College & Workforce Readiness

The Power of One Small Gesture Can Dramatically Boost AP Enrollment

By Catherine Gewertz — October 06, 2017 3 min read
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UPDATED Schools try all kinds of strategies to get students to sign up for Advanced Placement classes, but it turns out that one of the quickest and easiest has a dramatic impact. Researchers have found that students who receive short notes encouraging them to try AP classes are 49 percentage points more likely to enroll in AP than those who didn’t get such notes.

The new findings by Mathematica Policy Research add to a growing stack of studies into the small things that can “nudge” students along the road to college, such as text messages reminding them to apply for financial aid.

The Mathematica study focuses on the effect of short messages attached to students’ PSAT score reports. The College Board began adding those notes in 2013 to the score reports of students who had “AP Potential"—those who are likely to succeed in AP because they scored high enough on the PSAT.

The Mathematica researchers studied the impact those messages had on 10th grade students in California’s Oakland Unified School District. They analyzed students’ records, and surveyed about 400 of the students before and after they got the PSAT messages.

Among students who got the same PSAT score, those who got the encouraging messages were more likely to have confidence in their academic ability and expand their plans to take AP classes.

Those students were also 49 percentage points more likely to sign up for an AP class the following school year. They were also more likely to take and pass AP exams, making them eligible for college credit.

Getting the AP potential message by itself, however, doesn’t hold the key to increased participation and success, the Mathematica study found. The increase showed up only among the students who participated in the survey, which included a review of their PSAT score report. This led researchers to theorize that calling attention to the encouraging message—not just receiving it—is key to increasing AP enrollment.

The “AP potential” message was tucked in a “relatively inconspicuous” place on the PSAT score report, the study says, so it could be that students needed help noticing it and understanding its meaning. That reflects established insight of behavioral science, the study says: that people often don’t use valuable information without help focusing their attention on it and understanding what it means.

Involving Students in Exploring ‘AP Potential’

The Mathematica team suggested two courses of action based on their findings. They urged teachers to spend 15 minutes reviewing students’ PSAT reports with them, the same amount of time the researchers spent reviewing the results with students who participated in their survey.

“This simple message based on standardized test scores had an impact on students’ behavior, suggesting that existing performance data can be used effectively to nudge students,” the report says. “Sending a carefully designed message can also be much cheaper than other types of interventions, such as offering financial incentives.”

The researchers also encouraged the College Board, which stopped adding the AP potential messages to score reports after 2014, to reintroduce them.

The College Board still has an AP potential program, but it’s geared toward urging schools to use an online tool to create rosters of students whose PSAT scores suggest they’d succeed in AP, and to reach out to those students. It also has an “All In” campaign, which is focused on getting minority students into AP classes.

UPDATED College Board spokesman Zach Goldberg said paper PSAT score reports now refer students to a Web page where they can see which AP courses are a good match and whether their schools offer those classes. The College Board “recognizes the value of the personalized message,” he said in an email, but chose to rework its system of sending those messages once the SAT was redesigned.

Under the old system, AP potential was based only on PSAT scores, and could be updated only once a year, so putting that information on a PSAT score report was simple, Goldberg said. The company’s new approach to AP potential uses results from additional tests (there are now three types of PSAT exam), and is updated online in real time, he said.

Photo: Getty Images

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.