Dismantling Roadblocks to Equity? The Impact of Advanced Placement Initiatives on Black and Latinx Students’ Access and Performance
by Rachel Roegman, David Allen & Thomas Hatch - 2019
Background: Increasing access to Advanced Placement (AP) coursework has been a long-term goal of the College Board and many districts across the country, yet achieving this goal has remained elusive, particularly for African American and Latinx youth and youth in poverty.
Purpose: In this study, we analyze the work of five districts that have identified inequities in AP participation and developed initiatives to address these inequities. We examine these districts’ strategies, as well as their impact on both access to AP coursework and success on AP exams. We consider how efforts to increase access to AP have affected different racial/ethnic student groups.
Participants: The five districts are led by superintendents who were members of the Instructional Leaders Network (ILN), a statewide network that focuses on supporting superintendents’ system-wide, equity-focused improvement. The districts vary in demographics, size, and socioeconomic status.
Data Collection and Analysis: This mixed methods study includes five years of AP enrollment and performance data for four districts, and two years of data for one district. We also identified two of these districts as case studies of AP initiative development and implementation and conducted a series of interviews with administrators from the districts over the five years of the study. We analyzed quantitative data descriptively and used Bonilla-Silva’s (2018) concept of color-blind racism to analyze these data in relation to the interview data.
Findings: All districts adopted strategies focused on students as a whole, which for the most part led to an increase in access for all racial/ethnic groups, but no consistent pattern of reducing over- or under-representation. In terms of outcomes, in some districts, more students received scores of 3 or higher from all racial/ethnic groups, but disparities in average test scores remained. Additionally, across all districts, Black students continued to receive the lowest scores.
Recommendations: As school districts, individual high schools, and the College Board continue their focus on increasing equity in both access and performance, their approaches need to involve ongoing data collection and evaluation on how different programs and initiatives are positively or negatively affecting student populations that have been traditionally underserved as well as students in general. This research demonstrates that color-neutral policies need to be constantly interrogated by K–12 administrators and other stakeholders to ensure that the policies do not reinforce and sustain existing inequities. If districts seek to target groups of students who are underserved, they need to consider strategies and policies that explicitly and directly address those groups.
Increasing access to Advanced Placement (AP) coursework has been a long-term goal of the College Board, the federal government, and many districts across the country, yet achieving this goal has remained elusive, particularly for Black and Latinx youth and youth in poverty (Klopfenstein, 2004; Kyburg, Hertberg-Davis, & Callahan, 2007). In this study, we analyze the work of five districts in one state that have identified inequities in AP participation and developed initiatives to address these inequities. We examine these districts goals and strategies around increasing access, as well as their impact on both access to AP coursework and success on AP exams. While the role of AP in U.S. schools has changed over time and AP curricula has been subject to criticism, AP courses remain some of the most rigorous that students have access to, and earning a passing score on AP exams continues to benefit students college admissions and credit accrual (Schneider, 2009). Even as more elite independent schools eliminate AP courses, in favor of more rigorous home-grown" courses, the exams remain an important indicator for public schools that they are not providing a second-rate education for their students (Schneider, 2011, p. 130). At the same time, nationwide patterns of AP course-taking reflect inequities related to, among other factors, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and special education status (Barnard-Brak, McGaha-Garnett, & Burley, 2011).
Building on the growing body of research on race, policy, and educational administration, we focused particularly on how efforts to increase access to AP for all students take into account the needs and outcomes of different racial/ethnic student groups. Our research questions asked: (a) What was each district's goal in trying to increase access to AP? (b) What strategies did each district use? (c) What were the enrollment and performance outcomes for students overall and of students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds?
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Including AP coursework in a high school program of study has been shown to have benefits for teachers and students, including a ready-made curriculum, professional development opportunities, opportunities for students to earn college credits inexpensively, and opportunities for students to develop college-level skills (Kyburg et al., 2007). AP coursework offers other potential benefits, such as an advantage in college admissions for students who take AP courses and public recognition and high rankings for students, schools, and districts (Kyburg et al., 2007). AP courses have been found to have particular benefits for Black and Latinx students. Adelman (2006), for example, reported that the academic intensity of the students high school curriculum still counts more than anything else in precollegiate history in providing momentum toward completing a bachelors degree (p. xviii). He found that Black and Latinx students who attempted one AP course were three times more likely to graduate from college with a bachelors degree than their peers who did not enroll in an AP course. AP courses are considered to part of the academic pipeline to attending elite colleges (Ford & Whiting, 2016).
Despite the benefits of AP coursework for Black and Latinx students, they have less access to AP courses across the United States. In 2013, for example, Black/African American graduates made up 14.5% of the graduating class of seniors in the United States, but only 9.2% of AP exam takers. (College Board, 2014). A 2010 College Board report found that Black and Latinx students enrolled in AP courses at half of the rate of White students (Wilson, Slate, Moore, & Barnes, 2015). The only area in which Latinx students were proportionality represented is in AP courses was in foreign language (Clark, Moore, & Slate, 2012).
Despite a host of AP initiatives focused on increasing access, from the College Board, the federal government, and local districts (Klopfenstein, 2004; Kyburg et al., 2007), gaps in participation between Black and Latinx students and students from other racial/ethnic groups have actually increased over time (Davis, Joyner, & Slate, 2011). The College Boards (2014) 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation provided insight into AP access in the northeastern state in which the five districts under study are located. From 2003 to 2013, the number of Black students taking at least one AP exam increased from 796 students to 1,869 students, and the number of Latinx students from 11,016 to 16,507. However, despite the increase, Black students are still underrepresented: in 2003, they made up 15.1% of the states graduating class and 4.8% of its AP test-takers; in 2013, they made up 15.3% of the graduating class and 6.3% of its test takers. The trends are similar for Latinx students, who made up 13.5% of state graduates in 2003 and 8.0% of its AP test-takers. In 2013, Latinx students were 17.8% of the graduating class and 13.8% of the AP test-takers.
