Advanced Placement Exams: The Achievement Gap in Boston (Part III of III)

In this third and final blog on the AP, I’ll cover the AP exam participation and performance gap in Boston and our ongoing work at Match to close that gap.  I am struck – and have always been struck – by how little debate is devoted to the glaring race- and income-based achievement gaps that characterize the AP in our city. It’s a topic worth talking about.

The Exam High School versus Non-exam High School Gap on the AP in Boston

The table below shows the number of upperclassmen in Boston’s high schools who took at least one AP exam in 2015, and it shows the number of AP exams that resulted in a passing score of 3 or higher.

I split out Boston’s high schools between exam high schools and open-enrollment high schools. Boston has three exam high schools that admit students based in large part on an academic entrance exam.

Notice that Boston’s open-enrollment (non-exam) high schools account for about three-quarters of Boston’s high school students, but account for only 11% of exams (282 exams total) with a passing grade.

AP Exam Participation and Performance in Boston High Schools (2014-15)
Total # of 11th & 12th Graders Total # of AP Exam Test Takers Total # of AP Exams Passed
BPS Exam High Schools 1821 1859 2277
BPS Open-Enrollment High Schools 5990 1013 282
All BPS High Schools 7811 2872 2559

The table below tells the same story with different data. It lists the participation and pass rates on AP exams for all Boston’s exam high schools and Boston’s open-enrollment high schools.

AP Exam Participation and Performance in Boston High Schools (2014-15)
Participation Rate (# of Unique AP Exam Takers/# of 11th and 12th Grade Students) Passing Rate (% of AP Exams Taken that Resulted in a Passing Grade of 3+)
BPS Exam High Schools 102%* 66%
BPS Open Enrollment High Schools 18% 18%
All BPS High Schools 37% 51%

*The participation rate at BPS exam high schools exceeds 100% because of the inclusion in the data set of 10th grade test takers at those schools.

In short, AP success in Boston is concentrated heavily in our city’s three exam high schools. A relatively small number of students in our city’s open-enrollment high schools take or pass AP exams.

The Race and Income Gap on the AP in Boston

Household income strongly predicts performance on AP exams in Boston. Forty-three percent of BPS high school students are economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for food stamps, Medicaid, or certain other public subsidies. These students take AP exams at less than half the rate of their wealthier peers. And when they do take AP exams, they pass at a substantially lower rate. Here is the data:

AP Exam Participation and Performance in Boston Public High Schools by Income (2014-2015)
% of BPS High School Students % of All BPS AP Exams Taken By the Subgroup Pass Rate (AP Exams Passed/AP Exams Taken)
Economically Disadvantaged Students 43% 30% 38%
All Other Students 57% 70% 51%

Now consider the statistics when sorted by race. Per the table below, African-American and Latino students account for 38% and 34% of BPS high school students, respectively, but they account for a smaller percentage of tests taken or passed.

AP Exam Participation and Performance in Boston Public Schools by Race (2014-2015)
% of BPS Students % of All BPS AP Exams Taken By the Subgroup Subgroup Pass Rate (AP Exams Passed/AP Exams Taken)
White 15% 26% 68%
Latino 34% 23% 37%
African-American 38% 26% 26%
Asian 11% 24% 66%

The Challenge Ahead and Match’s Work to Date

Currently in the US, approximately 10% of students from low-income backgrounds and 4% of African-American students graduate high school having passed at least one AP exam.

In Massachusetts high schools, the statistics are similar. Approximately 13% of high school graduates from low-income backgrounds and 3% of African-American high school graduates in Massachusetts have passed at least one AP exam.

Our schools – nationwide and in Massachusetts – are simply failing to prepare students of color and students from low income-backgrounds for the AP exam.

At Match, we have been chiseling away at the AP participation and performance gap for the last 15 years, and we will stay at it, I predict, for another decade or two.

Our ambition is to create a PreK-12 school in which 90% of our student body – a student body that is similar to the student body in Boston’s open-enrollment schools – take and pass at least one AP exam by the time they graduate. It won’t happen overnight.  Our AP job will be made easier over time because we now enroll most of our students in early elementary school (our school is now PreK-12).  When we started 15 years ago, we enrolled students in 9th grade and only operated a high school, so we had far less time with our students than we do now to get them to AP-level work.

On the road to our ultimate AP destination, here is where we stand now.

AP Participation rate (# of Unique Exam Takers / # of 11th and 12th grade students) AP Pass Rate (# Exams Passed/# Exams Taken)
All BPS High Schools 39.50% 50.00%
BPS Open-Enrollment High Schools 20.90% 15.40%
BPS Exam High Schools 97.40% 68.80%
Boston Commonwealth Charter High Schools 47.60% 28.40%
Match Charter Public High School 67.20% 42.10%

To the data in the table above, I can add a few more statistics from our high school:

  • Over the past three years, 72% of our juniors and seniors have taken at least one AP exam each year.
  • Over the last three years, 57% of our high school graduates have passed at least one AP exam during their high school career.
  • Over the last three years, 80% of our AP calculus exams resulted in a passing grade, and 50% of our high school graduates took AP calculus.

We have a long way to go before achieving our aspiration of a high school where 90% of our graduates take and pass an AP exam. The work is hard and we are humble, as ever, about finding new ways to help our students reach the AP bar. But we have made progress, and we believe that our students can and should master the AP with very few exceptions.

As we labor on at Match High School towards our AP goals, we hope that others will stand behind the AP as a good exam, design their schools to meet its demands, and decry the low rates at which students of color and students from low-income backgrounds take and pass these exams.

A Note on Sources: With two exceptions, the data in this blog series comes from the College Board (particularly the 2015 National Summary of AP Performance and the 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation) and statewide reports from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, particularly the report on AP participation and AP performance. Statistics on the percentage of students attending schools with an AP program came from AP at Scale, published by the American Enterprise Institute. Statistics on the performance of Match students came from an internal Match report. Thanks also to Mass Insight for the input they offered on this blog and for their work with Match and others in Massachusetts to drive AP quality in high school.