AP courses and tests have long been seen as benchmarks for students’ academic success in high school. Yet many underprivileged students who are capable of doing well in AP courses or on AP exams do not enroll in courses or take exams. According to the The College Board, which runs AP testing, a participation equity gap exists between privileged and underprivileged students on AP tests. The College Board estimated some 286,403 students did not take the AP course for which they showed potential. Conservatively, the College Board estimates that only 4 out of every 10 Latino and White students and just 3 out of every 10 African-American and Amerindian students enroll in the AP science courses for which they are deemed compatible.
AP course enrollment may have more significance than just offering students a chance to receive college credits in high school. As Leonardo Bursztyn of UCLA and Robert Jensen of the University of Pennsylvania noted, peer pressure in the classroom can have major implications on whether or not students choose to take more rigorous courses. Looking at two projects— one where students who did well appeared on a leaderboard of success and one where students signed up for SAT prep courses— Bursztyn and Jensen discovered that teens are less likely to do well or take opportunities like free SAT prep courses when their peers might ostracize them for academic success. In environments where peers were overtly more driven, such as AP courses, the students more often wanted to be shown as achieving well and were more likely to sign up for SAT prep courses. However, in general education courses the same students were less likely to sign up for free SAT prep courses. They were also less likely to score well on tests where their performances would be shown to other classmates. In other words, most students want to appear to be the norm, and the peer-environment around them determines the norm. Similarly, enrollment in AP courses may be seen by some as making an ostentatious display of “nerdiness” but, if students are convinced to enroll, the environment may offer a place for them to excel further. At a time where many elite schools offer great incentives, such as greatly reduced tuition or full-scholarships for underprivileged students, which are often not taken advantage of, putting students in an environment where they are encouraged to apply to better schools could have great benefits.
Several organizations come to alleviate the gap in AP enrollment and exam success. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has offered incentives and financial assistance to urban schools which raise AP enrollment and student achievement on tests. Equal Opportunity Schools, an education non-profit which partners with school districts, has recently enacted a $100 million dollar project, Lead Higher, to help schools identify and enroll 100,000 low-income students in AP or IB programs.