In addition to being underrepresented in AP exam-taking, in terms of performance, overall Black and Latinx students are underperforming their White and Asian peers on AP exams. The College Board (2016) reported that, in 2015, the average scores for Black students, Mexican Americans, Puerto Rican students, and Other Hispanic were all below 2.5 on a 5-point scale, while the average score for White students was 2.98 and for Asian students, 3.18. Researchers who have focused on AP courses in specific subject areas have found similar results. Analyzing AP exam scores in the sciences and mathematics from 1997 through 2013, Judson (2017) found that passing rates decreased for students who were from underrepresented minority groups, while the rates increased for Asian and White students. Focusing on three states that have large percentage of Latinx students, from 19972012, Koch, Slate, and Moore (2016) found that the majority of Latinx students who took an AP English exam did not earn a passing score. In the state in which the five districts in this study are located, the mean AP score for students who identified as Black was 2.29, for students who identified as Hispanic/Latinx was 2.65, for Asian, 3.61, and for White, 3.31. The overall mean for the state was 3.23 (College Board, 2016). These racial disparities are mirrored in credits earned: According to High School Longitudinal Study, among ninth grade students who earned AP or International Baccalaureate credits, Asian students had the highest average with 4.5 credits; White students averaged 3.1 credits; and Black students earned just 2.7 credits (Musu-Gillette et al., 2016). There is little reason to believe that these gaps do not widen as students advance through high school.
Researchers have pointed to multiple reasons for disparities in access and performance. Black and Latinx students are more likely to attend schools with limited AP course offerings (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Solorzano & Ornelas, 2004). Even if the schools have funding available to offer AP courses and enough students to enroll in them, there is often a lack of availability of qualified AP teachers in schools with predominant Black and Latinx populations (Darling-Hammond, 2000). In addition to a scarcity of courses and teachers, teachers and guidance counselors are more likely to view Black and Latinx students as unprepared and unlikely to succeed in AP coursework, even if they have similar qualifications as White and Asian students (Ford & Whiting, 2016; Moore & Slate, 2008; Schoener & McKenzie, 2016). In fact, this trend begins in elementary schools across the United States, where Black and Latinx students are underrepresented in gifted programs (Clark, Moore, & Slate, 2012; Ford & Whiting, 2016) and it continues into middle and high schools, where students are tracked into remedial or basic courses that prevent them from entering the AP pipeline (Schoener & McKenzie, 2016). In a study of support for AP coursework, Witenko, Mireles-Rios, and Rios (2016) compared the support systems of Latina/o students and White students, finding that White students were more likely to report receiving encouragement from traditional school sources, such as teachers or counselors, while Latina/o students received support from out-of-school programs or specialized college programs, such as AVID. They also found that Latinx students with a GPA of 3.0 or higher were over four times more likely to be placed in a basic English track, meaning they were unlikely to ever make it to AP English, compared with White students of similar GPA. For some teachers, the current accountability context makes them less likely to expand access, as they fear increasing enrollment in AP courses will lead to lower AP scores, and these scores are part of the way that they as teachers are evaluated (Rowland & Shircliffe, 2016). Both structural issues (e.g., lack of course offerings, teacher evaluation incentives) and beliefs (e.g., that a course is too difficult for a Black student) point to discriminatory institutional practices and culture (Potts, 2003). In turn, some Black and Latinx students report feeling that they do not belong in an AP course. One study of Latino students and their parents found that students fears of failure and sense of not fitting in inhibited participation in AP courses (Ogbu, 1992; Walker & Pearsall, 2012, p. 18). Furthermore, a large percentage of Black and Latinx students in the United States attend schools that lack the structural conditions and opportunities to learn that would best prepare them for academic success in AP and other advanced coursework (Giersch, Bottia, Mickelson, & Stearns, 2016).
Researchers have begun to identify some of the structural conditions and supports that promote the success of students typically denied access to AP courses. Griffin and Dixon (2016) described how, in two high poverty majority Latino high schools, open access was accompanied by training of teachers, changes in the master schedule, and extra tutorials to support course takers. In both schools, passage rates for Latino students, as well as all students, surpassed the national average. On their own, such structural changes may not be sufficient to close persistent achievement gaps for students of color; other researchers have drawn on critical epistemologies to examine various aspects of access and success in AP programs in the United States in relation to race. James, Butterfield, Jones, and Mokuria (2017), for example, investigated Black and Latinx students AP access and outcomes; they highlighted the need for transparent data on AP access and outcomes as a matter [of] social justice (p. 20) and the development of an equity guide to support school administrators in evaluating their programs in relation to racial equity. Solorzano and Ornelas (2004) conducted a critical race analysis of AP access at a California school district with a large percentage of Latinx and Black students, concluding that regardless of the demographic makeup of a school, structures or processes existed that kept Latinx and Black students excluded from advanced coursework. Similarly, Walker and Pearsall (2012) based their work on the conviction that the negative effects of privilege and power operating in our Anglo-centric education systems must be (and can be) transformed (p. 13).
This study furthers the line of inquiry into the enrollment and performance of Black and Latinx students in AP coursework by providing a mixed methods examination of five districts and how their specific initiatives impact student populations access and success in terms of race/ethnicity. We focus both on the percentage of students from different racial/ethnic groups enrolled in AP courses and also on the average AP score by racial/ethnic group. In centering race/ethnicity in our analysis, we employ the concept of color-blind racism (Bonilla-Silva, 2018) to explain how policies aimed at addressing inequities may actually perpetuate them.
THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK: COLOR-BLIND RACISM
Bonilla-Silvas (2018) discussion of color-blind racism offers an explanation for how societal structures perpetuate racism in real ways that privilege white individuals and harm people of color, even without overt racist expressions or actions. Individuals who assert that they see people as people and not as members of a racial group, that is, taking a color-neutral approach, in fact perpetuate racism by ignoring systematic, historical structures, policies, and practices that deny people of color opportunities, access, and success. In effect, their actions disregard or deny the reality that racism is normal in American society (Ladson-Billings, 1998). Fergus (2017) provided several illustrations of how a color-neutral ideology might appear in K12 schooling, including a vignette about a school rule that mandated students address teachers as Mr. or Ms. and punished Latinx students who referred to their teachers as maestra or maestro. This example highlights how color-neutral policies, and policies that do not take into account students backgrounds and languages, discriminate against Latinx students, at the expense of White students.
