AP at scale: Public school students in Advanced Placement

The expansion of the Advanced Placement program, on its face, is one of the great feel-good stories of education in my lifetime. Instead of being relegated to a boutique résumé item on the college applications of America’s most fortunate high schoolers, AP has broadened access to its more rigorous curriculum to kids across the country. Demanding coursework prepares students better for the higher expectations of post-secondary education, and successful completion of exams can often be counted for precious college credit. So, high-fives all around, right?

Maybe not. After all, if we’re moving so quickly to fit new students into AP classes, can we be sure that the experience is still as enriching as it was when the program was more narrowly focused on elite pupils? Is the content being diluted? On the flip side, critics point to huge gaps in participation among different ethnic groups. With disproportionate numbers of white and Asian students taking and passing exams, has the march toward equity made any real progress?

Those are the questions this AEI report, which focuses on the national spread of AP participation between 1990 and 2013, seeks to answer. It begins with an enlightening look into just how widely Advanced Placement classes and exams have expanded over the last generation. According to data from the College Board, some 2.2 million students took 3.9 million AP tests in 2013. That figure represents a more than five-fold increase in test takers over twenty-three years. What’s more, the total portion of high school graduates who received AP course credit has risen from 12 percent in the era of Perfect Strangers to 39 percent in the time of How I Met Your Mother. Importantly, these numbers didn’t spike merely because a greater variety of courses are now being offered; classes like AP calculus—which has been available throughout the entire period featured in the study—have seen an increase in enrollment as well.

The extent of this growth leads us to the matter of scale: With so many new students being welcomed into the program, and so quickly, is there a risk of spreading AP rigor (i.e., qualified instructors and resources) too thin over too many students? The author addresses this concern by looking at NAEP mathematics scores in 2000, 2005, and 2009—three points of measurement covering a decade of rapid AP expansion. (Since math achievement is well correlated with performance in other subjects, it is used as a proxy for overall academic success.) In each year, participant scores were effectively the same—between .63 and .68 standard deviations better than the national average. So far, at least, we haven’t seen Advanced Placement turn into too much of a good thing.

There is some concerning news, however. Participation in AP courses has gone up among every conceivable student group: boys and girls, whites and blacks, Asians and Hispanics, as well as for every level of parents’ education. But that growth has been realized faster among some groups than others, leading to worrying discrepancies among groups: The average black student earns just half of an AP credit over his high school career, compared to 1.1 credits for white students and 2.7 for Asian students. While there was no gender gap in AP participation as recently as 1998, an eight-point difference now separates girls receiving AP credit (43 percent) from boys (35 percent).

Importantly, the report suggests that these disparities are driven chiefly by preparedness rather than access—that the well-known achievement gaps separating some students from their classmates are naturally reflected in AP participation. We should absolutely hope that this is true, and that minority, male, and disadvantaged students aren’t arbitrarily being kept from more challenging academic opportunities. But there’s no excuse for us neglect the challenge of improving student performance among those underrepresented groups. “While we should responsibly expand AP,” the author concludes, “we must recognize that the ultimate solution to AP participation gaps is closing the preparation gaps before high school.” Thankfully, our forthcoming book on Education for Upward Mobility has some clear ideas on how to do precisely that.

SOURCE: Nat Malkus, “AP at scale: Public school students in Advanced Placement, 1990–2013,” AEI (January 2016).

Kevin Mahnken
Kevin Mahnken is an Editorial Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.