To review the literature on the Advanced Placement (AP) program to determine whether it is reaching both its historical goal of equipping advanced students with college-level skills and credit and its more recent goal to serve students from marginalized backgrounds.
The History and Evolution of AP
Over 50 years ago, the AP program began as a collaboration between elite private schools and universities to provide advanced high school students will opportunities to engage in college-level curriculum and, thus, develop college-level knowledge skills and earn college credit. As college degrees became more common, AP expanded its audience, especially with the goal of serving students who are underrepresented on college campuses. Therefore, AP aims to provide both college-level curriculum for advanced students and equal access to under-served students. While advanced students and under-served students are by no means mutually exclusive, the school and community systems in which they tend to learn are often different.
The context of elite private schools in which the AP program was originally developed is different than the public schools in which AP is trying to create equal access. First, AP is explicitly aiming to provide college-level opportunities for students who are from low-socioeconomic, working-class, or not-university-adjacent (i.e., rural) communities. Students in these communities are much more likely to be first-generation college students or not interested, or encouraged, to go to college, which is different than students in private schools. Second, AP is trying to expand its program that was designed for private school students to include a larger diversity of students, but the offerings are often less culturally relevant to the expanded group of students than they have been for the original group of students. Last, offering AP courses in underfunded or low-performing public schools, especially for ones that have students dropping out to get a job or take care of their family, creates different incentives and demands on resources than offering AP courses in well-funded schools whose majority of students are college-bound. All of these differences make achieving both goals of AP difficult to do at the same time.
Equitable Access: Kolluri found that underrepresented students have enrolled in AP significantly more in the past 15 years, including quadrupling AP exam takers from low-socioeconomic-status families. Still, the rate that students from low-income families enroll in AP courses, when they are offered, is less than a third of the rate of students from middle- or high-income families. Parents’ education is also a meaningful predictor, with students whose parents went to college enrolling in AP at twice the rate of students whose parents didn’t. In addition, Kolluri found that while the percentage of AP test takers from historically under-served racial groups is approaching the overall percentage of HS graduates, the number of AP tests they take is not equivalent to those from other racial groups. African-American students represent 9.2% of students who took at least one AP exam (compared to 14.5% of US high school graduates), and the mean number of AP exams taken is 2.4. Latinx students represent 18.8% of students who took at least one AP exam (compared to 18.8% of US high school graduates), and the mean number of AP exams take is 2.5. In comparison, Asian students take an average of 4.1 AP exams, and White students take an average of 3.0 AP exams. This difference is at least partially due to inequities in the number of AP courses offered in schools that have a high proportion of African-American and Latinx students compared to schools with a high proportion of White students. However, African-American and Latinx students at predominately-White high schools have historically had limited access to advanced coursework, an inequality that has not completely disappeared. The inequities in which AP Subject Areas are completed by which groups is explored further in the article.
Effectiveness: As the number of AP exam takers has increased, the relationship between taking AP and succeeding in college has weakened almost to the point of non-existence. The relationship is stronger when considering only students who pass the AP exam rather than all students who take the AP exam, but the pass rate has decreased over the past 20 years for African-American and Latinx students. While the pass rate for White students has remained stable at 65%, the pass rate for African American students has decreased from 36% to 29%, and the pass rate for Latinx students has decreased from 61% to 43%. These results suggest that recent increases in the number of students taking AP courses has not had equivalent increases in the number of students passing AP exams. In summary, taking AP courses seems to have little impact on college-readiness and serves mostly to signal a students’ existing ability and motivation to succeed in college.
Why this is important
This work highlights the fact that increasing access does not necessarily increase equity. While many students highly value AP courses because they provide challenging curriculum and college-credit, expanding the AP program without addressing the historical or cultural factors that determine its effectiveness will have limited efficacy. In addition, Kolluri call out the impact of evaluating the success of AP based primarily on AP exam scores. Just as with other types of standardized testing, preparing to take the test and evaluating performance at a single point throughout the year affects the experience of the teachers and students involved. Kolluri concludes that AP has not yet achieved both goals of equal access and effectiveness concurrently, but that it is possible for the AP program.
Kolluri, S. (2018). Advanced Placement: The Dual Challenge of Equal Access and Effectiveness. Review of Educational Research, 88(5), 671-711.
For more information about the article summary series or more article summary posts, visit the article summary series introduction.