Money, teacher access, and perceived demand are still keeping Advanced Placement courses from being offered more widely — but not everyone thinks that’s a bad thing. (Photograph by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu/Unsplash)

By Maya Pottiger,
Word in Black

This is the first article in a three-part series that looks at why Advanced Placement (AP) classes aren’t offered to all students, the barriers to being able to take an AP class, and, in the end, who benefits from these classes and tests.

When Advanced Placement exam time rolls around, high school students nationwide buckle down into test-prep mode: reviewing flashcards, taking practice tests, or paying for special review classes. 

Why do all this studying? Students hope to achieve the brass ring of the AP experience:  earning college credit for their high school coursework. That goal has been the cornerstone of AP since its inception, but the program has changed a lot in its nearly seven-decade run — and critics question whether it actually meets the academic needs of students.

AP “wasn’t intended to be” for everybody, says Akil Bello, the senior director of Advocacy and Advancement at FairTest. Instead, it was “designed to be an added benefit for the elitist scions of privileged families.” 

Indeed, the Advanced Placement program started as a study in 1955 at three — largely white and wealthy — prep schools before launching nationally a few years later. 

Its original purpose was to provide an opportunity for a small number of students to challenge themselves and get a head start on college. The courses were designed to give them an idea of what college-level work would be like, and then the class could be transferred for college credit.

Nearly 70 years later, the program still doesn’t reach many Black students. In 2020, only 9 percent of Black students were enrolled in at least one AP course. 

But, over the years, especially as the College Board — the nonprofit that runs the AP program, as well as the SAT — realized what a huge revenue source these courses could be, the purpose has shifted and the organization has worked to grow the numbers of students taking AP classes. 

As many colleges are making SAT and ACT scores optional, the AP program brings in more money to the College Board — to the tune of nearly $400 million in revenue annually. As a result, in the past decade or so, the AP program has expanded to offer more courses and cover more subject areas. There are now 38 AP classes and exams, ranging from core academic classes, such as AP Biology and AP U.S. History (known as APUSH), to electives, such as AP Art History and AP Music Theory.

As the program evolved, so did the way colleges accept credit. Now, colleges only accept AP credit with the caveat of a certain score or as part of admissions criteria.

“Ideally, students would take the classes to challenge themselves,” said Dr. Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and co-founder of the nonprofit Challenge Success. “But it’s become much different from how it was intended, how people are using it now, kind of padding the resume.”

Because it’s a business selling a lucrative product, the College Board pushes that the courses are designed for every potential college-going student, says Bob Schaeffer, the executive director of FairTest, which has an active lawsuit against the College Board for technical difficulties with the virtual AP exams in 2020.

AP classes cost school districts money

Despite the College Board’s push to flood schools with AP classes and the notion of “AP for all,” that’s just not the case. In 2015, 73 percent of students in rural areas had access to at least one AP course, compared to 92 percent of students in urban areas.

“It just has to do with the level of institutional racism that’s still at play,” said Dr. Brett Grant, a postdoctoral fellow at the Black Education Research Collective at Teachers College, Columbia University.

There are many reasons behind this. The first one? Money. Between the training and resources, an AP class can cost between $1,900 and $11,650.

Cash-strapped districts can’t always afford the costs associated with offering AP classes. For one, an AP class is required to be taught by a teacher with special training. So a school needs the funds for the teacher to attend the training and pay for the curriculum products.

Plus, when schools are working with budget constraints, they have to decide where the money will be most beneficial: toward the costs of offering AP classes to academically advanced teens, or helping students at the other end of the scale who need more support. This is a problem, especially in disadvantaged schools, usually with higher numbers of students of color.

An Education Trust analysis found that, in 11 of 37 states, Black students are underrepresented in schools that offer gifted or talented classes. Further, in 22 states, the schools that have the highest number of Black students don’t have an equitable number of students in the talented or gifted programs.

“Under those situations, it’s very real that educators in those schools feel like we need to focus first on helping the students at the bottom end,” said Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings. “If we’re going to be making a marginal investment, is it worth providing an AP course? Or is it worth providing a little bit more remedial support for the students who are barely passing?”

It’s hard — and expensive — to find teachers to teach AP classes

On top of getting a teacher the necessary training to teach an AP course, they also have to have room in their day to fit in another class.

“Generally speaking, that would be the biggest bottleneck: the lack of available people who would teach those classes and who have the space in their schedule where they aren’t needed to teach other classes,” Hansen said.

Plus, Schaeffer adds, due to the smaller student-to-staff ratio in an AP class, it can be costly for small, poor, and rural districts, said.

Under-invested schools, which often have higher populations of Black and Brown students, have higher rates of teacher turnover and early career teachers. This means there are fewer established or senior teachers in the building to teach the more rigorous AP course.

“Typically, those are the ones who are leading your honors classes or AP classes, like your higher level, more rigorous coursework,” Hansen said. “If you’re constantly dealing with turnover, that would be a factor that would prevent you from being able to offer classes, even if you would have liked to.”

Perceived demand for AP classes is lower in underserved schools

In disadvantaged schools, the perceived demand for AP classes is relatively low. Without enough students who are ready for — or looking for — the academic challenge of an AP class, the school’s funds could be better used elsewhere.

“We know that achievement gaps are real,” Hansen said. “Of course, that doesn’t mean everybody in the school is below average. But it does mean that you’re going to have fewer of those students who are performing at higher levels, who then would be in a position to be ready for that class.”

The money could go toward support for the higher levels of students with learning disabilities or second language individualized education plans (IEPs), Schaeffer said.

“Communities are sort of in an arms race to offer as much AP as possible because parents — the taxpayers — think, and often faculty believe, that the more APs, the better, in terms of getting into hyper-select colleges,” Schaeffer said. “There’s no evidence that that’s true. But lots of arms races are based on mythology about what other people are doing.”

Though the motivations may be monetary, Bello said, “In recent years, to their credit, College Board has responded to those critiques by pushing more broadly to make the program available in more schools.”

“It’s not to say that AP is necessarily a bad thing for kids who are ready, who have mastered the high school curriculum and are ready to do college work,” Schaeffer said. “It gives them an opportunity to be intellectually challenged.”

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