Equity & Diversity

The Case of the Missing Data on AP Students

By Ileana Najarro & Eesha Pendharkar — July 29, 2022 5 min read
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For years, educators and researchers alike have looked into the national underrepresentation of students of color—especially Black and Latino students—in Advanced Placement courses offered by the nonprofit College Board. It’s an issue of equity, researchers say, especially considering how AP courses can help prepare students for college careers and save on higher education costs.

The College Board itself has worked to improve access to AP courses for students of color, including creating two new courses targeted toward them.

But if you currently peruse the College Board’s website, you won’t find national demographic data on the race and ethnicity of AP test-takers that were once publicly available.

The disappearance last year of the public-facing data drew an outcry from some researchers and educators. In response, the College Board has said that the data will be restored to the website this fall in a clearer and more user-friendly display. In the meantime, the archival demographic data is still shared directly with educators, researchers, and organizations.

But some educators have questioned the data’s initial removal from public view and call for transparency when restoring the data in order to track progress toward the goal of making programs like AP more equitable.

“Unless people can dive down into the data themselves and analyze it and look at what’s important to them, I think it’s a step backward,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost of enrollment at Oregon State University who has posted analyses of AP data for years on his admissions blog.

Data presentation being reworked

The College Board would in years past post AP program cohort reports and Excel spreadsheets for each graduating class on its website, the latter of which displayed granular demographic data including gender, grade level, race/ethnicity, and public versus private school breakdowns for AP test-takers.

When the College Board migrated its website to a new platform last year, reports, articles, spreadsheets and other content that generated low traffic (and much of which contained so much data they could be confusing to use) weren’t migrated, the nonprofit said.

That included things like the AP Cohort Data Report for the Graduating Class of 2020 which had key demographic findings such as how Black students made up about 14 percent of the nation’s class of 2020 high school graduates but only about 8 percent of AP exam-takers that year.

In response to feedback from educators and researchers, the College Board said it would return to its former approach of sharing the data publicly (not just directly to state departments, districts, and schools) with a new “easier-to-use interface ready in time for the 2022 AP data release this fall” and provide prior years’ data at the same time.

When Boeckenstedt first noticed in February that the detailed AP data including race and ethnicity demographics were missing, he called the move “completely unconscionable,” but after learning that the College Board intends to put it back, he said he would reserve judgment until he sees the new format the College Board plans to present the data in this fall.

“Anything less of the granular data that they used to provide is a step back in transparency,” he said.

The College Board said its new online platform will enable the organization to “design race/ethnicity reports that will be richer, more accessible, more readable.”

Data needed at a critical time

Part of the reason publicly available racial and ethnic breakdowns of AP test-takers and their performance is so key to educators is that there’s been an ongoing challenge in addressing racial disparities within the AP program.

For instance, a report this year by the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group, found that 2 in 5 Black and Latino students say they want to go to college and have a passion for science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM). But only about 3 percent of these students are enrolled in Advanced Placement STEM courses such as AP Biology, AP Chemistry, and AP Physics I.

And according to the 2020 graduating class results broken down by race, Black students got an average score of 3 or higher (on a scale of 1 to 5) on only 18 of the 39 AP courses offered, scores needed to qualify for college credit. Three is typically the minimum score for which colleges will accept AP course work.

“For most of the students of color, it’s a risk to take an AP class and then fail the exam. It makes them feel like they’re not as competitive for college,” said Jennifer Jessie, an AP tutor and college admissions consultant who also specifically works with Black students in Northern Virginia.

The College Board said it wants to “significantly increase understanding of this diversity and equity data by educators and the public,” and has invested in addressing racial disparities in part with new courses intended to draw in more students of color.

AP African American Studies will be piloted this fall in about 60 schools, with more schools being added in the pilot’s second year. It is expected to be the largest and most accessible high school course in the discipline. And a new AP Precalculus course will debut in fall 2023 in an effort to prepare all students for college-level math, and in response to data showing that only about 5 percent of AP Calculus and AP Statistics students are Black, and 17 percent are Latino, according to the College Board.

Jessie said that the College Board’s decision to temporarily remove the racial demographic data—even with the promise of putting it back on the website in fall—is disappointing because educators need access to the data to determine whether they should be recommending AP courses, especially to students of color.

“I don’t think it’s asking too much or it’s unreasonable to say, ‘Can you provide the data in a place that we can access it without having to go through a bunch of hoops so that we can figure out whether this is a great thing for our students and for which students? Which demographics does it work for?” Jessie said.

“So if you’re expanding the program and you’re deliberately targeting more students of color then we need to know how they perform in your program,” she said. “I don’t think that’s asking too much when you’re trying to diversify the program.”

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