Policies that do not consider race are more likely to perpetuate the marginalization of students of color (Alemán, 2007; López, 2003; Parker & Villalpando, 2007). And when initiatives that benefit marginalized groups also benefit to dominant groups, they are likely serve to maintain rather than alter the status quo of racial inequalities (Bell, 1980; Pollack & Zirkel, 2013); that is, inequities persist. Nevertheless, color-neutral strategies to address inequities, especially those related to race and ethnicity, continue to represent a widespread approach in education, with less or no positive impact for students of color (e.g., Ladson-Billings, 1998; Larson & Ovando, 2001). Gooden (2012) challenged educational leaders to reject commonplace approaches to inequity and instead use frameworks that explore race and inequities to start to focus on these issues (p. 80).
Bonilla-Silva (2018) identified four different ways in which individuals understand and talk about color-blind racism. Abstract liberalism involves principles such as equal opportunity and choice as explanations for racial outcomes. In terms of AP policy, access, and outcomes, schools might argue that their policies apply the same to all students, for example, ignoring the reality that students enter their buildings at different levels of preparation and receive different types of counseling from guidance. Naturalization is the idea that racial outcomes are natural. White students, for example, might just naturally gravitate to certain types of classes, while Latinx students might prefer other types. Cultural racism relies on deficit views of communities of color, explaining racial outcomes because of cultural beliefs, such as the idea that some racial/ethnic groups do not value education or hard work. Different enrollment numbers and outcomes on AP exams are a result of the fact, from this perspective, that some cultures value advanced coursework more than others do. Finally, minimization of racism occurs when individuals suggest that discrimination is not a factor that affects peoples experiences. In terms of AP coursework, students of color who report being discouraged from taking AP courses may be seen as overly sensitive or using race as an excuse. Taken together, these four approaches to racism and racial outcomes, which Bonilla-Silva refers to as frames, work together in overlapping fashion to create an ideology that enables white individuals to perpetuate a system that privileges white students without being overtly racist. In this paper, we draw on his concept of color-blind racism and these four frames to understand how these districts might be perpetuating racial outcomes through color-neutral educational policy and practice related to AP coursework and exams.
This study examines data from five districts that implemented initiatives to increase access to AP courses between 20092010 and 20132014, and one district between 20132014 and 20142015. These districts were led by superintendents who were members of the Instructional Leaders Network (ILN), a statewide network that focuses on supporting superintendents system-wide, equity-focused improvement. ILN was founded in 2008 by a national educational foundation with 16 superintendents from across the state, representing rural, urban, and suburban K12, K8, and high school-only districts. ILN meets monthly during the academic year and engages in various activities to supports its goal of equity-focused improvement. In the start of its third year, the second year of this study, ILN formally adopted a definition of equity that reads as follows:
Equity is achieved by raising the performance of all students and eliminating the predictability and disproportionality of student outcomes based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, housing patterns, gender, home language, nation of origin, or special needs and other student characteristics. It requires the school systems provision of resources, supports, skills, and abilities essential to guarantee the preparation of all students for college without the need for remediationAll Means All. (September 16, 2011)
One of ILNs activities involved each superintendent identifying specific inequities their district was facing and then getting feedback from their colleagues on ways to address them. While each superintendent and district had a number of initiatives underway related to various inequities that they identified, the five districts that were selected to participate in this study were identified because they all had developed recent initiatives to increase access to AP coursework as part of their ILN equity work or had connected such initiatives to their ILN work.
DISTRICT DEMOGRAPHIC PROFILES
The five districts vary in demographics, size, and socioeconomic status, presenting an opportunity to consider how district context might impact a districts approach to AP access and racial inequity (see Table 1). District A is located in the second largest city in the state, with a population of approximately 260,000. It includes eight high schools enrolling 6,200 students. 70% of students are eligible for free/reduced lunch. The district is among the most linguistically diverse in the state. The ethnic/racial make-up of the district is 38% Latinx, 32% Black, 18% Asian, and 11% White. In 2010, the median family income was approximately $54,000. This median figure is likely to rise due to rapidly increasing gentrification in one part of the city. In 2010, approximately 68% of students passed the state high school exit exam in language arts, and 50% in math.
District B is located in another densely populated city with a population of approximately 125,000. It enrolls approximately 5200 students in 6 high schools. 81% of students are eligible for free/reduced lunch. The ethnic/racial make-up of the district is 65% Latinx, 24% Black, 9% White, and 2% Asian. In 2010, the median household income was approximately $43,000. In 2010, approximately 68% of students passed the state high school exit exam in language arts, and 49% in math.
District C incorporates two rural-suburban townships, in close proximity to high tech industries. The townships have a combined total population of approximately 42,000. The districts two high schools enroll approximately 3000 students. Just 3% of students are eligible for free/reduced lunch. The ethnic/racial make-up of the district is 49% Asian, 40% White, 6% Black, and 5% Latinx. In recent years, the Asian population has increased, and the White population decreased. In 2010, the median household income was approximately $116,000 in one township, $87,000 in the other. In 2010, approximately 97% of student passed the state exit exam in language arts, and approximately 95% in math.
District D is a regional district providing high school education for students from a region of over 200 square miles in six high schools (with eight sending K8 schools). 6% of students are eligible for free/reduced lunch. The ethnic/racial make-up of the district is 82% White, 7% Asian, 6% Latinx, and 4% Black. Median household income in 2010 varied from approximately $52,000 in a densely clustered population center to over $99,000 in a rural/suburban township. In 2010, approximately 96% of students passed the state high school exit exam in language arts, and 89% in math.
District E is located in another densely populated city with a population of approximately 69,000. 99% of students are eligible for free/reduced lunch. The districts ethnic/racial make-up is 90% Latinx, 5% Black, 3% Asian, and 1% White. In 2010, the citys median household income was approximately $31,000. In 2010, approximately 66% of students passed the state high school exit exam in language arts, and 39% in math.
Table 1. Snapshot of District Demographics
DATA SOURCES AND ANALYSIS
Both quantitative and qualitative data sources were employed in the study. Each district provided AP enrollment and performance data that had been supplied to them by the College Board over the five year period of the study, aside from District E, which provided data for two years. We also gathered overall district enrollment data from the states Department of Education. We then identified two districts, District B and District D, as case studies of AP initiative development and implementation. We conducted a series of interviews with administrators from the districts over the five years of the study. We identified these two districts because they are different from each other in terms of demographics and performance, enabling us to gain a greater perspective on issues of race/ethnicity in different district contexts. In addition, both superintendents were willing and interested in examining their work around AP in relation to equity.
