NYT: Are Too Many Minority Students Taking Advanced Placement Tests?

From the New York Times Magazine:

Who Benefits From the Expansion of A.P. Classes?

Millions of federal and state dollars are spent each year on increasing the number of Advanced Placement classes in low-income majority black and Latino high schools. Is this a benefit to the students or a payday for the testing company?


A.P. U.S. government, like the 38 other A.P. courses developed by the College Board, a nonprofit organization, is a difficult class. Students are expected to read college-level textbooks, grasp complicated vocabulary and concepts and spend 30 minutes to an hour each night on homework. At the end of the year is an arduous final exam designed, distributed and graded by the College Board. If students score a 3 or better on a 5-point scale, they typically receive college credit.

Advanced Placement tests for high school students are scored as if they were an intro 101 level course at a run-of-the-mill Directional State College. A 3 is equivalent to a C, 4 is a B, a 5 is an A. Many colleges give course credit for scores of 3 or higher, although some are toughening up. Last time I checked, MIT didn’t accept any scores below 5 and Caltech didn’t accept any AP scores at all on the grounds that none of their courses are 101 level.

My son got through college in three years due to all his AP credits from tests taken in high school, which saved me lots of money. But a nephew who AP’d out of his entire freshman year at the U. of Illinois immediately flunked out because his sophomore level engineering courses he took as a freshman were so tough relative to how much xBox he was playing without his mom around to nag him into doing his homework.

… A.P. classes were, for years, primarily taught in wealthier school districts. But over the last decade, the program has grown rapidly. In 2006, 1.3 million students took at least one A.P. exam; by 2016, the number had increased to 2.6 million. The total number of tests taken grew during the same time period to 4.7 million from 2.3 million. Much of this growth is due to increased federal funding for A.P. tests and concerted efforts by the College Board to reach low-income and minority students.

I did an in-depth study of AP test results for VDARE back in 2009 during the early years of the push to get more students to take the test.

I was surprised to find that probably not enough students were taking AP tests back then, especially not enough white students.

Society’s push to discover more black and Hispanic diamonds in the rough was causing black and Hispanic mean scores to run into diminishing returns, but even that wasn’t as bad as I had expected.

Only about 8% of teens took the most popular test, US History, in 2008. The percentages had been increasing steadily in recent years without a massive drop off in average score, suggesting that there were still potential high scorers out there untested.

From one viewpoint, the expansion has been successful. In 2005, only 6.4 percent of the nation’s high school seniors who took A.P.s were black; that figure increased to 9.5 percent in 2015. Hispanics’ participation grew to 20 percent from 13.4 percent. For low-income students, that figure doubled, to about 30 percent from about 15 percent.

My impression in 2009 was that the real reserves of untested potential high scorers were, as usual, white kids in flyover red states.

Nationally, Asians took (and passed) about 3 times as many AP tests per capita as whites. The white shortfall in test-taking relative to Asians was smaller in states with a lot of Asians, but in states without many Asians, whites didn’t seem to notice AP tests existed.

Nationally, over 70 percent of African-Americans and 57 percent of Hispanics who took an A.P. test in 2016 did not pass. (Over all, the failure rate was 42 percent.) And over the past two decades, although the percentage of students scoring between 2 and 5 remained fairly stable, the percentage of students scoring 1 has grown to 19 percent from 12 percent. …

I’d say it could be worse.

The A.P. program remained a mainstay of affluent, mostly white schools until the 1990s, when parents in lower-income school districts became increasingly concerned about the disparity between the number of A.P. classes offered at their schools and the number in wealthier districts. Rigorous standardized tests, it was thought at the time, could be a means of bridging the achievement gap between richer and poorer schools. In 1999, the A.C.L.U. sued the state of California on behalf of black and Hispanic high school students in Inglewood, who were denied equal access to A.P. courses, saying the state violated the students’ right to an equal education. Inglewood High School in South Los Angeles offered only three A.P. classes, while Beverly Hills High School offered 45 A.P. classes in 14 subjects. …

Packer believes that the numbers actually signify success. “The overall A.P. score hasn’t changed much,” he told me. In 2008, the mean score was 2.85; in 2016, it was 2.87. “We don’t see much cause for concern.”

That was my takeaway in 2009: while the ongoing expansion in AP testing was increasing the number of real no-hopers taking the tests, it was also finding previously untapped decent students. At least as of 2009, the glass seemed half fuller than half emptier. As I wrote:

Black scores fell a comparable amount over the last decade, from a mean of 2.21 to 1.91 (with the passing rate dropping from 35 percent to 26 percent). Still, despite depressingly diminishing returns, more than quadrupling the number of AP tests taken by blacks from 1998 to 2008 helped the absolute number of tests passed by blacks to triple.

So, I was more liberal than the NYT on this question.

In general, I’m pretty bullish on AP tests, and feel they should be given more weight in college admissions. They have advantages over high school grades (they’re nationally consistent) and advantages over SAT/ACT tests (if kids are going to prep endlessly for a test, they might as well learn something in the process). But the tests are only given in May of each year, which limits their utility for college applications. There should be one semester AP tests in popular subject given in early December each year with grading done over the Christmas vacation to be ready for college applications due on January 1.

[Comment at Unz.com]