Why promising minority students aren't signing up for AP exams

Minority students sign up for AP exams at a lower rate than white peers, even if they are likely to pass. Cultivating early interest in math and science is key to fulfilling potential.

Erik Hill/The Anchorage Daily/AP
Maia Luick marks an answer during a 30-minute science test at the GCI Alaska Academic Decathlon in Anchorage, Alaska, this month. Overall, more high school students are passing Advanced Placement exams, but minority students, even those likely to pass, aren't signing up for tests.

The number of high school students passing at least one Advanced Placement (AP) exam is up overall this year, but students from minority groups still lag behind their white peers, particularly in math and science.

Among members of the class of 2012, more than 32.4 percent (950,000 students) took at least one AP exam, up from 30.2 percent in 2011. A decade ago, the number was 18 percent, according to an annual report released Wednesday by the College Board, which administers the tests.

But the College Board also finds that many minority and low-income students, even those with a high likelihood of succeeding on AP exams, aren’t taking them. For students deemed likely to pass an AP mathematics exam, only 30 percent of African-American and Hispanic students and 20 percent of American-Indian students signed up for the test, compared with 40 percent of white students and 60 percent Asian and Pacific Islander students.

“It’s really unconscionable that we’re not better as a nation at helping students from underserved backgrounds prepare for and enroll in AP courses,” says Trevor Packer, College Board senior vice president for AP.

Since its inception in the 1950s, the AP program has grown into a staple of the college preparatory curriculum in American high schools. The AP curriculum teaches college-level material to high school students in 31 subjects across a wide range of disciplines, including both traditional courses like physics and US history and atypical specialties like human geography and Japanese language and culture.

Passing an AP exam in high school is correlated to a higher college grade point average and an increased likelihood of graduating from a four-year college, the College Board reports. It can also bring down tuition costs for students who enter college with credits earned through AP scores. Exams are scored on a five-point scale – three points or higher counts as passing and can be used for college credit or placement at many universities.

Enrollment in AP courses has recently become more diverse. In 2002, less than 18 percent of AP exam takers were so-called “underserved minorities.” Now the figure is 26 percent. And the number of low-income students in the AP program has grown from 11 percent to nearly 27 percent in the same time period. This is due in part to widespread subsidies to help offset the test's nearly $100 price tag.  

Mr. Packer says that low-enrollment in AP courses and exams among minority students is often a function of availability. But other education experts argue that the problem is more systemic.  

When it comes to math and science, minority students are “often not recognized as the smart kids in the class,” says Mary Walker, an education professor at the University of Texas in Austin who focuses on math and science education.

If you don’t cultivate students’ interest and aptitude for a subject early in their educational careers, she says, increasing their access to AP exams may simply be too little too late.

“If you don’t get them interested at middle school level they won’t be on track to take advanced courses in high school because they won’t have taken the necessary prerequisites,” she says.

The “high likelihood” that a student will pass an AP exam is determined by looking at a student’s score on the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT) – an SAT-style test the College Board offers to high school sophomores and juniors. Students with certain qualifying scores on one or more sections of that exam have at least a 60 percent chance of passing an AP exam, the College Board reports.

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