Can AP expand and remain effective?

During the six-plus decades since the College Board took over the Advanced Placement program, it has ballooned from just 12,000 students in a hundred schools to 2.8 million students taking some 5 million exams in over 22,000 schools, including many poor and minority youngsters. Such growth has become a major point of pride for the College Board and represents a transformation from its long-time ties to elite public and private high schools.

A new analysis by Suneal Kolluri, a Ph.D. student in the University of Southern California School of Education, examines whether AP has sustained its rigor and maintained its effectiveness as it has come to serve large numbers of disadvantaged students. He undertook a vast review of the research literature from the last twenty-five years, with particular attention to whether authors examined the challenges of equity and/or effectiveness of the program.

Despite AP’s inclusion of many more kids from traditionally underserved populations, significant gaps persist in student access: White and Asian students are overrepresented in the exam-taking population when compared to black and Hispanic pupils. They also take more AP exams per student while in high school, and the differences are even more pronounced in STEM subjects.

These gaps persist despite policies in almost every state to increase AP access. And those efforts to expand participation have also coincided with declining exam results. AP exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, within which 3 or higher is deemed a “qualifying score” deserving of college credit. But as the number of students taking AP exams has risen, so has the rate of 1’s and 2’s, especially for marginalized groups.

Kolluri suggests several reasons why expansion and effectiveness may be incompatible. There he’s on somewhat shakier grounds than in his masterful research review.

First, he suggests that many historically underrepresented students simply cannot benefit from the AP program because preexisting achievement gaps are too large. It’s true that passing rates have dropped, especially for marginalized students. Yet the net number of individual students from these groups who are taking AP—and earning qualifying scores—has also skyrocketed during the past two decades. And organizations such as the National Math and Science Initiative, Equal Opportunity Schools, and Mass Insight Education and Research are doing yeoman's work in bringing AP success to more high schools enrolling such students.

Second, Kolluri speculates that AP courses are being taught ineffectively to underrepresented students, and that their schools often lack resources, including well-qualified teachers, minority teachers of AP subjects, and gung-ho administrators. All of these factors may negatively influence AP’s effectiveness. The extent to which the College Board alone can—or should—effectively face these difficulties is debatable, but its ambitious new Pre-AP initiative, designed to exercise some degree of curricular influence in earlier grades, may help.

Finally, he points to evidence suggesting that Advanced Placement may be a “component of social reproduction,” by which he means that its expansion in low-income schools might simply lead to even greater expansion in their middle- and high-income counterparts. In some cases—as recently happened in a high-profile way among elite D.C.-area prep schools—the upscale schools actually drop AP to distinguish themselves further. Yet it remains the case that more students of all backgrounds are still sitting for and passing the exams—even in elite schools that generally continue to administer the AP tests, despite declining to teach the classes.

SOURCE: Suneal Kolluri, “Advanced Placement: The Dual Challenge of Equal Access and Effectiveness,” Review of Educational Research (July 2018).

Andrew Scanlan
Andrew Scanlan is a Research and Policy Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.