Horace Mann, the 19th-century American education reformer whom many credit with founding the nation’s public school system, recognized the importance of education, deeming it the great equalizer. Today, this has never been more true.
Our efforts to help prepare the next generation for success in college and beyond, by fostering enrollment and strong performance in Advanced Placement coursework, have achieved success over the past decade, according to recent data from the College Board, which sponsors the AP program. But there is still work to be done when it comes to traditionally underrepresented minority students.
Last year, more than 900,000 U.S. public high school graduates (or 30 percent of the nation’s graduates) reported taking at least one AP exam—a dramatic increase over the 430,000 graduates (or 17 percent of the nation’s graduates) a decade before. In 2011, more than 540,000 graduates (or nearly 60 percent of those who took an AP exam) achieved a qualifying score on an AP exam, according to “The 8th Annual AP Report to the Nation.”
However, the data also illuminate issues of uneven accessibility and performance, particularly among minority students. Nearly half a million high school students were either left out of an AP class for which they were deemed capable or attended a school that did not offer such subjects, according to the AP report, which was released in February. Minority students were disproportionately affected: Nearly 80 percent of African-American students and 70 percent of Hispanic students who could have done well in an AP course did not take one because they lacked the opportunity, encouragement, or motivation to participate, the report from the College Board said.
Why is it so critical to ensure access and success in these rigorous, college-level courses?
Research indicates that students who succeed on an AP exam during high school are more likely than their peers to achieve academic success in college; they are also more likely to earn a college degree and incur lower college costs by finishing in four years or less. In fact, if a high school student passes just one AP course, the probability of his or her graduating from college is more than three times higher than for students with comparable SAT scores who did not take AP coursework. For minority students, graduation rates are as much as four times higher for students who have passed at least one AP exam.
It is common for schools to limit enrollment in AP courses to students who already appear to be headed for success. This practice, while well-intentioned, excludes many capable students from this important achievement. It is incumbent upon us to give all students—and, in particular, underrepresented students—the opportunities and tools to succeed in school and in life.
The National Math and Science Initiative, or NMSI, of which I am the president, is particularly interested in achieving this goal. Through our programs, we have dramatically increased the enrollment and success of minority students in AP math, science, and English coursework: In the last three years, participating schools in six states have recorded a 216 percent increase in the number of passing AP exams among African-American and Hispanic students, compared with a 50 percent increase among the same group nationally.
It is clear from these results that increasing access to advanced coursework—in combination with appropriate teacher training and mentoring—can dramatically expand opportunities for students who were previously considered unable to succeed at this level.
Research indicates that students who succeed on an AP exam during high school are more likely than their peers to achieve academic success in college."
The hands-on learning that takes place in AP coursework requires students to think critically, construct logical arguments, test theories, and see many sides of an issue. This is the kind of thinking necessary to solve tough problems both in and outside the classroom, in college and throughout careers.
In its September 2011 report, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration found that educational attainment may affect the equality of opportunity for minorities, particularly in securing critical, high-quality jobs of the future that require a background in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM. For example, African-Americans account for 11 percent of the U.S. workforce, but represent only about 6 percent of the STEM workforce.
Studies consistently show that people with a degree in a STEM field can expect to earn more income—even those with an associate degree in STEM earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree in education or the liberal arts, according to the National Center for Educational Accountability. The benefits accrue not only to individuals, but also to families, communities, states, and the nation as a whole. It should be our national mission to ensure that every child has an equal opportunity to succeed.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Encouraging AP Success for All Students