2 billion in grants under Title IV, which states and districts can use to expand AP access. Congress also allowed states to use pandemic relief under the CARES Act to fund exam fees for low-income students, and many states provide additional funding to train AP teachers and cover other related costs.

While the majority of AP exams taken by white and Asian students consistently receive passing scores (3 or higher on a scale of 5), the majority of exams taken by Black students do not.

To date, AP has reached more than 46.5 million high school students, including 2.6 million in 2020. Course offerings have likewise expanded, with 38 different classes now available in subjects ranging from music theory to U.S. history to calculus. Chester Finn and Andrew Scanlan of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute report that fees from AP exams and instructional materials now make up nearly half of the College Board’s revenues (an estimated $466 million in 2016). 

But if education reform was indeed the original driving force behind AP expansion, that goal has remained elusive.

To be sure, minority participation in AP has improved over the past 20 years. In 1997, Black students took 3.8 percent of all exams. As of 2019, that figure is 65 percent larger. The raw number of exams taken by Black students has also skyrocketed, from under 35,000 per year to more than 310,000 over the same period.

Nevertheless, more than 20 years after Secretary Riley’s challenge, schools in poorer neighborhoods—which also often have high minority populations—are still much less likely to offer AP classes than schools where students are mostly white and wealthy. In a 2018 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that roughly 40 percent of “high poverty” high schools (where more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) provided no AP at all. Of the high-poverty schools that did offer AP courses, 70 percent offered fewer than 10. More than half of affluent, “low poverty” schools, on the other hand, offered 16 AP classes or more. 

In Detroit, Michigan, for example, where 83 percent of public school students are Black and 86 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch, 18 of 27 city high schools offered no AP classes in 2017, according to the most recent data available from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Renaissance High School, which has the city’s most expansive AP curriculum, offered 12 AP courses in 2017, while Martin Luther King Jr. High School and Western International High School each offered seven. Despite its name, the Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine offered just three AP classes in 2017, and only one in STEM. 

The picture is vastly different, however, just a short drive out into Detroit’s suburbs. Affluent Northville High School, about 11 miles west of the city, offered 31 different AP classes in 2017 to its 2,400 students, 92 percent of whom are white or Asian. Half an hour north and northwest, Bloomfield Hills High School offered 25 AP courses, while Novi High School offered 20. All three of these high schools were among the top “feeder” schools to the University of Michigan’s 2019 freshman class, according to an analysis by the University of Michigan’s student newspaper, The Michigan Daily. 

Black students are also consistently under-enrolled in AP even where the availability of classes is not an issue. In a December 2020 study, the American Enterprise Institute found significant racial disparities in AP participation in the “vast majority” of school districts nationwide; in some places, differences between Black and white AP enrollment were as high as 50 percentage points. One study by the University of Michigan found that offering more AP classes actually increased Black-white gaps in AP participation by bolstering within-school segregation. 

While some of these decisions could be genuine assessments of students’ capabilities, bias and stereotyping likely come into play. Research by the San Diego State University professor Suneal Kolluri finds that minority students are often “tracked” away from advanced course work, including AP. These tracking patterns then “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,” Kolluri wrote in 2018. 

Calculations by author based on College Board data

Seventeen-year-old “CT,” a Black student in Prince William County, experienced this kind of steering. (CT is identified by his initials to protect his privacy.) Unlike Chloe Pressley, CT attends a school that is mostly white, Battlefield High School in Haymarket, Virginia. Though Battlefield offers 27 AP classes, CT told me that his high school guidance counselor discouraged him from taking them. In 2017, according to civil rights data, 29 percent of Black students at Battlefield were enrolled in an AP class, compared to 33 percent of white students and 49 percent of Asian ones. While Black students made up 8.9 percent of the student body, they comprised just 4.8 percent of students taking AP math. White and Asian students, by comparison, accounted for 70.6 percent of the student body and 79.6 percent of the students in AP math.

