A student writes notes in an Advanced Placement physics class. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

For decades, the College Board’s Advanced Placement program — which offers college-level courses to high school students — has been a big feature in the national education debate, providing college-bound students a prized credential. But what do we really know about its effectiveness? This post looks at the available research and tells us.

In a new article published by the American Educational Research Association, Suneal Kolluri analyzes what the current body of research on Advanced Placement has uncovered about the effectiveness of AP courses and efforts to expand access to the program to low-income students. And in the post below, Kolluri summarizes his conclusions.

Suneal’s full article, “Advanced Placement: The Dual Challenge of Equal Access and Effectiveness,” is available online in Review of Educational Research, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Kolluri is a doctoral student in the University of Southern California School of Education. A research assistant in the Pullias Center, he is now working on a project funded by the First in the World grant that aims to expand college access for low-income youths through online gaming.

Before attending USC, he was a high school social studies teacher for 10 years — nine in Oakland public schools, and one as a student teacher in San Francisco Unified School District in the Stanford Teacher Education Program. He has received a number of accolades for exemplary teaching.

 By Suneal Kolluri

The Advanced Placement program is engaged in a tenuous balancing act. The program aims to serve more students from marginalized backgrounds whose schooling experiences have exposed them to few rigorous learning opportunities. At the same time, it seeks to engage students in challenging, college-level curriculums, thereby enhancing their likelihood of postsecondary success.

The goals are admirable in an era when more students from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds entertain college-going dreams. However, the dual goals of serving more students and maintaining college-level expectations have proved difficult to pursue in tandem.

Scholarly research has illuminated persistent barriers that constrain the ability of the AP program to achieve its goals. Schools can benefit from these insights, and researchers too can benefit from more engagement with AP programs as they are implemented in schools. By integrating research and practice, these programs can better serve students from marginalized backgrounds.

The following are seven key, actionable takeaways from current research on AP programs:

1) Access to Advanced Placement courses in high schools has been expanding, probably far more than the founders of the program could have imagined. The College Board’s efforts to encourage more low-income students and students of color to engage with the program have made meaningful inroads to diversifying Advanced Placement. A program initially confined to elite boarding schools now serves students from diverse communities across the United States. The past decades have seen particularly accelerated expansion of AP. While in 1994 only 14.9 percent of all U.S. high school students graduated with AP credit, by 2013 that number had risen to over 39 percent.

2) Despite that progress, gaps in AP enrollment by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status remain, between and within schools. Over time, as schools serving low-income student populations increased their AP offerings, on average, schools serving wealthier students have increased their offerings even more. Within schools serving white, black, and Latino populations, academic tracking produces gaps in access to advanced courses by race and class. Gaps by race are more pronounced in some AP classes than others. For example, in the most recent College Board “Report to the Nation,” black students in 2013 made up only 4.2 percent of exam-takers in AP Computer Science, despite making up 14.5 percent of all graduating seniors. For Latino students, the comparable numbers are 9 percent and 18.8 percent, respectively.

3) Attempts to close gaps in AP participation have been met with challenges from privileged groups that act to maintain inequities. Research has shown that when some schools look to “de-track” (get rid of hierarchical class structures) or provide open access to AP courses, middle-class parents have acted to protect their students’ privileged access to advanced coursework. For example, one ethnographic investigation of a diverse school found that teachers were more responsive to the needs of white students because of the sense that their parents would more readily complain to administration. These parents are well positioned to push school leaders in ways that benefit their children.

4) Expanding AP to serve more students from groups that have historically been excluded from the program has corresponded with declines in AP test scores. Overall, end-of-year exam scores have been decreasing, but the declines have been especially pronounced among black and Latino AP test takers. In 1997, 61.1 percent of Latino AP students passed exams, but in 2012, that number had declined to 42.8 percent. For black AP students, a 1997 pass rate of 35.9 percent had declined to 29.1 percent in 2012. For white students, pass rates have remained largely unchanged despite an increase in exam participation.

5) Some research suggests instructional shortcomings of AP curriculums, especially at schools serving marginalized students. Education researchers have criticized AP for emphasizing “breadth over depth,” although the College Board has responded by revising some curriculums to address these concerns. Pedagogical shortcomings have been shown to be particularly troubling in urban school districts. For example, interviews of AP students in Los Angeles public schools revealed that students found their teachers to be unmotivated and to have neglected to cover the material tested on the end-of-year exam.

6) Across all students, AP appears to be only loosely associated with college grades and degree completion, but passing AP exams might make a difference. While earlier studies found an association between AP participation and college outcomes, more recent scholarly reports generally find no association between merely taking an AP class and college grades or persistence. However, passing an AP test appears to be moderately associated with positive college outcomes, regardless of a student’s race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background.

7) The assumption of many scholars is that AP is ineffective for most students from marginalized backgrounds. However, the research evaluating this claim is insufficient. Certainly, statistical analyses suggest that many marginalized students struggle to reap the rewards of Advanced Placement. But it is not possible to determine from existing data whether this challenge is the result of student skill gaps, ineffective AP policies and pedagogues, or social forces beyond the reach of educational institutions.

Given the potential benefits of Advanced Placement, the program would benefit from research that seeks to uncover how marginalized students are engaging with it, particularly in schools serving low-income student populations. More targeted research can illuminate ways a program explicitly targeted at improving college readiness might better prepare students for college.

Interestingly, as more schools across the United States stretch their course schedules to incorporate more AP offerings, a small group of elite boarding schools have recently dropped their AP courses. This development presents a new wrinkle in the push for equitable access to rigorous learning opportunities. If elite schools change the definition of elite courses, old marks of distinction may give way to new ones.

The continually evolving role of Advanced Placement in schools calls upon researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to remain vigilant in seeking to understand how the program is impacting educational opportunity in U.S. schools.