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The Advanced Placement (AP) program plays a unique role in US public high schools. In a public education system that has long focused on bringing up low-performing students, AP courses have become the primary avenue for delivering advanced coursework to public high school students across the otherwise varied state education systems. AP has assumed this role during decades of rapid expansion and has seen a remarkable 8.5 percent annual growth rate since 1990.
The surge in AP participation has been both lauded and criticized. AP’s growth has spread the benefits of the program, including an edge in the college-admissions race and college credit, to more students than ever. However, AP participation differs across student groups, raising equity concerns among some critics. Other critics have argued that AP has expanded too quickly and that program quality and participating students’ achievement will be watered down as a result.
So what do we know about how AP programs in the nation’s public high schools have changed over time? Not as much as we would like, for two reasons. The first is that, because AP is inherently selective of higher-achieving students, it is difficult to gauge changes in the quality of AP programs or in students’ access to them. The second reason is that previous research on AP has not focused on public schools, been national in scope, nor evaluated the program over time. These limitations have left a substantial gap in the research on public AP programs.
In this paper, I offer a national look at AP course takers in public schools between 1990 and 2013. I integrate data from several sources to describe how AP participation of high school graduates has changed over 23 years. I show that the portion of graduates taking AP courses more than tripled over this period. I also show that while AP participation grew for all student groups, the gaps in participation that were evident early on have persisted.
Additionally, I use math achievement test scores between 2000 and 2009, during which AP participation rose 35 percent, to show that there is no evidence that the achievement of AP course takers was watered down by expansion. Finally, I use detailed data on every US public high school in 2012 to understand what might explain gaps in AP participation. I find that differences in students’ academic preparedness are the clearest explanation for participation gaps, not differences in AP access.
This look at AP course takers over more than two decades has several implications. The extent of the program’s growth alone is impressive, but AP’s apparently effective quality control during a period of extensive growth is much more so. AP’s growth has increased participation and extended benefits for all kinds of students. However, participation gaps by student demographics have proved stubborn and require policy attention that will address the root causes of those gaps. These findings suggest that gaps in AP participation have to be addressed before high school, where students should be prepared for advanced coursework.
On a more optimistic note, AP participation has room to grow, provided it is expanded responsibly. This paper brings together many data sources to provide descriptive analyses of AP over a 23-year span that can inform policy on the largest provider of advanced coursework in public high schools.
The Advanced Placement (AP) program holds a unique place in US secondary schooling. After decades of rapid growth, AP exams are taken by millions of students to assess their mastery of an array of subjects. AP credentials give students an edge in the increasingly competitive contest for college admissions and even earn them college credit, saving them time and money. AP also fills an important role in challenging high-achieving students, making it unique in an education system that has long focused on bringing up the performance of low-achieving public school students.
As the AP program has grown into this unique role, it has also grown in scale. According to the most recent data from the College Board (figure 1), 2.2 million students took 3.9 million AP exams in 2012–13, both of which are twice the number from a decade earlier. Over the past two decades, the number of students taking AP exams increased at a remarkable average annual rate of 8.5 percent.
The surge in AP participation since 1990 has been both lauded and criticized. AP program benefits have been available to increasing numbers of students, but those increases have not benefitted all students equally. The College Board has clearly stated that “underserved minority and low-income students remain underrepresented in AP classrooms,” and the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has asserted that access to educational resources, explicitly including AP courses, must be equitably distributed.
However, because AP courses are inherently selective, it is difficult to determine whether differential access should be attributed to differences in program availability or to the preparedness of over- and underrepresented student groups. Other criticism questions whether program expansion has diluted the effects of the AP program by growing programs too quickly or admitting underprepared students.
It is particularly important to understand the extent of AP programs and of equity in students’ access to them in public schools, because policy can and should shape how public school AP programs are run. Unfortunately, existing data on AP programs provide an inadequate basis for focusing on AP programs in public schools. College Board presents limited data, which are generally on the program as a whole, rather than on which public schools do and do not provide AP. Most other studies of AP are either limited to particular districts or states or to a point in time, and they do not provide a longitudinal national perspective. This study is designed to be a first step in filling that gap.
This is the first of two papers that provide a national and longitudinal look at the AP program in public schools. In this paper I focus on student participation in AP programs between 1990 and 2013 using data integrated from several sources. The resulting database limits the specificity with which I can describe AP programs. However, the breadth of the data affords a national look at the AP program over long periods and reveals important information about how the population of high school graduates who have taken AP courses has changed over time.
I describe public school students’ participation in AP courses over time by addressing four questions in turn. Using nationally representative data on public school graduates’ transcripts from 1990 to 2013, the first section asks, “How has the AP participation of public school graduates grown over time?” The next section uses the same transcript data to ask, “How did AP participation differ across student groups over time?” The third section examines NAEP test-score data linked to graduate-transcript data in 2000, 2005, and 2009 to answer the question, “Has AP expansion watered down the achievement of AP course takers?” The final section uses multiple data sources from recent years to address the question, “Are differences in who takes AP courses driven by gaps in AP access?”
The data in this paper are drawn from several sources. Data on graduates’ transcripts came from the High School Transcript Studies (HST), which were developed by the National Center for Education Statistics and provide nationally representative transcript data on public school graduates from 1990, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2005, and 2009. Because NCES has not produced a HST since 2009, I extend the analyses using transcript data from the High School Longitudinal Study (HSLS) of 2009, which includes transcript data from students who graduated in 2013.
Data on the percentage of students attending schools offering AP programs were drawn from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) collected by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Data on the percentages of graduates scoring at various proficiency levels on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test for 12th grade mathematics proficiency linked to the HST were taken from the NAEP Data Explorer.
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