Qualitative data include 40 interviews with 24 superintendents, central office administrators, and high school principals from the two districts. In semi-structured interviews (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992) participants were asked about AP initiatives, inequities in relation to AP courses, and impact of initiatives on the experiences of teachers, students, and guidance counselors. We also asked interviewees to share documents related to AP data, including analyses they had conducted individually, policy documents, and enrollment data. We identified participants based on their role, focusing on high school principals and central office administrators involved in curriculum, instruction, and assessment at the secondary level, such as the superintendent or an assistant superintendent for curriculum. All three researchers interviewed participants from both districts.
For District B, we interviewed 16 administrators; four were Latinx, one was Black, and eleven were White. Six were male and 10 were female. Their tenure in the district varied, with some having graduating from a District B high school and others in their first or second year of working in the district. Seven were principals, two were superintendents, and seven held various central office positions from instructional supervisor to staff development coordinator. For District D, all of the eight administrators we interviewed were White (as were almost all of the districts administrators), half were male and half were female. Apart from the superintendent, who had worked in the district for two years at the start of this study, the administrators we interviewed had worked in the district for at least ten years. Two principals in fact had graduated from the schools that they were leading. Three were principals, one was the superintendent, two were supervisors, and two were assistant superintendents.
Data analysis began with the data provided to the districts by the College Board, which were large spreadsheets disaggregated by AP course (e.g. biology, English composition) and by race/ethnicity. We focused on the categories of Black or African American, White (including Middle Eastern origin), and Asian (including Indian subcontinent and Philippines origin) from the College Board data, and we combined scores for Puerto Rican, Mexican, and other Hispanic or Latino to create a category of Latinx. This was consistent with reporting requirements for the state in terms of district enrollment. These groups made up over 90% of the enrollment within each of the districts.
We then analyzed these data to determine number of exams taken, average score, and percentage of exams scored 3 or higher for the districts overall and for each of the four racial/ethnic groups: Black, White, Asian, and Latinx. (Tests for significance were not run because data included the entire population.) To determine changes in enrollment over time, we created a statistic, number of exams per student, by dividing the number of exams taken (from the College Board) by the district overall enrollment (from the state website) for each year. This enabled us to account for changes in district demographics and population over time. If a group had, for example, a 1.0 for this statistic, that means that, on average, each student took one AP exam. It is likely, however, that in some cases, some students took more than one AP exam and some students did not take any exams. For example, in District C, in 20132014, the number of exams per Asian student was greater than one, meaning that some students took more than one exam.
We then constructed case narratives of Districts B and D to better understand the districts approaches to increasing access to AP generally and also in relation to race. We began by developing chronological narratives of each districts AP initiatives, looking across interviews to develop the timeline and noting any places where there were discrepancies between accounts. Each case narrative focused on administrators perceptions and beliefs of their work, which were shared with the districts for feedback and revisions. The two narratives are presented below with the purpose of illustrating each districts approach to AP and the ways that the districts took race/ethnicity into account (or did not).
After presenting the narratives, we examine the degrees to which the districts explicitly identified disparities in access or performance related to race or ethnicity, or the degrees to they relied on color-neutral approaches or belief systems, both in relation to AP and in the districts functioning overall. We focus on how race and ethnicity were used (or not used) in framing goals and strategies, and how district initiatives were targeted (or not targeted) to specific racial or ethnic groups that were underrepresented or underperforming. Finally, we examined how district administrators talked about race in making sense of the outcomes from the initiatives. In this examination, we use Bonilla-Silvas (2018) concept of color-blind racism to better understand how initiatives seemingly aimed at addressing inequities may have actually perpetuated them.
The results of our analysis allow us to report on the strategies districts employed to increase AP access, the impact of the strategies on AP access and scores, and the challenges encountered in expanding access, both in general and in terms of students form different racial/ethnic backgrounds.
GOALS AND STRATEGIES FOR INCREASING ACCESS TO AP COURSEWORK
Each of the five districts in this study identified increasing access to AP coursework as one part of an overall plan to address systemic inequities and increase all students opportunities to engage in rigorous coursework. Districts A and Bs primary goal was increasing AP access across the district, so that whichever school a student attended, there would be multiple AP opportunities. Districts C and D focused on making access more equitable in terms of race/ethnicity and class background. District Es focus was having all students graduate with 15 college credits, with a passing score on an AP exam meeting part of that requirement.
The five districts shared a number of strategies. All districts looked at how they identified students for AP courses and worked with guidance counselors and site administrators around counseling students into AP courses. Districts B, C, and D also revised the process for enrolling in AP coursesDistrict D eliminated all prerequisites, while District C eliminated the need for recommendations by teachers, who may have been less likely to recommend Black or Latinx students even if they had earned an A in a prerequisite course.
In terms of teachers, Districts A and B offered professional development either internally or through the College Board trainings. In this process, District B also specifically worked to increase the number of teachers qualified to teach an AP course. Additionally, Districts A, D, and E explicitly assured teachers that they would not be blamed or punished if scores dropped when enrollment increased.
In terms of coursework, Districts A, D, and E all increased the quantity and range of AP courses offered (both the content and the number of sections), even at times running a course with fewer students than district policy allowed for to have a class run. District D also offered a summer program to prepare students who had never taken an AP course for the types of thinking and work that was required in an AP course. District B worked to increase elementary students access to rigor early in their schooling careers so they would be more prepared for AP at the high school level. A cases of Districts B and D, presented below, highlight ways that they increased access and some of the challenges that they faced.
EQUITY OF ACCESS BY SCHOOL OR BY RACE
In their stated goals and strategies for AP access, administrators from Districts A and B shared the concern of equity of access by schooldepending on which school a student went to, they had greater or less opportunity as well. In both districts, which were relatively poor, the majority of students were Black and Latinx, and both districts had one high school with a selective admissions process that targeted high-achieving students from all racial/ethnic groups. Both districts had identified increasing rigor across all schools as their target in preparing all students for college and career, with exposure to AP and/or earning college credits through an AP course as part of that preparation.
