At J. Sterling Morton High School East in Cicero, IL–where 92 percent of students are low-income–AP classes are on the rise. In an effort to increase access to an important component of the college-admissions game, one which is dominated by white and affluent students, Illinois–specifically Chicago and its suburbs, including Cicero–have taken major steps to increase AP participation in public schools. It’s working: from 2011 to 2016, the number of students taking AP exams has doubled, while the raw number of AP exams administered has tripled. District superintendent Michael Kuzniewski praised the “monster growth in exposing kids to a higher level curriculum” and added that AP policies which restrict AP enrollment based on prior achievement, are “de facto segregation and tracking.”
Unfortunately, this increase in enrollment has not been linked to a commensurate increase in success on these exams. Among Illinois public high school students, the AP pass rate is 60 percent. But at Morton East, where the pass rate in 2011 was just 31 percent, increase in AP enrollment was accompanied by a seven-point reduction in pass rates, down to 24 percent in 2016. At its sister school Morton West, the pass rate declined from 34 to 19 percent.
A similar story is playing out throughout the country. This is in part thanks to former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, who announced in 2000 a goal to have 10 AP courses in every high school nationwide. Almost twenty years later, his words are still relevant; in the Washington D.C. public school system (DCPS), public chancellor Kaya Henderson recently spearheaded an initiative to require high schools to offer at least eight AP classes starting in 2016. However, the overall pass rate for DCPS students is just 31 percent. When four of the district’s 18 schools are removed from the equation–the relatively wealthy Wilson High School and three selective-admissions schools–that number is much lower: 10 percent. At these underperforming schools, 70 percent of exams taken received a 1, the lowest possible score and one that can be earned by answering no questions at all—or simply doing very poorly on the exam. At four schools, no students received passing scores.
These schools’ efforts to improve themselves via AP expansion are partially motivated by the belief that increased AP participation leads to higher college GPAs and retention rates. Expanding a school’s AP offerings is also used as a strategy to inspire students by exposing them to college-level coursework and theoretically improving high school graduation rates. This second point is particularly salient considering the fact that the majority of graduates of the DCPS system do not complete college, and many do not graduate at all. For example, at H.D. Woodson High, the graduation rate is 76 percent, but only one percent of its students met national standards in math; district-wide, only 23 percent of DCPS high school graduates receive a degree from a four-year university within six years. It is somewhat incongruous that at these schools which emphasize access to AP classes so strongly as a major educational policy goal, many students do not even meet national standards for high school proficiency in core subjects: math and English. Even if offering more AP classes hypothetically helps college-bound students graduate more quickly, most students will not actually benefit from this because so few students go to college.
Furthermore, expanding AP courses is extremely expensive from both a purely financial standpoint and in terms of opportunity cost. There are other, more effective programs that could use the money currently being used to fund AP expansion. Other initiatives with a better proven return on investment include improving reading achievement at a third-grade level or expanding access to high-quality pre-kindergarten programs.
As mentioned above, one major reason for AP expansion in low-income schools is its potential impact on a student’s preparation for, decision to enroll, and success in college. But there is little research that both supports a causal relationship between these two events, and accounts for confounding factors like racial and socioeconomic disparities in AP enrollment. Although the trappings of AP are independently linked to improved academic performance–smaller classrooms, better-trained teachers–there is simply a lack of evidence to support the idea that taking an AP exam itself–and failing it–leads to better outcomes in college. Instead, research done by Kristin Klopfenstein, associate professor of economics at Texas Christian University, and Kathleen Thomas, associate professor of economics at Mississippi State University, suggests that taking AP classes does not provide better outcomes than taking a “non-AP curriculum rich in math and science.” A study in the Journal of Educational Research that looked for a relationship between enrollment in AP math and science courses and improved ACT scores yielded similar findings: when controlling for confounding variables, they found that AP courses were no more effective than test-preparation courses in improving students’ scores. Furthermore, APs are not conclusively linked to better college retention rates, expedited graduation, or higher GPAs.
Even if increased AP enrollment may yield some benefit to low-income students, these benefits are too small to justify the costs. In 2016, the national Advanced Placement Test Fee Program provided 28 million dollars of subsidies to low-income students looking to take AP exams. New York City’s AP for All initiative is estimated to cost the city more than 21 million dollars per school year. Thirteen states offer specific financial incentives to schools looking to expand or add AP to low-income schools. The one group that unilaterally benefits from the AP craze is College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers AP and SAT exams; the corporation attributes roughly half its revenue to AP exams, each of which requires a $94 fee. The juxtaposition of strong governmental support for increased AP enrollment and College Board’s enormous revenue from AP exams amounts to government support of College Board—diverting money that might have been better spent on financial aid for low-income college students or increased funding for low-income elementary and middle schools, among other things.
One alluring argument in favor of AP expansion points to the success of Superman teachers a la “Stand and Deliver.” These stories aren’t fiction; one example is Anthony Yom, an AP Calculus AB teacher at the predominantly low-income Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles. Almost all of Yom’s students earn passing scores. But such narratives place too much responsibility on teachers to fix a problem that isn’t theirs: students who aren’t prepared for AP exams. Yom himself acknowledges that his success is due to significant support from the school in the form of clear math expectations set from ninth grade, and his own untold hours outside the classroom, which won’t be sustainable if he marries and has children, he said.
It is not much of an achievement for the government to subsidize AP exams so that they are free or nearly-free, then congratulate itself when AP participation increases. The real challenge is to increase quality-adjusted AP participation rates, which means that more students must pass the exams (and thereby become eligible for college credit). For many of these schools, whose students’ achievement lag behind state and national standards, perhaps it would be a better idea to simply borrow from the AP playbook — higher standards, more teacher training — without paying for AP accreditation and exams.