CT thinks that “there’s a stereotype against minority groups” when it comes to higher-level classes. He said he has long demonstrated an interest in such courses, and he’s “had success in all of them.” But his guidance counselor has not been supportive, and he had to enroll in AP classes over her objections. “She didn’t see my work ethic; she didn’t see the attitude behind it . . . Maybe she just saw other African American students weren’t showing too much interest in them, so she made a generalization that all of them weren’t going to be successful.” (The Prince William County associate superintendent for high schools, Michael Mulgrew, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Even Hylton High School superstar Pressley said she wasn’t encouraged to take advanced course work. “They always suggested that you take a regular course,” she said. “They never outlined all the AP courses that
are available.” 

Lack of access to AP classes isn’t the only problem Black and Hispanic students encounter. They also face a dearth of resources and support, resulting in severe disparities in AP exam performance between white students and minorities, and between poor schools and wealthy ones. 

While the majority of AP exams taken by white and Asian students consistently receive passing scores (3 or higher on a scale of 5), the majority of exams taken by Black students do not. In 2019, just 3.9 percent of Black students’ exams scored a 5, compared to 14.4 percent of white students, 23.8 percent of Asian students, and 8.3 percent of Latinos. Overall in 2019, 31.8 percent of Black students’ exams and 44.5 percent of Latino students’ exams received passing scores, compared to 72.4 percent for Asian students and 65.1 percent for white students.
(Nationally, the pass rate was 59.1 percent.)

Racial disparities in pass rates are even starker at the state level, mirroring other inequities in resources and achievement. In Washington, D.C., where the white-Black performance gap is largest, 79.5 percent of white students’ exams received passing scores in 2019 compared to 23.1 percent of Black students’. Four southern states—Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama—had the lowest overall pass rates for Black students’ exams. In Arkansas, for instance, the Black student exam pass rate in 2019 was a dismal 12.4 percent. States with the highest Black student pass rates also had the fewest number of exams. South Dakota’s pass rate for Black students—the nation’s highest in 2019, at 53.6 percent—was based on just 140 exams (compared to 3,942 exams taken
by whites). 

Yawning racial gaps in performance on AP exams have in some cases worsened over time. Among Latino students, pass rates have declined as participation has grown, falling by more than 16 percentage points from 61.1 percent in 1997. White students’ pass rates, in contrast, have stayed constant: 65.5 percent in 1997 versus 65.1 percent in 2019. “The case may be that more AP participation is not necessarily beneficial,” San Diego State’s Kolluri wrote in a 2018 study. 

As more colleges and universities go “test-optional” with the SAT and ACT, AP could end up playing an outsized role as admissions officers scramble for alternate standards by which to judge applicants.

Pass rates among Black students have oscillated but remained stubbornly low, never hitting 40 percent. The difference in pass rates between white and Black students has also remained high, hovering around 33 percent. The gap between Black and Asian students has increased from 32.9 percent to 40.6 percent. (Though pass rates for all groups rose sharply in 2020, these results are likely an anomaly, given widely reported technical glitches in test administration and a big decline in test-takers due to the pandemic.) 

Many students in low-income schools don’t have the resources and support they need to succeed in AP course work, including qualified teachers and a halfway decent preparatory education in grades K–8. Ideally, says the College Board, AP teachers should have master’s degrees and at least five years of experience. Numerous studies find, however, that teachers in lower-income schools are much less likely to be experienced or have advanced degrees. 

Calculations by author based on College Board data

One study that vividly illustrates these hurdles is a 2019 analysis of 23 low-income schools across the country that added AP Biology or AP Chemistry to their curricula. “Most of the students in AP Bio are co-enrolled in Bio for the first time,” the authors quoted a school principal as saying. “They’re really coming in at a deficit in terms of prior knowledge.”

Challenges like these also likely explain what happened in Philadelphia, where public high schools dramatically expanded AP offerings to its students in 2006. This “surge,” the late William Lichten of Yale University concluded, “was nearly a total failure.” Among 41 schools newly offering 179 AP classes, “many schools did not have a single AP exam score as high as 3,” he wrote in a 2010 analysis, and “only five reported AP exam passing rates of 10 percent or higher.” 

For some students, obstacles to performance are more subtle yet no less insidious. The Prince William County students CT and Pressley say that in the AP courses they did take, there are only a handful of Black students. “I feel out of place,” said CT. “I feel isolated and I’m nervous to ask questions.” This leads to a sense of isolation. “There’s only one other Black person in the entire class,” said Pressley of her AP Chemistry course. “I feel like kind of an outcast in a way, where I have to prove myself before people actually talk to me.”

