Advanced Placement classes and exams, administered by the College Board have long been hailed as equalizers, allowing any high school student to engage in college level coursework and demonstrate content mastery if they so choose. However, the 2016 data on test performance reveals numerous disparities in test participation and performance among students from different backgrounds. HPR writers weigh in on the challenges facing education systems today, and what can be done to improve educational access and equity.


HPRgument Posts | April 17, 2017 at 9:14 pm

When the Best isn’t Good Enough: The Racial Representation Gap in Education


Unfortunately, even in education systems considered to be high performing, there is no guarantee of access to high-level schooling for everyone. According to the U.S. News and World Report, South Carolina and Nevada have some of the worst school systems in the United States, while Maryland and Massachusetts have some of the best. But the statistics from this year’s Advanced Placement tests show that the educational experiences of students who identify as African American are different from those who identify as white, regardless of school system quality.

Advanced Placement classes teach curriculum designed by the College Board, and are offered to high school students as college-preparatory classes. Following completion of the course, students may take an optional AP Exam to demonstrate their mastery of the course content, and potentially earn college credit. While AP classes are not the only way to provide advanced educational opportunities, participation in this curriculum provides a lens for analyzing racial equity in education. In many states, there is a concerning lack of black students participating in AP classes proportional to these students’ share of the population.


The graph above compares the U.S. Census’ estimates of percentage of state population identifying as black alone, with the percentage of students taking AP tests in each state who also identified their race as solely black. For example, in South Carolina, black students made up about 11 percent of AP test takers whereas almost 28 percent of the population is black.

If education equity were achieved, black students would take AP Tests at a rate proportional to their share of the population; however, in states like South Carolina and Nevada, black AP representation is about a third of the state population. Even in states like Maryland and Massachusetts, which are conventionally considered to have higher performing, better school systems, black students taking AP exams are still underrepresented by half.

While average scores on AP tests are higher for both white and black students in states on the higher end of the school quality spectrum, this does not close the gap in minority representation among AP test takers. Even as schools in a state improve in quality, black students are continually left behind. Better education systems may have more total students taking AP tests, but while the raw numbers of black test takers increase, black representation continues to lag. School systems are working to improve and engage more students in advanced academics, but the representation gap between black and white students remains almost as wide as it ever was.

More concerning is that with good rankings comes a sense of complacency. A Google search for “Massachusetts education system” pulls up dozens of recent stories praising the state for its good results, but even states like Massachusetts with high-ranking education systems need to evaluate the representation of their black students in AP testing environments. These recent College Board statistics reveal that general improvement to state education systems does little to close the racial representation gap. For schools across the quality spectrum, a more concentrated effort needs to be made to improve access to educational opportunities for black students.

blog comments powered by Disqus