Administrators from both Districts C and D noted that part of their concerns around access and AP coursework was related to equity of access by racethat Black and Latinx students had less opportunity than other students. In both districts, which were relatively wealthy, Black and Latinx students were in the minority, and increasing their participation in AP courses was part of the superintendents overall work to address racial inequities.
In these four districts, administrators acknowledged disparities on various measures, including school placement and race, in understanding inequities related to access to AP courses in their schools. Similarly, in all four districts, administrators developed strategies targeted to their high school populations as a whole, or to high school students who had not previously taken an AP course.
District E, which only began its work around AP in 20132014 with a new superintendent, took a different approach to increasing access to AP by focusing on what administrators identified as the low-hanging fruita way to make relatively quick gains. The district increased the number of AP Spanish Language and Culture classes and encouraged students who were native Spanish speakers (over 95% of their student body) to enroll in this course. The impacts on enrollment and outcome for District E are based almost entirely on this one AP offering.
A Closer Look at District B
In District B, a densely populated and diverse city with 6 high schools, increasing access to AP had been an explicit goal since 2006 when the district implemented a high school redesign to transform a very large high school into a number of smaller learning communities. That redesign included the development of a small high school that required an admissions test and offered AP curricula as the default for several courses, such as U.S. history. The district provided training to teachers from all schools on AP content and curriculum. The superintendent also credited the districts pre-kindergarten program, funded in part with state funds allocated due to the districts low property wealth, as getting more students onto the AP pipeline.
When a new superintendent was appointed in 2013, she continued the emphasis on increasing access to AP courses and explicitly sought to increase AP access at all the districts high schools. She stated that my goal is to have [gifted and talented] curriculum be the default curriculum K8 and the advanced placement default at the high school (March 12, 2015) as part of the districts goal to increase students access to rigorous curriculum, leading to college and career readiness.
In order to achieve this goal, the superintendent created a task force focused on equity and excellence, and one of the topics that this task force addressed was around increasing the number of teachers who were trained to teach AP. This was in response to the district average AP score of approximately 2, with the goal of teachers working together to gain a better understanding in terms of what's preventing the student from attaining a 3 [or above] on the exam. The initial superintendent who launched efforts to increase AP access noted that while the average was low, more students were passing:
They're a 2.0 average when I was at 200 [exams being taken], and now they're a 2.0 average when I'm at 1,500 [exams]. And let's say I [had] 50 3s or above, now I have almost 400 3s or above. (June 21, 2013).
Since the average remained the same, but the number of exams increased, that meant more students were passing. In 2010, for example, 208 students received a 3 or higher, and 625 did so in 2014.
As the new superintendent continued the districts emphasis on AP coursework, she reflected that the problem is the focus is on the number of AP exams versus the actual score that they are attaining. So being very clear as we move ahead in terms of that has to be an area that we focus on. Both administrations engaged in regular analyses of district data, both through ILN, the network that both superintendents participated in, and with the support of external consultants focused on district-wide systemic improvement.
District Bs superintendent shared how she and her team identified successes while developing next steps:
For us, we were excited to see that in terms of our subgroups, in terms of our African Americans and our Hispanics, we had increased access for them. So that for us was, "Okay, let's take a moment to celebrate that." So that was wonderful. In terms of overall participation and access, we were also pleased to see that we had increased that significantly&. So in terms of improved performance, students scoring a 3 or higher, that's wherethat became a very clear focus for us for our five-year strategic plan, that we have to impress upon that. We have to. (August 19, 2015).
The Director of Research shared future plans to analyze performance data disaggregated by race/ethnicity, as well as looking at students elementary schools, what part of town you come from, [and] were also looking at the teachers that are teaching, how many have had formal AP training. (December 22, 2014). She expressed hope that these analyses will spur further improvements.
High school principals in District B also expressed a concern about equity in terms of school enrollment and focus. One shared that the selective high school has an overrepresentation of White students and an underrepresentation of Black students. He suggested a need for improvement in enrolling Black students in the districts elementary magnet programs and the selective high school program. Another principal echoed this, referring to the schools as the haves and have-nots in terms of who the students are (March 12, 2015) and the support from the central office.
District B, with Black and Latinx students making up 90% of its population, worked to expand access while continuing to analyze data to address inequities and ensure more students had the opportunity to be in an AP course, with future work focusing on passing AP exams.
A Closer Look at District D
District D is unique in the state in that it includes six high schools, serving students from a wide range of sending K8 districts and communities, from affluent to low-income ones. When the new superintendent entered the district in 2011, he brought with him a belief in the need to increase all students opportunities for rigorous coursework. This included strategies to move classified students from resource rooms to co-teaching classrooms, from general education classes to honors classes, and from honors classes to AP coursework. The initiatives around AP coincided with the elimination of basic tracks for English and Social Studies, providing students with two options at ninth and tenth grades, general or honors courses.
The superintendent sought to raise the expectations for principals and guidance counselors to recommend students for AP courses, removed enrollment criteria, and provided supports for students. In particular, the district developed an AP preparation program over the summer for students who had never taken an AP course. The intent was to support first-time AP students in gaining confidence in the reading and writing demands of an AP course. The superintendent also reported that having experienced AP teachers work in the summer program raised those teachers expectations of first-time AP students. Using data from the PSAT, the district also identified students who were considered to have AP potential and asked the guidance staff to encourage these students to enroll in an AP course. The district increased the number of AP courses it offers across its schools and allowed principals to run an AP class even if its student enrollment is slightly below the district average.
Through analysis of data, the district identified two unintended consequences of their work. First, an unintended consequence of eliminating the lowest level track led more students to enroll in honors courses as freshmen and sophomores, leading to more enrolling in AP courses as juniors and seniors. Second, the summer program primarily attracted Asian and White students who had never taken an AP course, but did not address the disparity in enrollment for Black and Latinx students. One principal reported that many of the Latinx students in her school were expected to work over the summer, and thus did not participate in the new AP program.
In response to these unintended consequences, the superintendent of District D began raising expectations for principals to address inequities related to subgroup performance as part of their school goals:
Weve known that our gains have been significant to White and Asian&although weve also had some success with the Hispanic population. The Black population in this district is a real struggle. And those [AP] numbers validated that, that there was some marginal growth... Im hoping that over the next couple of years, numbers will improve on that because weve really. They changed our school goal process over the past year to really sort of force the principals hands& we baked in subgroup issues with that, so theyre now tied into their evaluation pretty much. They have to. They cant give it lip service. (March 11, 2016)
For District D, however, their first step in addressing performance for Black students was to re-evaluate students IEPs, declassify them as necessary, and move them along the continuum of the least restrictive environment into more rigorous learning opportunities. This district recently appealed a citation from the Office of Civil Rights for the overrepresentation of Black students in special education. While administrators were aware of the overrepresentation, they believed the seven sending districts were responsible for the classifications; when Black students entered the district in ninth grade, they were already classified. One of the districts principals also discussed entrance criteria for various learning centers, including a culinary academy and medical program, noting that the entrance to these programs were based on a blind application process, i.e., set criteria that did not take into account students demographic backgrounds. While some programs are less diverse than others, including the medical program whose students are predominately Asian, she was not concerned about equity in student selection because it is a rigorous process and it is really a disservice to put a student in there that is an average kind of student. (February 25, 2016).
One of the high schools in District D implemented a program to increase students college-going, which identifies underperforming eighth graders who were viewed as having potential and provides extra supports and tutorials throughout high school. As part of their participation, students are expected to take one honors or AP course. According to this high schools principal, Black students were less likely to be accepted into this program because
they are not being identified at the eighth grade level. There is a difference between potential and not. The kids that go into [the program], the fundamental characteristic is you have to have the potential, which means the classified student is not in it. (February 25, 2016)
While one high school in District D was using a college-going program to increase Latinx students participation in AP courses, another high school was beginning to implement an International Baccalaureate (IB) program as part of a district pilot. This principal noted that my AP scores might dip next year [2015-2016], but it's not really dipping because you have to include the kids that have an IB who aren't going to be taking AP (February 25, 2016). This principal did not care if [a student] takes AP or IB, as long as they are given more opportunity. She also noted that there is more ethnic/racial diversity in the IB classes, which she attributed to her own view of the IB emphasis on inquiry in contrast to the AP emphasis on being a good test taker. She specifically encouraged teachers to recommend a variety of kids for the IB program because we want it to be diverse to align to the international focus.
When data from this study were shared with the superintendent, he reported that he was not surprised (June 22, 2016) as he and his central office team constantly engaged in various analyses to assess district progress toward increasing all students access to rigorous educational experiences. We now consider the degree to which various initiatives influenced enrollment for Black and Latinx students in AP courses.
ENROLLMENT OUTCOMES FOR STUDENTS
In all five districts, there was an increase in the number of exams taken for the district as a whole, as well as for a large majority of the ethnic/racial groups (see Table 2). In District A, enrollment increased for all groups except for Black students, whose number of exams taken remained flat when accounting for the declining enrollment of Black students in the district. For Districts B and D, there was an increase in the number of exams taken from all ethnic/racial groups. While the number of exams increased for all groups in Districts B and D, it did so to different extents. In District C, there was an increase in the number of exams taken by Asian and Latinx students, but a decrease for Black and White students.
District E also showed an increase in access in 20142015, after its first year of focus on AP. This increase impacted Latinx and Asian students positively. Of note, in terms of the increase in exams and the districts emphasis on Spanish Language and Culture, in 2014 there were 145 exams taken overall, 5 in Spanish Language and Culture. In 2015, there were 370 exams, 82 being Spanish Language and Culture exams taken by Latinx students.
Table 2. Number of Exams per Student, 20102014
The initiatives in the districts also had different effects on the proportionality of different racial/ethnic groups taking AP exams, though across all districts, the same groups remained over- or under-represented in terms of how many AP exams were taken. Thus, in District A, Asian and White students were overrepresented in the number of exams taken at the onset of the study, and the percentage of overrepresentation increased slightly for both groups, while the number of exams taken by Black students decreased, making them further underrepresented, while the degree of underrepresentation for Latinx students remained the same. In District B, though Black students continued to be under-represented in taking AP exams, they took a greater percentage of the district exams, from 7% to 13%, even though their proportion of district enrollment overall was slightly less. In District C, the overrepresentation of Asian students increased, as did their overall district enrollment, and in District D, White and Latinx students participation in AP exams increased slightly, while there was a decrease in the over-representation of Asian students taking AP exams. In District E, the over- and under-representation percentages stayed about the same in the first year of AP initiatives, with Asian students being overrepresented and Black and Latinx students being underrepresented in AP exams.
PERFORMANCE OUTCOMES FOR STUDENTS
A score of 3 on an AP exam is the score needed to earn college credits or to waive college requirements (at some elite universities, students need a 4 or 5). Thus to assess performance, we first looked at changes in the number and percentage of exams that received the score of 3 or higher (see Figure 1 and Table 3). In District A, the percentages for all groups and the district overall increased between 13 and 17 percentage points, with exams taken by Black students showing an increase of 13%, so that almost half of the exams scored a 3 or higher. In District B, there was an overall decrease in the percentage of exams scored 3 or higher, with exams by Asian students being the only group that showed an increase. In contrast, in District C, all groups showed an increase, except for the percentage of exams scoring a 3 or higher taken by Black students; the greatest increase was in exams by White students. Finally, in District D, all groups showed a decrease in the percentage scoring a 3 or higher, with the greatest decrease being in exams taken by Black and Latinx students. In District E, the percentage of Asian students scoring a 3 or higher decreased by 20%, while the percentage of passing scores for Latinx students increased 3%.
Figure 1. Number of exams scoring 3 or higher
Table 3. Percentage of Scores of 3 or Higher, 2010-2014
Looking more closely at average scores, at the start of the study, performance varied by district. Averages in District A ranged between 2.22 and 2.83, while averages in Districts C and D were 3 or higher, and averages in District B were around a 2. In Districts A, C and D, Asian students had the highest averages and Black students had the lowest averages; in District B, Latinx students had the highest and Asian students the lowest averages (see Table 4).