These feelings of loneliness can sabotage a Black student’s chances of success, says Jennifer Jessie, who runs an AP tutoring and test prep service in northern Virginia. “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,” she told me. Jessie, who is Black and herself a graduate of Prince William County schools, recalls being one of only two or three Black students in her AP classes. “It was very lonely,” she said.

The answer, however, is not to eliminate Advanced Placement. When students have access to classes and the resources to succeed, the program provides undeniable benefits, as it did for Chloe Pressley. Ending the program also won’t solve the underlying problems that created educational inequities in the first place. The disparities manifested by AP, Fordham’s Chester Finn said, are symptoms of an illness, but not the cause. “The disease is in a K–12 system that is incubating an excellence gap and sustaining an excellence gap,” he said. “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.” 

Nevertheless, AP’s mixed record over the past 20 years should prompt a reexamination of how to provide high school students with effective and meaningful exposure to college-level course work. Scholars like San Diego State’s Kolluri, for instance, are looking at ways to improve the odds for low-income and minority students taking AP by challenging biases he says are inherent in the curriculum. “A lot of schools give AP European History in communities that have nothing but kids of color,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.” More students would succeed in AP, Kolluri argues, if the content were more relevant to their experiences. 

Kolluri also believes that schools can reduce these disparities by changing the way they teach the AP classes they do have. In the Harvard Educational Review, Kolluri wrote about two predominantly low-income and Latino high schools that improved their AP participation and pass rates by double digits in less than a decade. One successful strategy, he found, was the incorporation of Spanish-language instruction and materials linked to students’ home cultures, even though these modifications were not, strictly speaking, approved by the College Board. Students in an AP Environmental Science class, for instance, watched a documentary about poverty and agriculture in Guatemala, while AP U.S. Government students discussed local issues involving immigration and criminal justice. “The question is how to offer more opportunity to kids by connecting to their worlds,” Kolluri said. The College Board, he told me, needs to allow more flexibility for this kind of teaching. 

Another alternative is to look outside AP altogether. While there’s a mountain of research purporting to validate AP’s value, much of it is sponsored by the College Board, leaving many academics uncertain about the actual utility. “From an outsider’s perspective, it seems convenient that much of the College Board’s research on the AP program indicates that the program is beneficial for high school students,” wrote Russell Warne of Utah Valley University in a 2017 survey of studies about AP’s impact. Some of the independent studies that do exist find that the program’s reported impacts might have more to do with students’ innate abilities than with the classes themselves. “While there is evidence of a correlation between AP experience and college success (because AP students tend to be capable and highly motivated), there is no evidence from methodologically rigorous studies that AP experience causes [emphasis added] students to be successful in college,” the University of Denver’s Klopfenstein wrote with the Mississippi State University professor Kathleen Thomas in 2010. 

After controlling for factors such as household income and parental education, AP course taking “does not reliably predict first-year grades or retention to the second year,” Klopfenstein and Thomas found in a 2009 study. Instead, what predictive power AP does have is “likely the result of signaling: high ability, motivated students take more AP classes to differentiate themselves from other students in the college applica-
tion process.” 

And while the College Board argues that the challenge of AP itself helps prepare students for college by building good study skills and exposing them to rigorous material, other scholars argue that the costs outweigh the benefits for students unprepared to succeed. “The kids who [score] 1 or 2 on their AP . . . exams don’t appear to have gained any benefit from taking that course,” says Philip Sadler, a senior lecturer at Harvard University who studies STEM education. Given the resources needed to implement AP, Sadler says, cash-strapped districts might be better off using their resources to strengthen K–8 instruction or to offer students alternatives. 

One of those alternatives is dual or concurrent enrollment at a partnering community or four-year college. Under some models, classes are taught by high school teachers; in others, students attend classes on a college campus. Like AP, dual enrollment has expanded rapidly, with an estimated 1.4 million students taking at least one dual enrollment class in 2010 (the most recent year for which data is available). 

Dual enrollment, where students take college classes while in high school, has several advantages over AP. It seems to be somewhat better at enrolling a diversity of students. Success is not dependent on a single test. And students get more feedback and a potentially better shot at passing.

