Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a Washington Monthly article examining AP courses and college racial inequities.
By Anne Kim
In a year when the coronavirus pandemic threw college admissions into chaos, 18-year-old Chloe Pressley of Prince William County, Virginia, succeeded beyond her wildest expectations. She got into multiple prestigious colleges, including Caltech, the University of Virginia, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The University of Richmond (VA) offered her a full ride. This fall, she’s headed to Yale.
One secret to her success, she says, was a class schedule loaded up with the College Board’s Advanced Placement courses. “I feel like AP is the only way to get to a good college,” she told me. “It provides you with a pedestal above other graduates.” As a senior at C. D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, Pressley took five AP classes, including AP Chemistry, AP Calculus BC, AP Psychology, AP Comparative Government, and AP Literature and Composition.
But she had to fight to get this schedule.
Pressley, who is Black, attends a predominantly Black and Latino school in suburban Washington, D.C., where more than 40 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch (meaning their families’ incomes fall below 185 percent of the federal poverty line). Although her home high school offers 18 AP classes, according to federal civil rights data, Pressley said she did not have the option to take AP Chemistry or other high-level STEM classes at her school. She petitioned her counselor, her principal, and, eventually, her local school board member in order to attend another high school in her district—Charles J. Colgan Sr. High—that offered the AP classes she wanted. “I’m very persistent,” she said.
Pressley also discovered that Colgan, where fewer than one in five students receives free or reduced-price lunch and a majority are white or Asian, offers a wealth of AP classes unavailable at her base school. “There are so many classes that I wish I could have taken, like AP Computer Science,” she said. “That was never an option to me. I didn’t even know the class existed until I heard one of my Colgan friends talking about it.”
Over the past 20 years, state and federal policy makers have heavily subsidized AP’s expansion, both to promote greater college readiness and to catalyze educational equity. “Our hope (is that AP) can serve as an anchor for increasing rigor in our schools and reducing the achievement gap,” then College Board President Gaston Caperton said in 2006. Today, about 70 percent of all U.S. public high schools offer at least one AP class, and the number of students taking AP courses has more than tripled since 2000. AP has benefited hundreds of thousands of students who otherwise would have had no exposure to the rigors of college-level work.
Yet these benefits have so far flowed disproportionately to white students in affluent school districts. As a broader mechanism for equity, AP has fallen short, unable to overcome the powerful structural forces that disadvantage far too many students.
The program has left behind Black students in particular. In 2019, Black students made up 15 percent of all public school students, but they took just 6.3 percent of all AP exams. For every Black student who scored a 5 on an AP exam (the highest possible score), 10 students scored a 1 (the lowest possible). Among white students, by contrast, 5s outnumbered 1s. Black students are only about half as likely to pass an AP exam as all students nationwide, and the difference in overall exam pass rates between Black and white students has worsened since 2003 (excluding the statistically strange pandemic year 2020).
“AP was designed in the 1950s to be a program for precocious high schoolers who were very privileged,” says Kristin Klopfenstein, a nationally recognized expert on Advanced Placement at the University of Denver. “AP is serving exactly who it’s designed to serve, which is mostly upper-middle-class whites.”
As more colleges and universities go “test-optional” with the SAT and ACT, AP could end up playing an out-sized role as admission officers scramble for alternate standards by which to judge applicants. According to a 2019 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, “grades in college prep courses” and “strength of curriculum” are among the top three factors considered by colleges in making admission decisions. For many students, access and success in AP—or the lack thereof—could become even more determinative.
If the ultimate goal of K–12 education is to offer equitable access to high-quality curricula leading to greater college access and success, policymakers need to rethink their approach to AP and look beyond it. Some schools, for instance, are experimenting with ways to ensure that more minority AP students are likely to succeed, such as adding Spanish-language instruction and class materials for AP courses at predominantly Latino schools. For some students, models other than AP might be a better way to experience college-level work. Dual or concurrent enrollment at a partnering community college or local four-year college is gaining in popularity and so far seems to have a better track record than AP at enrolling minority and low-income students. In the 2017–18 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 80 percent of high schools offered dual enrollment, including 90 percent of schools in rural areas.
In the meantime, students like Chloe Pressley remain the exception, not the rule. And instead of closing educational divides, AP is widening them.
Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection.