School & District Management

Despite Growth, AP Pool Is Not Diluted, Studies Say

By Liana Loewus — January 26, 2016 7 min read
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While public school students’ participation in the Advanced Placement program has shot up over the past two decades, the academic caliber of the course-takers does not appear to have been “watered down,” according to new research from the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington.

“If you look at the overall achievement of students over time, you’d expect it to be falling,” said Nat Malkus, a senior research fellow for the AEI who wrote the two recent reports on the subject. But during the years for which he could compare data, overall performance levels for students who took an AP class “didn’t show any reduction.”

The findings counter an oft-cited criticism of the College Board’s program: That it has expanded too quickly to maintain its reputation for being rigorous and college-level.

The studies also show that students of color are just as likely as white students to attend schools that offer AP. Malkus argues that means lack of access to AP isn’t causing racial gaps in course-taking—lack of academic preparation is.

But some equity advocates take exception to the idea that having an AP course in a school is the same as having access to it.

“You have to dig a little more deeply,” said Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Many schools have many rules about who gets into AP. ... The reality is a bunch of kids are not being advised to take it or are not allowed to take it.”

AP in High Schools

Despite continued growth in the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses, the percentage of public schools offering AP declined between 2008 and 2012, according to AEI researcher Nat Malkus.


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Schools and Staffing Survey,” 1999-2000, 2003-04, 2007-08, and 2011-12.

Much of the previous research on AP participation has relied on data from the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the program. That organization tracks AP exam-takers, and has shown that the numbers went from 330,000 students in 1990 to more than 2.2 million in 2013. But Malkus looked at data from outside sources on AP course-taking, including the National Assessment for Educational Progress’ High School Transcript Study and the Department of Education’s office for civil rights, and limited his scope to public high school students.

Quality Control

To try to determine whether AP courses enrolled less-qualified students as they scaled up, Malkus linked 12th grade math scores on the NAEP test to high school graduates’ transcripts. (Math was used as a proxy for overall performance because “correlations between achievement in math and in other subjects are high,” the report states.)

He found that for the years 2000, 2005, and 2009, over a span in which Advanced Placement participation rose 35 percent, course-takers’ NAEP scores remained basically unchanged, and were well above the national average. This suggests that “AP’s quality-control efforts appear to have maintained the program’s integrity,” writes Malkus.

Trevor Packer, the senior vice president for AP and instruction at the College Board, said in an emailed statement: “These conclusions match our own finding that AP exam performance has remained very consistent during a time of significant growth in access to AP opportunities, indicating that AP classes typically remain challenging, college-level academic environments.”

But educators and students who’ve had conflicting experiences may not be convinced by the data. In a 2012 Atlantic article, John Tierney, who taught an AP American Government and Politics course for a decade, wrote that when his school went to an open-admissions policy for most AP courses, the overall academic level of the students declined. “I would say that two-thirds of the students taking my class each year did not belong there. And they dragged down the course for the students who did,” he wrote.

Pope, who is also the co-founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit focused on balancing students’ well-being and achievement, said the “watering down” problem is likely not going to show up in aggregate statistics like those Malkus analyzed. Instead, it seems to be more of an issue in subsets of underserved schools. “Schools that have traditionally not had a lot of AP takers, all of the sudden they have an AP program and are trying to get kids in there,” she said. “They want more kids to be college-ready, but they’re not doing all of the things that go along with that.”

Despite the rapid rise in overall AP participation, the AEI research also found that from 2008 to 2012, the percentage of public high schools offering AP courses declined from 79 percent to 74 percent. That’s in part because many small schools, with perhaps only a few hundred students, stopped offering AP during that time, said Malkus. The percentage of rural and high-poverty schools offering AP courses also showed some declines during the same period.

Rather than trying to sustain on-site AP programs, Malkus recommended in one of his reports that smaller schools move to online AP courses.

There are barriers to this approach, however. Online classes “can provide valuable access” for some students, but for others, “the challenge of taking a college-level course isolated from peers and without an on-site teacher/mentor has proven daunting, such that the course-completion rate is very low,” the College Board’s Packer wrote in an email. Technology access can also be a problem for some students, he said.

What’s Causing Race Gaps?

It’s been well-documented that black students are underrepresented in AP courses—and that the racial gaps have been persistent. Malkus confirms that since 1994, black students have had much lower AP participation rates than either white or Hispanic students. Hispanics were slightly less likely than whites to have an AP course credit. Asians have the highest rate of AP course-taking, with 7 in 10 graduating with an AP credit.

But Malkus also looks at the data in another way that appears to level out some of those racial gaps: In 2012, about 90 percent of all students attended a school that offered at least one AP course—and that rate was similar for black, Hispanic, and white students. (Asians were slightly more likely to attend a school with an AP course, at 95 percent.)

“The race differences in AP access are much smaller than, and not clearly aligned with, the race differences in AP participation by graduates,” the study says. The number of courses students had access to didn’t differ much by race, either, Malkus found. On average, white, black, and Hispanic students all attended schools that offered about 12 AP subjects. “These results make it clear that racial differences in AP course credit are not primarily driven by access at the school level,” he writes.

However, to say that students have access to AP simply because it’s offered in their high school ignores the realities of how class placements happen—and how explicit and implicit biases can play into such decisions.

A 2013 study from the Education Trust, a group that promotes academic equity, found that many low-income students and students of color who would have benefited from taking AP courses were not enrolled in them, despite being in schools that offered them. “The experience of having potential and not being placed in the class is more common among students of color than it is among white students,” said Marni Bromberg, a senior research associate at Ed Trust.

Schools may use teacher recommendations, course prerequisites, grades, and test scores for placement decisions.

“Whether it’s explicit or tacit, [black and Hispanic students] are hearing the message from educators and peers that AP isn’t for them,” said Bromberg. Insufficient guidance—from counselors, teachers, or parents—can steer students away from advanced courses as well, said Pope.

Even so, Malkus argues that the main driver behind the racial gap in AP course-taking is that more black students aren’t academically prepared to take the courses—a problem that he says starts early. “It is fantasy to think that schools can fix participation gaps in AP while demonstrable achievement gaps persist in early grades,” he writes.

But bias plays a role in younger students’ placements as well. A recent study in the American Educational Research Association’s flagship journal found that high-achieving black students are less than half as likely as white, Hispanic, or Asian students to be referred for gifted elementary programs.

While there’s certainly more that elementary and middle schools can do to prepare minority students for college-level courses, Bromberg said access to AP courses within individual high schools should really be the focus. “An important point that’s missing from the AEI report is there are a lot of students who are academically prepared for AP but aren’t taking AP,” she said. “If schools all closed their participation gaps, we could nearly get rid of national gaps.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as AP Student Pool Staying Strong, Studies Find

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