In a Nutshell:
- Advanced Placement (AP) courses provide high school students with two primary benefits: 1) access to college-level material, and 2) opportunity to earn college credit if they earn a passing score on the optional end-of-term exam.
- Data from the federal government reveals that underrepresented students don’t avail themselves of the full benefits of the AP program, resulting in wide educational opportunity disparities across Michigan.
- Addressing the racial disparities in AP course enrollment and test-taking could help Michigan towards its broader goal to increase the percentage of working-age adults with a skill certificate or college degree to 60 percent by 2030 – commonly referred to as the “Sixty by 30” campaign
Across the United States, schools offer a variety of Advanced Placement (AP) courses to college-bound high school students to expose them to the academic rigors of post-secondary education. Further, with success on the optional end-of-term AP exam, a student can earn college credit and ease the future financial burden associated with earning a college degree or certificate. In Michigan, the number of schools offering AP coursework and the number of students enrolled in these courses had been on the upswing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic taking root. However, like so many other aspects of public education, participation in the AP program was negatively affected by the pandemic’s disruptions on schooling.
Despite the recent growth in AP course availability, many of the state’s underrepresented students don’t avail themselves of the full opportunities provided to them through the AP program. Pre-pandemic data from the federal government reveals that Black, Hispanic and Native American students don’t enroll in AP courses, nor do they participate in AP testing, at the same rate as their White peers. These same equity concerns are present across the country, but the disparities in Michigan are much more profound.
This means that students of color are not realizing the full benefits of the AP program. First, they lose exposure to the advanced materials these courses offer. Second, by not sitting for AP exams, underrepresented students are missing out on an opportunity to earn college credit. This adds another dimension to the existing educational opportunity gaps that face many of Michigan’s low-income and students of color. Addressing the racial disparities in AP test-taking could also help Michigan towards its broader goal to increase the percentage of working-age adults with a skill certificate or college degree to 60 percent by 2030 – commonly referred to as the “Sixty by 30” campaign. In this light, policymakers should consider what can be done to narrow the differences in AP test-taking percentages across different races and ethnicities.
Advanced Placement courses have been around for over half a century, gaining a foothold in American high school curricula back in the late 1950s. Initially, intended for private schools and selective public schools, AP course offerings are widely available today in many formats within the college-level curricula often found in schools across each state. Michigan has made efforts to expand AP offerings in more schools and enroll more students through Michigan Virtual School and its partnership with the College Board to expand access to AP coursework across the state, particularly in rural areas. The College Board, which administers the program throughout the United States, is a nonprofit entity that also runs the SAT.
Students taking AP courses can take an exam to demonstrate mastery of college-level content and skills. A passing score (three or above on a five-point scale) on the AP exam will give a student an opportunity to receive college credit or placement at most colleges and universities. In turn, passing an AP exam may allow students to skip introductory or first-year college course requirements, meet certain college graduation requirements early, and earn a degree sooner. The College Board notes that students who earn college credit by passing AP exams have greater college success and graduation rates. Receiving college credit while in high school can also lessen the overall financial cost of earning a postsecondary degree by allowing students to complete their college studies in four years.
Michigan, like many other states, picks up a portion of the AP testing costs for low-income students. Despite this attempt to ensure equity, there are disparities among student groups that fully benefit from taking advanced coursework and the opportunity to earn college credit through AP exam participation.
Identifying Some of the Gaps in the Data
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) collects information related to civil rights and education issues from the nation’s schools, including participation in the AP program. Here we examine the OCR data about AP course enrollment, as well as the portion of students who enroll in at least one AP course but do not take any AP exams. Private high schools and homeschooled students participate in the program, but the OCR data is reported for public schools only.
The 2017-18 school year is the most recent year for which federal data is available, which means it does not capture the impact of the pandemic on AP course enrollment or test taking. While AP courses were available to students during COVID-19 disruptions, many schools had to adapt their programs to accommodate different instruction modalities (in-person, remote, hybrid). Data reported by the Michigan Department of Education shows that AP student enrollment declined six percent in 2020-21 (74,699 students) compared to 2018-19 (79,546 students), the last full school year before the onset of the pandemic in Spring 2020.
For the 2017-18 school year, the federal government reports that nearly 79,000 Michigan public school students enrolled in at least one AP course. There are noticeable differences between AP course enrollment by student groups of various races and ethnicities when compared to the racial/ethnic composition of the state’s K-12 public schools. Chart 1 shows that White and Asian students are over-represented in AP course enrollment relative to their shares of total K-12 enrollment, while Hispanic, Black, and multi-racial students are underrepresented in AP classrooms relative to their overall presence in public schools.
Enrollment in AP Courses Compared to Total K-12 Enrollment in 2017-18, by Race and Ethnicity
Sources: US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights; Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information
Students are not required to take the end-of-term AP exams and many do not each year. Reasons for opting-out of these tests vary by student, ranging from students feeling unprepared for success on the exam and having “test anxiety” to the financial costs and the relative importance local districts place on test taking. Regardless of the reason, overall, roughly one-third (25,000 students) of all Michigan students enrolled in at least one AP course did not take any of their exams in 2017-18. Nationally, the non-testing rate was much lower at 25 percent. This places Michigan in the top half of all states with the 18th highest non-testing rate, situated between Montana (33 percent) and Wisconsin (32 percent).
Michigan’s statewide rate, however, masks considerable variation across different student demographics (Chart 2). For Black students taking AP courses before the pandemic, 47 percent did not take an AP exam, a rate that was nearly 50 percent larger than the overall state rate. Similarly, American Indian and Hispanic students had much higher non-testing rates, 46 percent and 41 percent, respectively. Asian students had the lowest non-testing rate at 28 percent, while just 30 percent of White students that were enrolled in AP classes did not sit for an exam.
Percent of Michigan and U.S. Students Enrolled in AP Courses but Not Taking Exams in 2017-18, by Race and Ethnicity
Source: US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights
Notably, Michigan’s AP test-taking disparities don’t fully align with the experience across the country. With Michigan’s higher overall non-testing rate compared to the U.S., the differential in rates across individual student groups are even more pronounced (Chart 2). This is true across all student groupings. For example, just 31 percent of Black students enrolling in one AP course across the country did not take a test in 2017-18. A rate considerably lower than the 47 percent of Michigan’s Black students that did not test that year. Similarly, only 29 percent of Hispanic students did not take an AP test nationally compared to the 41 percent of Michigan Hispanics that did not.
In Michigan, Black students have the highest rate of non-testing (although all races and ethnicities have higher percentages than the U.S. average). Nationally, the highest rates of non-testing are found with American Indian and Pacific Island students.
The federal government also provides district-level data, providing an opportunity to see where Michigan’s AP equity gaps are the largest. For individual districts, the story here is also concerning. But there are some hopeful glimmers.
Chart 3 highlights the non-testing rate in seven districts with the highest number of Black students enrolled in at least one AP course in 2017-18. Each of the districts had at least 100 Black students taking the advanced coursework; Detroit (804 students) reported the most Black students enrolled in AP courses, followed by Southfield (447 students). Both districts have large concentrations of Black students, 82 percent and 92 percent, respectively.
Percent of Black Students Enrolled in AP Courses but Not Taking Exams in 2017-18, by District
Source: US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights
Racial disparities were stark for four of the top seven districts; River Rouge, West Bloomfield, Ann Arbor, and Grosse Pointe all had non-testing rates for Black students that were considerably higher than the statewide rate of 47 percent. In the River Rouge district, for example, four of five Black students enrolled in AP courses did not take an AP exam. It should be noted that the district also had a very high non-testing rate for its other student groups. Overall, 80 percent did not take an exam in 2017-18. However, this was not the case in West Bloomfield and Ann Arbor, where district-wide non-testing rates were 37 percent and 32 percent, respectively. In these two districts, the Black student non-testing rates were 72 percent and 71 percent, respectively. With Black student non-testing rates double the district-wide rates in these two districts, AP program opportunity gaps are substantial.
Notably, three districts had non-testing rates that fell below the statewide rate for Black students, as well as the statewide rate for ALL students. Detroit, the state’s largest district with 50,000 students, had a non-testing rate of just 34 percent. As a result, its non-testing rate for all student groups was 31 percent, mirroring Michigan’s rate of 32 percent for all students. While Detroit’s non-testing rate is low, there remains concerns about overall access to AP curriculum in the district, especially compared to its wealthier neighboring districts. Just 10 percent of Detroit’s high school students were enrolled in AP courses compared to 38 percent of Grosse Pointe’s students.
Racial Gaps Hold Back Michigan from Achieving Other Goals
The State of Michigan, along with several public and private partners, have set an ambitious goal of having 60 percent of adults obtain a postsecondary degree or credential by 2030. Currently, just 49 percent of adults meet the educational attainment requirement. The state has enacted a few programs to help achieve its “Sixty by 30” goal, including a couple that target the financial costs of attaining a college degree or credential for different segments of the population. These new programs will require time to demonstrate their effectiveness towards helping move the “Sixty by 30” needle.
The AP program has a long track record of providing high school students with exposure to college-level course work and the opportunity to earn college credit. In this light, improving Michigan’s overall AP test-taking rate to match more closely, or exceed, the national rate could be helpful to achieving the state’s broader “Sixty by 30” goal. To do so, state officials must think about what factors prevent nearly one-third of Michigan’s AP students from realizing the full advantages of the program. A rate that is much higher for Black and Hispanic students. These students have already enrolled in the advanced coursework, demonstrating their aptitude, interest, and commitment to college-level material. What will it take to get them to take sit for an AP exam?
The state has addressed one potential barrier. The College Board allows low-income students to pay a reduced rate, while the State of Michigan picks up all but five dollars of the remainder of per-exam fee. The availability of this financial assistance may not be well understood in some corners of the state. The state and district leaders might consider targeted educational and outreach efforts to reach those student groups with the lowest test-taking rates.
Or the state might consider expanding the population of students eligible for state financial assistance by implementing a sliding-scale to help cover a portion of the testing costs. Currently, only low-income students (i.e., those from families with household incomes of 185 percent or less of the federal poverty level – currently about $51,000 for a family of four) qualify for state assistance. The state might consider reducing the fees, on a sliding scale, for students from families above this limit.
It might also be the case that students attending districts with high non-testing rates for underrepresented student groups are not prepared to take the exam and earn college credit. State technical assistance could be provided to ensure that these districts’ AP programs are adequately preparing students for the opportunity to earn college credit. This might involve ensuring school staff are qualified as subject experts for the AP material and providing appropriate supplemental support to those students who need it before sitting for an exam.
Michigan’s disparities in AP enrollment and test-taking among underrepresented students standout from the national experience. This fact alone should be motivation for state and local officials to direct their attention to the inequities across student groups. But these differences are also holding the state back from realizing its larger goal of getting more working-age adults with a college degree or advanced certificate. Given the pressing need to increase the educational attainment of Michigan workers to address workforce shortages and income disparities, policymakers may want to direct their attention to initiatives that will raise AP participation and test-taking among as many students as possible.