Table 4. Average AP Score, 20102014
Considering average scores over the five years of this study, impact on racial/ethnic groups in the districts varied. In District B, for example, students from all of the ethnic groups saw a decline in their average scores, except for Asian students, whose average score rose almost half a point (on a five-point scale). In District C, in contrast, scores of all ethnic/racial groups rose, except for those of Asian students, whose scores remained flat. However, it should be noted that the average score of 4.19 is already relatively high in terms of student performance on AP exams. Additionally, while all score averages rose, White students scores rose more than the scores of Black and Latinx students. In District D, all scores declined, and the average score of Black students fell below a 3. Data from District E show a decline in the average score for all of the racial/ethnic groups and the district overall, with all of the averages for all of the groups under a 3, the passing score. However, the average score on the Spanish Language and Culture exam was a 4.4 in 2014 and decreased to a 3.78still a passing score.
DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
Each districts experience with AP tells a different story. For District A, the story is of increasing access and performance. For District B, the story is of exposing more students to more rigor. For District C, the story is of changing a policy that held back AP-ready students. For District D, the story is of providing students with encouragement and support to tackle AP coursework. For District E, it is of encouraging students to approach AP from a place of strengththeir native language.
All of the districts adopted specific strategies focused on students as a whole, which for the most part led to an increase in access for all racial/ethnic groups, but no consistent pattern of reducing gaps in over- or under-representation. In terms of outcomes, in some cases the average scores and the number of students earning a 3 or higher increased, while in others, these data decreased. However, across all of the districts, Black students received the lowest scores and, in many cases, the average score on exams taken by Black students was below a 3, the threshold for course-passing.
In examining the data, however, a critical question arises about how success of AP initiatives should be measured. Across the board, in all districts, more individual students of all racial/ethnic backgrounds achieved a score of 3 or higher on AP exams as a result of the initiatives, and all subgroups in all districts, except for Black students in District C, had more exams overall scoring a 3 or higher. In this sense, districts were achieving success in their goals for better preparing more individual students for college and offering more individual students a rigorous curriculum. At the same time, in three districts, the overall average score declined, as did the scores for most or all of the subgroups. And while more Black and Latinx students were taking AP exams, the overall gap in enrollment, the over- or under-representation of different groups, and the overall gap in average score did not change.
While it is important to note success for individual Black and Latinx students, these findings prompt additional questions about and implications for research on AP initiatives and equity. This study focused on students in AP courses, showing that more students enrolled and took AP exams. It did not address the impact of this increase on other academic trackshow did students in lower tracks perform when potentially stronger peers moved upward and their classes became more homogenous? AP is a form of tracking, which has its own inequitable outcomes for the students who remain in the lower tracks (Oakes & Wells, 1998). Studies are needed to understand the impact of increased AP access on schools and districts overall student populations, including those students left behind academically by the increase.
Furthermore, it is clear that the AP initiatives benefited some groups of students more than others, and the initiatives did not address the average scores that Black and Latinx students received. Even as their enrollment increased, Black students in all of the districts continued to receive the lowest average scores and had the lowest percentage of exams taken. As Wilson, Slate, Moore, and Barnes (2015) suggested, when access increases across the board, more students have opportunities for engaging in AP coursework, but initial disparities in access are unlikely to be impacted since students from the overrepresented or privileged groups are also afforded the new opportunities. Thus, implementing initiatives to increase access across the district as a whole, while important, is not sufficient to achieve equity.
Bonilla-Silvas (2018) discussion of abstract liberalism offers a framework to understand these results. Because the new policies were aimed at all students, they perpetuated a narrative of equal opportunity. The policies in all districts were framed as creating greater opportunity for all students to enroll in AP courses because they reduced barriers to participation, whether from teachers with deficit views of students of color or from mandatory GPAs or prerequisites. The policies, for the most part, treated students as if they had similar prior experiences that would prepare them for success in AP coursework. The policies also depended on teachers and guidance counselors implementing them in equitable ways. Seemingly race-neutral reforms allowed privileged actors to use their societal advantages to benefit, as the numbers of White and Asian students in AP courses also increased and the gaps in access and performance did not diminish (Klugman, 2013).
If all students have more access, then privileged students will maintain their privilege through taking more courses, and elite universities may maintain their selective status by requiring more passing scores or a higher passing score (e.g., instead of a 3, students must receive a 4 to earn college credit). Instead of challenging stereotypical beliefs about Black and Latinx students, the continued overrepresentation of White and Asian students reinforces the idea that these academic patterns are natural, as Bonilla-Silva argues. As AP course-taking diversifies by race in order to protect elite status for some student groups, administrators may choose to abandon AP for other rigorous options for students, such as International Baccalaureate or dual-credit college coursework, to provide elite opportunities for privileged students. In doing so, they perpetuate the notion of educational attainment as a zero sum game, requiring winners and losers (Labaree, 2010). According to Lucass (2001) framework of effectively maintained inequalities, attending to resource allocation will not impact entrenched inequities as privileged groups will find ways to garner more resources and explain their advancement as natural. Klugmans (2013) analysis of AP access in California demonstrates how this played out in a state that attempted to create more equitable AP opportunities.
Furthermore, by not developing policies that targeted specific racial groups, the districts enabled cultural racism, as described by Bonilla-Silva (2018), to continue. Guidance counselors, for example, who were expected to encourage more students to enroll in AP courses, were not explicitly asked to encourage more Black or Latinx students in particular. As a result, those with pre-existing deficit views of students of color could meet the expectation to recommend more students by recommending White or Asian students, arguing that those students are more prepared or more likely to be successful.
Despite these critiques, the initiatives in these five districts did lead to different degrees of impact on access and performance. It is important to note that taking an AP course or passing an AP exam is not the end goal for any of the districts or students; rather, the more meaningful goal is for students to attend and complete college. In that sense, the results of this study are inconclusive; important questions remain. For example, is it true, as one administrator suggested, that enrolling in an AP course and receiving a 1 or 2 on the exam is enough to give that student the necessary college push? Further research is needed to follow the students in these districts who gained access as a result of new initiatives but did not receive a 3 or higher on the exams. Were these students more likely to complete college than their peers who did not enroll in an AP course? Furthermore, this study focused primarily on district-level initiatives, and it did not include interviews or observations of the actual teachers engaged in AP coursework, summer programs, or tutorials, nor on the gatekeeper roles of guidance counselors (Erickson & Schultz, 1982) in encouraging (or not encouraging) students into AP coursework. These lines of inquiry can further understandings of increases in access and their impact on various stakeholders.
