Access to rigorous, Advanced Placement coursework has expanded significantly over the past decade, but not without serious gripes from some parents, teachers, and media commentators.
A popular argument against offering more students the opportunity to take to Advanced Placement courses is that many are not sufficiently motivated to succeed in them. AP classes are challenging, this argument goes, and if underprepared or unmotivated students try to take them, they will fail or the College Board will have to “dumb down” the curriculum at the expense of their more advanced peers.
This criticism is buttressed by some troubling statistics about the AP program. Students from historically marginalized communities—low-income students and students of color whose communities have been systematically denied access to economic and educational opportunities—are taking far more AP classes than in previous decades. However, many of these students have struggled mightily to pass the AP exams.
Some critics may dismiss ethnic studies coursework as a vapid effort to enhance political correctness, but let’s consider some tangible academic benefits."
Between the early 1990s and today, the participation of Black and Latinx students in AP has more than doubled, but test passage rates have fallen precipitously. More than 60 percent of Latinx students taking the AP exam passed it in 1997. In 2012, that number decreased to 42.8 percent. Black students passed 35.9 percent of their exams in 1997, but only 29.1 percent in 2012. And in that same period, pass rates for Native American students dropped from 51 percent to 45.5 percent. In addition, these student groups remain underrepresented in nearly all AP courses.
However, as a former teacher, and now a researcher of Black and Latinx youth, I find the implication that these young people lack the smarts or motivation to succeed in rigorous coursework extremely problematic. This argument is grounded in deficit-based assumptions about the academic abilities and aspirations of students from historically marginalized communities.
Perhaps, however, the challenges these students face in AP classes have less to do with their personal shortcomings, and more to do with the inability of AP curricula to speak to the realities of their communities and cultures.
As a recent addition to many high schools, “ethnic studies” courses may provide a model for how a more culturally inclusive AP offering might be developed. Districts across the nation seeking to increase academic engagement among students of color have begun to introduce non-AP ethnic studies courses in high school. These courses are now a graduation requirement in school districts as different as Los Angeles and Bridgeport, Conn.
Some critics may dismiss ethnic studies coursework as a vapid effort to enhance political correctness, but let’s consider some tangible academic benefits. Culturally inclusive curricula have been shown to enhance academic engagement for students from marginalized communities. One study released in 2016 by the Stanford University Center for Education Policy Analysis found that an ethnic studies course in San Francisco Unified School District increased the attendance of struggling 9th grade students by 21 percentage points and overall GPA by 1.4 grade points.
Unfortunately, in Advanced Placement, the histories of people of color exist only at the margins of the curricula, and recently, some of their histories were nearly pushed off the edge.
In June, the College Board made plans to move up the start date of the World History AP curriculum by thousands of years to 1450 to address the overwhelming amount of content covered in the previous edition of the course standards. Critics immediately noted the Eurocentric nature of the decision. Ancient civilizations of Africa, Asia, and South America would be stricken from the AP historical record, and the class would largely be taught through the lens of European colonialism.
After pushback from scholars, teachers, and students, the College Board reconsidered, announcing the course would begin its coverage of world history with the year 1200.
This was not the first time the College Board has been embroiled in controversy over highlighting histories traditionally de-emphasized in high school curricula. In 2015, the College Board reversed its decision to elevate the histories of non-dominant groups after state legislatures in Oklahoma, Georgia, and Texas threatened to remove funding for AP programs and the Republican National Committee accused the College Board of “revisionism.”
Even before these recent controversies, the College Board has expressed a desire to improve the performance of students from marginalized groups. The organization emphasizes its “deep conviction that all students who are academically prepared—no matter their location, background, or socioeconomic status—deserve the opportunity to access the rigor and benefits of AP.” It has released numerous reports on the achievement of AP students of color at least since 2005.
To its credit, the College Board has been thoughtful in responding to criticism of its AP content and in striking an appropriate balance between dominant Western conceptions of history and the inclusion of the voices and stories of more marginalized groups. Yet, the recent controversies suggest that in their current iteration, AP courses may be incapable of engaging students in an intensive exploration of issues pertinent to communities of color. Concerns about breadth of content coverage force AP curricula designers into tough decisions about whose stories remain untold. Culturally inclusive curricula has significant potential to affect positive education outcomes, from honoring diversity to improving student GPA. Such approaches cannot be beholden to the political winds that have swept up Advanced Placement history courses.
One way to sidestep some of the challenges confronting the College Board’s Advanced Placement program is the addition of an AP ethnic studies course directed explicitly at the experiences and histories of marginalized groups in the United States. Such a course would increase engagement and performance among students of color. As a teacher and a researcher, my conversations with first-generation college students of color have suggested that interactions with culturally inclusive academic content can encourage academic engagement in high school and college.
In adding such a class, the AP program would create a committed space for interdisciplinary, in-depth discussions of issues pertinent to disenfranchised communities and serve as a counterbalance to the Eurocentrism prevalent in much high school curricula. The course could provide a realistic opportunity for students interested in non-dominant cultural histories to engage in an academically rigorous learning experience while earning college credit. Without watering down other AP courses, AP ethnic studies would enhance opportunities for underrepresented students.
Adding an ethnic studies course does not diminish the importance of the incorporation of culturally inclusive content across all AP courses, but its addition would go a long way toward enhancing opportunity and access to AP courses. More importantly, it would be a concentrated effort to elevate histories traditionally obscured across rigorous high school curricula.
A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2018 edition of Education Week as We Need Advanced Placement Ethnic Studies