At Sharpstown High School, advanced placement classes have long been an island of sorts, a desirable but exclusive chunk of real estate reserved for the academically well-to-do. Most of the Houston school’s other students—a majority of them poor and members of racial or ethnic minorities—never considered the rigorous, college-level courses an option.
But principal David Kendler and his staff at the 1,700-student school are working to change the classes’ reputation, which kept many middling students from enrolling. The program is “accessible and attainable and something that [most] kids can do,” Kendler says. “Most students didn’t view themselves as AP material before, ... but now we’re seeing increasing numbers.” While those numbers are still low—only 250 of Sharpstown’s 1,700 students take AP courses—participation has increased 20 percent since the previous year. Kendler expects the number to grow even higher as word spreads that enrollment is open and encouraged for just about everyone.
The initiative is a microcosm of a wider effort to invite the masses into AP classes. Along with Sharpstown and the other schools in the Houston Independent School District, the College Board itself, which sponsors AP courses, has been trying to market the program as within reach of any student willing to do the work. It seems to be working so far: According to the College Board, 1.1 million students took AP classes in the 2003-04 school year—more than double the number a decade ago, and a quantum leap from the program’s debut in 1955-56, when about 1,200 students enrolled.
Much of the sudden desire to hike AP enrollment can be attributed to recently instituted state and federal cash incentives. Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, about $24 million is offered annually to states to expand access to the AP program among underserved students. According to data collected by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, roughly a dozen now provide financial incentives of their own to districts that offer AP courses. Texas officials have promised districts such as Houston’s $97 for each student who scores well on an AP exam, a bonus that has added as much as $100,000 to some district coffers. At least 10 states pay some or all of the $44-per-test fee for students who can’t afford it; some also provide money for AP teacher training.
The new effort has drawn praise from many observers, who say the trend could challenge students to stretch themselves academically and bridge the academic gap between lower-achieving black and Hispanic students—who traditionally have been underrepresented in the program—and their white and Asian American classmates. The number of African American students taking AP exams has doubled since the late 1990s, to about 57,000 in 2004, though they make up just more than 5 percent of all test-takers.
But the shift has also raised concerns that less-qualified students will struggle and fail to meet AP standards, thereby putting pressure on educators to water down the program’s quality and “compromise the program’s high benchmarks,” writes Jennifer Dounay, an ECS policy analyst who has compiled reports on state trends and policies involving the program. And a number of selective universities have already made it harder for AP students to test out of postsecondary classes. In 2003, Harvard University began requiring a perfect score of 5 on four AP exams for its advanced-standing designation, which allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree in three years. Previously, students could score 4 or better on the tests, but a university study found that chemistry and economics students with AP scores of 4 did worse in second-year Harvard courses than the class as a whole. MIT has gone even further, banning all AP credit in chemistry. The University of Pennsylvania’s math department has decided to restrict some AP calculus credit, and several other Ivy League schools are also taking a hard look at just how well AP test performance matches up with performance in a university classroom.
College Board officials insist that AP standards, which have persisted for nearly 50 years, are regularly tested against college-level courses. According to its own statistics, about 70 percent of students enrolled in its courses take the AP tests each year, with about 61 percent of those students earning a score of 3 or better—a benchmark many colleges consider acceptable. Although some students will flounder, College Board officials argue that most will achieve beyond expectations. “Our position is simply, if a student is willing to take on the challenge of doing college-level, rigorous work in high school, they should be given that opportunity,” says Walt Jiménez, the program’s director of curriculum and assessment. “And those students—regardless of their performance on the [AP] exams—tend to be better prepared for college.”
Along with the questions raised by Harvard’s study, the radically expanded AP enrollment of recent years has yet to be matched by a commensurate level of success on its exams—particularly among underrepresented groups. In 2003, the College Board reported, nearly 70 percent of African American students who took AP tests scored lower than 3, while 65 percent of white test-takers received at least a 3.
In Washington state’s Bellevue School District, where 90 percent of AP students take the exams, officials haven’t fretted in the past over test scores. But with only 67 percent of those students earning an acceptable score—about the national average—the limited emphasis on performance may soon change. “We’ve taken the position from the beginning that we didn’t care how kids did on the test, we just wanted them to have that kind of challenging experience,” says superintendent Mike Riley. “But we’ve been doing this long enough now that I want us to get a little more serious about seeing the test scores go up.”