In addition to seeing an AP course as part of the pathway for a student to college, superintendents also saw increasing access to AP as part of their larger, district-wide equity strategy. Quickly increasing access to AP, without having a large decrease in overall scores, provided superintendents with an opportunity for a positive story about district change. District B, for example, received an award from the College Board for increasing access. Enrollment in AP courses continues to be one of the metrics for the U.S. News and World reports on the best high schools in the United States (Morse, 2016). This type of positive attention can create capital for future initiatives that are more difficult to implement.
It is also important to note a critical limitation to this study, and any study of AP exam scores: not all students enrolled in AP courses took the exams. In some cases, for example, students who were accepted early to college chose to not take the exam because they had already received the maximum number of credits allowed. In other cases, teachers may encourage students to not take the exam if they think the students will not perform well. Districts reported creating incentives for students to take exams, including paying for them, allowing students to waive a course final exam, or even mandating students take the exam to receive the AP label on report cards and weight in their GPA. However, for the purposes of this type of study, and the possibility that some administrators suggested that high-performing students were just as likely as lower-performing students to miss the exams, the exact impact on student performance is unclear.
Findings from this study suggest a set of key recommendations for practice, policy, and research. In terms of practice, high schools and the College Board need to continue their focus on increasing equity in both access and performance. Their approaches need to involve ongoing data collection and evaluation on how different programs and initiatives are positively or negatively affecting student populations that have been traditionally underserved as well as students in general. High school administrators, along with their central office colleagues, need to be aware that color-neutral policies will most likely have color-neutral effects and if they truly want to target students who are underserved, they need to consider strategies and policies that target those students directly. For example, District D, instituted a college-going program at the high school that educates the majority of the districts Latinx population, in effect targeting Latinx students for honors and AP coursework. Another high school in this district is also encouraging the recruitment of a diverse group of students for its IB program. However, one principal suggested that the free summer program for students who had never taken an AP course was unsuccessful in targeting Latinx students, whose families typically expect them to work over the summer. This suggests that districts need to better understand cultural, social, and economic contexts for students participation in educational programs. District Es focus on encouraging native Spanish speakers to enroll in AP Spanish Language and Culture offers another example of a strategy targeted to a specific group of students. This district aimed to build upon its students strengths, and future research will show the success of District Ds and District Es strategies in terms of their ultimate goals of college degree attainment.
Districts as a whole also need to examine and strengthen the AP pipeline. Juniors and seniors who have never experienced the rigor of an AP course, and, without supports such as a summer program to prepare them, are unlikely to do well when they do take one. Those students who enter high school underprepared, reading below grade level or placed in lower-level courses, who do end up enrolling in AP courses will need support to succeed in these courses. By providing this support from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, by challenging all students, by not overly classifying students, and by engaging in other equitable practices throughout a school system, schools allow students a greater chance for access and success in high school. District Bs former superintendent directly connected universal pre-k to his AP results, and District D began offering a summer program and, at the school with the college-going program targeting Latinx students, tutoring to support students in AP courses. These are steps in creating a pre-K-to-12 rigorous educational experience, and more is needed for all students to be impacted by these developments.
In terms of ongoing data collection and evaluation, the College Board, in collaboration with high schools, need to develop reporting mechanisms that are more user-friendly to school districts, whose administrators have varying skills and capacities in terms of data use. While larger districts might have an administrator solely responsible for data, smaller districts may not. The data that the College Board shares will only be useful if administrators can access it in multiple and varied formats based on their districts needs. All districts reported the difficulty of analyzing data from the College Board, either in manipulating data to see trends over time or in having personnel with time and capacity to do so, or both. Data on socioeconomic status (SES) provide an example of difficulties with College Board data. The College Board determines SES based on whether a student requests a fee waiver, while districts rely on student enrollment in federal lunch programs to determine SES. Similarly, the racial/ethnic categories that we used actually represent great heterogeneity. African immigrants and African Americans are Black, third-generation Chinese Americans and Bangladeshi refugees are Asian, and so on. While broad categories are useful in understanding some patterns, they limit critical analyses like the one conducted in this study. Furthermore, it is difficult for districts to analyze intersectionality, such as race and class, with the reports created by the College Board. Focus groups with administrators who are responsible for AP data would be a useful next step for the College Board to determine how schools are using their data and other formats that might be more useful. For data indicating racial disparities to be used to make changes, both school districts and College Board staff will need to address the idea of color-blind racism directly and make explicit decisions about the best ways to analyze and present data that does not easily allow for naturalization of racial patterns.
Administrator preparation and professional development can also draw on this study in better preparing school leaders to address issues of race from the outset, instead of using color-neutral strategies to address systemic inequities. Administrators will need support to engage in strategies that run counter to their community norms and that challenge the status quo. Administrators need to engage in reflection on their own beliefs about course-taking patterns, as well as outcomes by student group. Such discussions might include explicit attention to Bonilla-Silvas four lenses, as well as other theoretical and empirical studies.
For researchers interested in studying student access and outcomes, there is a continued, pressing need to examine programs and practices to see their differing impact on students of color, students in poverty, and other underserved populations. Theories such as color-blind racism and critical race theory must be used in analyzing student experience to ensure that race is kept at the forefront and not used to support deficit notions of students who are not served well by school systems.
Disparities in access and performance on AP exams by race/ethnicity are unfortunately not new. The data from this study show some of the difficulty in addressing these disparities through the use of race-neutral strategies, whether the strategy be equity of access by school or by race, as demonstrated in our cases. Though individual Black and Latinx students had the opportunity to take more AP courses and more individuals received passing scores, these districts efforts to increase access demonstrate the intractability of educational inequity. If AP coursework is seen as a microcosm of educational experiences, opportunities, and outcomes in the United States, this study highlights the need to critically examine systemic inequities that impact education in order to benefit all students, and especially all Black and Latinx students. It suggests that race-neutrality, both in implementation and analysis of results, masks the inequities that Black and Latinx students face throughout their educational experiences.
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