Proponents say the model has a couple of advantages over AP. First, success is not dependent on a single test at the end of the course administered by the College Board, but on course work throughout the year. Students get more feedback and a potentially better shot at passing. Students who pass also have the certainty of college credit from the partner institution, while colleges vary widely in whether they accept AP (and many colleges only confer credit on top scorers anyway). Another advantage of dual enrollment is that classes aren’t limited to the 38 sanctioned by the College Board, providing students with more choices and flexibility. Career and technical classes account for about 30 percent of dual enrollments, according to the nonprofit National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP). 

Dual enrollment can also more closely replicate the actual college experience, NACEP board member Trey Pippin says. Pippin, who works as a high school guidance counselor in Kentucky, says he recommends dual enrollment to his students based on his own experience. “It gave me the chance to sit in a college classroom with college students and engage with college instructors,” he says. “I had a little bit more experience of what college was going to look like when I moved away myself.” 

And so far, dual enrollment also seems to be somewhat better at enrolling a diversity of students than AP. In Texas, for instance, a 2018 study by the University of Texas system found that the share of Hispanic students participating in dual credit outstripped that of whites (45 percent versus 38 percent). “Dual and concurrent enrollment tends to enroll a wider range of students,” says Melinda Karp, founder of the education consultancy Phase Two Advisory and an expert on dual enrollment.

Given these benefits, states are increasingly supporting expansions of dual enrollment. Kentucky, for instance, offers a Dual Credit Scholarship that covers the cost of up to two dual credit courses per student per year for all high schoolers in the state. In 2009, Colorado passed legislation establishing a tuition-free concurrent enrollment program with credits transferable to any Colorado public university. According to a 2020 analysis by the University of Colorado Boulder, students enrolled in the program were 25 percent more likely to attend college than those who did not participate. They were also 10 percent more likely to finish a four-year degree on time. These findings held true “regardless of student income, minority status, gender, or ninth grade reading test scores,” according to the report. 

Other studies have found more modest, though still positive, impacts. A 2012 study by Brian An at the University of Iowa found a 7 percentage point increase in the likelihood of earning a four-year degree for dual credit students, while an evaluation of Texas’s dual credit programs estimated that participation increased college-going by 2.4 percentage points, controlling for student characteristics.

Nonetheless, dual enrollment isn’t perfect. The demographics of dual enrollment students still skew toward white and affluent, even if the gaps aren’t quite as glaring. The Department of Education’s most recent data finds that white and Asian students are more likely to participate in dual enrollment than Black and Hispanic ones (38 percent of both white and Asian students versus 27 percent of Black students and 30 percent of Hispanic ones). Despite its success with Latinos, Texas’s dual credit program under-enrolls Black students, who made up just 7 percent of dual credit students in 2015 even though they comprised 12 percent of Texas students.

The answer is not to eliminate Advanced Placement. When students have access to classes and the resources to succeed, the program provides undeniable benefits. Ending the program also wouldn’t solve the underlying inequities in the K–12 system that created AP’s disparate outcomes in the first place.

Dual credit programs can also be expensive, which might explain part of the disparities in participation. Even though many states and districts cover the tuition cost, the number of classes covered might be limited, and students must still pay for books and fees. At Northern Virginia Community College, for example, dual enrollment costs $185.50 per credit hour, which means a three-credit course would cost $556. And as with AP, the students who do best in dual credit classes tend to be the ones who are already equipped to succeed.

But if achieving greater equity is the goal, dual enrollment has more potential than AP, and more states may want to replicate Kentucky’s scholarships to help defray the costs. The partnerships created between high schools and community colleges through dual enrollment could mean more seamless transitions between high school and college, and more support for students in and out of the classroom. Flexibility in curricula means that students can choose the courses best suited to their interests and career goals. “By design, because it is rooted in community, it is going to be more equitable,” said Phase Two Advisory’s Melinda Karp. 

Nevertheless, the bottom line is that no single program—whether dual enrollment or AP—can substitute for the top-to-bottom reforms that K–12 education needs. “The challenge is that AP is coming in at the very tail of the educational experience,” the University of Denver’s Klopfenstein said. “While it’s certainly desirable to make AP accessible to all, the first and best solution would be to make sure that all kids are having a K-through-10 educational experience that prepares them to be ready for AP.”

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection.