Advanced Placement Exams: The National Achievement Gap (Part II of III)

In Part I of this blog series, I reviewed AP exams and why we like them at Match.

In Part II of this series, I will cover the hard truth that most American high school students never take or pass an AP exam, and AP exam participation and performance varies alarmingly by race and income.

The AP Participation Gap

Few high school students take an AP course or exam.  In 2013, just 32% of graduating high school seniors had taken at least one AP exam. AP participation rates are even lower among students of color and among students from low-income backgrounds.

Per the table below, only 19% of graduating seniors from low-income backgrounds have taken an AP exam. The analogous statistic among graduating seniors from middle class or wealthy backgrounds is 45%.

Percentage of 2013 High School Graduates Who Took At Least 1 AP Exam
Low-income graduates 19%
Non low-income graduates 45%
All graduates 32%

The rates at which students take AP exams also vary strongly by race. For example, African-American students account for 15% of high school students in the US but only 7% of AP tests taken.

2015 AP Exam Participation by Race
White Latino African-American Asian
% of High school graduates 58% 19% 15% 6%
% of all AP exams taken 54% 17% 7% 15%

The low AP participation rate among African-American students is not because they attend schools without AP courses. In fact, African-American students attend schools with normal levels of AP programs. They are simply systematically excluded from these courses. Here is the data:

% of Students Attending Schools Offering 1 or More AP Courses (2012)
All students 89%
White 87%
Latino 92%
African-American 88%
Asian 95%

The Performance Gap

Students from low-income backgrounds and African-American students not only take AP tests at lower rates, they also fare poorly on the tests when they do take them.

First consider AP performance among students from low-income backgrounds. Among high school students who took at least one AP exam in 2013, low-income students were far less likely to pass a test. Here is the data:

Percentage of 2013 AP Exam Test Takers Who Passed At Least 1 AP Exam
Low-income students 48%
All other students 65%

Low participation rates and low pass rates among low-income students combine to create a situation where a middle- or upper-income student is three times more likely to pass an AP exam than a low-income student. In all, just 10% of low-income students who graduate high school pass at least one AP exam.

Now consider success rates on the AP by race. Again, African-American students lag behind by an alarming degree. The chart below shows pass rates in 2015 on the AP by racial group. White and Asian-American students are not only more than twice as likely as African-American students to take an AP exam, but they are also twice as likely to pass the AP exams they take.

Low participation and pass rates among African-American students are such that African-American high school students, while 15% of the overall student population, account for only 4% of students who pass at least one AP exam in high school.

2015 AP Exam Pass Rate by Race
White 64%
Latino 42%
African-American 31%
Asian 68%

In Part III of this blog series on the AP, I will cover the scene here in Boston (hint: the AP participation and performance gaps by race and income are enormous in our city) and our ongoing work at Match to close those gaps.

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.