College & Workforce Readiness Q&A

Are Some Students Taking Too Many AP Courses? A College Board Official Responds

By Ileana Najarro — August 28, 2023 3 min read
Stuart Wexler leads his Advanced Placement government class in a discussion at Hightstown High School in Hightstown, N.J., on Feb. 19, 2019.
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In recent months, College Board’s AP program has been at the white-hot center of debates over what should and shouldn’t be taught in some of America’s classrooms—particularly in Florida.

But the influential nonprofit, which also owns and administers the SAT, continues to focus on other pressing issues facing its Advanced Placement program. One of those is equity—understanding which students have access to AP courses and identifying the impediments that are keeping a more diverse population of students from taking the college-prep classes.

Trevor Packer, the head of the AP program for College Board, talked with Education Week recently about the challenges of AP course access, a topic he discussed with thousands of AP teachers and school and district leaders earlier this summer in Seattle. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. (Read a longer interview with Packer about College Board’s stance on AP African American studies, AP Psychology, and how it’s responding to state and district policies that challenge what can be taught.)

What are the priorities for the AP program moving forward?

Our very top priority is to be thoughtful and effective at solving a really strange dichotomy in AP. There are a few students—2 to 3 percent of American high school students—that take a large number of AP courses, perhaps to their detriment, perhaps incurring a degree of stress or sacrificing other valuable opportunities in high school as some sort of arms race to take as many AP classes as possible.

Our own research shows that is not necessary for college readiness. Simply taking one or two AP classes at most per year of high school optimizes the type of college readiness that comes from taking that type of challenging class.

And we’re worried about the other extreme, which is that the majority of American high school students get access to zero such classes, which really moves them off of a pathway to college, under-prepares them for what they will encounter if they do make it to a two-year or four-year institution, sends a message to them that they are not part of a college-going culture.

We are trying to blast the education community with the new research, we’ve distilled it to a single page to make it very accessible both for school boards, for admissions officers to use to send a strong message that moderation should be used as we think about how we counsel students, and the sort of pressures that are placed upon them as they think about college admissions.

At this point in American education, the number of seats in AP classes are finite. So if a small number of students are taking five AP courses a year and a large number of students are taking zero, one of the most immediate moves that needs to be made is to think more deliberately about how to ensure that those seats are made equitably available.

The other move is to train more AP teachers to create more sections in AP schools. While most American high schools have a large number of AP courses, or a significant number of AP courses, they mostly just have one section of each class, which means that there are a very limited number of seats. So something we tried this past year that has been very successful and exceeded our expectations in many ways is we’ve gone out to districts across the country and said, “If you are willing to add more sections, so that there is more opportunity in your district, more seats available, we will pay all the teacher-training costs. And in fact, if you have a significant number of teachers, we will send trainers to you so your teachers don’t even have to leave their school district.”

So we’ve done more teacher training for free this past year than we’ve ever done before. And that will be our model moving forward. We want to remove any barriers that are related to the cost of training teachers, for any school that wants to create more seats, and thus make AP more available.

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