Diversifying AP

The College Board has made real progress, but more work needs to be done, writes Mark Carl Rom.

October 12, 2020
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Does the Advanced Placement program promote racial justice, or not? The AP program seeks to provide a challenging college-level education to high school students so that they will be ready and able to thrive on enrollment in college. AP courses and exams are designed by the College Board, a not-for-profit organization, in collaboration with high school and college faculty. AP exams often provide the opportunity for students to earn college credit if the student earns a score of three or higher on a five-point scale.

As an unpaid member of the College Board’s AP Higher Education Advisory Council, I had assumed that the AP was a force for good, in part because the College Board leaders continually assert the priority they place on educational equity. The College Board has worked assiduously to make AP courses broadly available so that now “nationally, Blacks and Latino students are fairly represented among schools that offer advanced courses.” While once a program mainly offered in primarily white high schools, the number of students of color taking and passing AP exams has grown substantially over the past decade. The number of Latinx students scoring three or higher grew by 180 percent over the past decade, and now these high-performing students are actually overrepresented relative to white students.

While the number of American Indian/Alaska Native students passing an AP exam actually declined in the past 10 years, the number of Black students earning a passing score on an AP exam grew by 90 percent from 2009 to 2019, a rate of growth higher than for high school students as a whole. This African American growth rate was from a very low base, however: in 2019, just over 4 percent of exam-passing AP students were Black. At that rate of growth, the U.S. would be celebrating its quadcentennial before African Americans received the number of passing scores equivalent to their share of the population.

That’s an awfully long time for the moral arc of the universe to bend toward justice. Moreover, even though the AP is broadly available in high schools around the country, in practice access to AP courses remains limited. Schools that have larger proportions of Black and Latinx students tend to have somewhat lower shares of students enrolled in the AP, and racially diverse schools appear to limit access to AP courses to minority students.

The College Board is keenly aware of the racial inequalities in the AP program and has designed several initiatives to enhance equity. Recognizing that many students are ill prepared for the rigors of AP coursework, in part because so few students were actually exposed to challenging, grade-level courses, the College Board created the pre-AP program, which is “designed to give all students the opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed in the classroom and beyond.” To prevent racially discriminatory tracking -- the evidence is compelling that Black students are systematically overlooked in selections for gifted and talented and other enrichment programs -- schools that use the pre-AP program are required to make pre-AP open to all students.

To encourage student and teacher commitment to prepare for and take the end-of-the-year AP exams, in 2016 the College Board began a pilot program requiring students to register for (and pay the $90 enrollment fee) the AP exam early in the school year (beginning in the 2019-20 school year, early registration was required for all AP students). Two behavioral insights provided the rationale for this "early commitment" pilot. First, if students are publicly committed to taking an exam months in the future, they may have the motivation to prepare harder and more consistently. Second, teachers would no longer discourage "risky" students from taking the exam at the last moment. The easiest way for a teacher to raise their AP passing rate is to nudge out students they believe are likely to fail -- and it appears that implicit bias leads these nudges to be directed more often toward students of color (and females, if the AP is in a STEM discipline).

The pre-AP and early registration programs have the potential to increase the absolute number of minority students taking and passing the AP exam -- that’s good. But at the same time, there is no guarantee that these efforts will reduce relative inequalities. The pre-AP program comes at a cost: schools must pay $3,000 per course in English, mathematics, science and social studies (although if a school buys one of these courses, the College Board will provide the school a free course in dance, music, theater and visual arts). As a result, the schools that need pre-AP the most are likely to find it the most difficult to afford, creating yet another barrier to racial justice.

The early commitment program has also been harshly criticized by parents and teachers. Parents object to the precommitment: How can they possibly be confident that their children will be ready for the exam many months later? Teachers understandably worry that increasing the number of their students will lower the rate at which their students pass, because more "marginal" students will end up taking the exam.

The College Board, the parents and the teachers all make valid points. The evidence from the precommitment pilot program shows that the number of students, including low-income and underrepresented minority students, taking AP exams grew and the number of students passing the AP exam also increased. Score one for the College Board.

As parents and teachers feared, however, the proportion of students failing the exam also increased. So is this progress? In absolute terms, yes; in relative terms, no. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and persons of color) students enroll in AP courses at lower rates than whites students and fail the AP exams at higher rates. Is this evidence that the AP program is racially biased? Not necessarily. BIPOC are more likely than whites to be exposed to COVID-19 and test positive for it, yet this does not mean that either the virus or the test are racially biased. It’s not the disease that is racially biased: it is the society in which the disease exists. Eliminating AP courses and exams would not remedy racial bias but instead merely remove indicators of this bias.

But the College Board clearly can do more to reduce the racial disparities that are revealed by the AP. On the one hand, the board must find ways to expand the pre-AP program by putting in the schools that need it most by offering it to them at no cost by cross-subsidizing the program, obtaining state funding or some other mechanism. On the other, the College Board must withhold access to the AP at those schools who use the program in racially discriminatory ways. Until the College Board substantially increases both the number of BIPOC students taking AP courses and the proportion passing them, it cannot claim that the program is in fact promoting racial justice.


Mark Carl Rom is associate professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy. Disclosure. Rom has served as a consultant to the College Board but has no financial interest in it.


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