Race, Class, and AP Courses

AP Examinees by Race and Gender in Selected Fields

Subject White Latino Black Asian Native American Female
Calculus AB 64.4% 8.4% 4.5% 16.5% 0.4% 48%
Computer science 58.2% 6.5% 3.7% 24.5% 0.3% 17%
English literature and composition 64.9% 10.2% 7.4% 10.3% 0.6% 64%
European history 68.1% 7.9% 3.7% 12.7% 0.4% 54%
French literature 66.3% 5.6% 6.0% 10.6% 0.0% 71%
Government and politics: U.S. 63.3% 11.5% 5.9% 12.4% 0.5% 53%
Human geography 59.7% 12.3% 9.7% 10.7% 0.4% 55%
Macroeconomics 56.6% 11.7% 4.6% 19.8% 0.3% 45%
Physics: electricity and magnetism 58.8% 3.9% 1.7% 28.6% 0.3% 22%
Psychology 64.7% 8.7% 6.5% 12.9% 0.4% 65%


Due to much of my academic work over the past 10 years with the College Board and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s AP Center, I have come to understand the complex nature of race, schools, and demanding courses. As a so called expert in my area and one who is very active in areas dealing with race and curriculum, I have drawn a number of conclusions about the plight of under-prepared minority students. For one, many come from communities in which academic work has not always been valued. This is complex in that minority students, especially those coming from black families, are often still dealing with past institutional problems linked to Jim Crow. As a black student, I had to overcome a number of academic barriers. Broken English was the norm in my home. Learning to speak and write was at times in conflict with the norms established at home.

There is much debate among academics about whether AP courses are truly college-level, with studies regularly coming out that either question the program or praise it. But even AP skeptics acknowledge that the program is popular with students and parents, that admissions offices value it as an indicator of rigor in instruction, and that AP courses are frequently among the most challenging in high schools. As such, who takes AP matters — and educators have increasingly focused on data from the AP program to see whether the program’s emphasis in admissions is likely to hurt minority applicants and what the participation rates say about the preparation of a diverse pool of students for admission to top colleges.

Students of color (SOC) face challenges that many of their white counterparts will never experience. For one, black students disappear in the more advanced courses. In high school, students of color are thought to be ill prepared to enroll in courses such as AP English, AP European History, or AP Calculus. Teachers, many who draw false conclusions, often assume that students of color have other non academic interest. I think this is true for many, but not just SOC. In nine years of teaching, I have had a total of seven SOC. I am not sure Advanced Placement courses help or hurt this matter. Although high school faculty members are teaching college (usually first or second year) courses, many tend to want students who will do well on the exam; in many ways I am the same way; but, I do take risks with students; I think it is important that many experience more than the typical high school level curriculum.

AP Participation by Racial and Ethnic Group

Group % of School Population % of AP Enrollment % Earning 3 on One AP Exam
White 64.0% 61.7% 65.5%
Latino 14.6% 14.0% 13.6%
Black 14.0% 7.4% 3.3%
Asian 5.5% 10.4% 11.5%
Native American 1.1% 0.6% 0.4

19 thoughts on “Race, Class, and AP Courses

  1. Eddie,

    Although it was not the area of emphasis of most of my research, I actually ended of doing my master’s thesis on the state of disparate gender outcomes on AP exams. I am about to walk out the door to take Morgan to see Beverly Hills Chihuahua … but if you want to to do a quantitative analysis examining outcomes … I can help. 🙂 I also looked at local outcomes … it was interesting …

    By the way, I am a big proponent of encouraging kids to take the courses even if it is a stretch. It is good for them even if it is “bad” for the teacher’s scores … but, then again, the class is for the kids, right? Their best interest is what decisions should be based upon … right? Oh well … more later.

    Interesting topic …


  2. There is not a single black student in my A1 AP World History class. Of course, there are not very many black students at Houston Christian to begin with…

  3. We are working to get more black students at HCHS. We do have a diversity % of 21% which is pretty good for a day school. I have never rejected a student from my class and will not as long as I have a small voice in the matter. Too much is placed on scores — though mine have been good and I do want students to do well.

  4. You talk a lot about having so few students of color in your classes, and that’s all well and good and an important concern, but has it occurred to you that you teach at a school with very few students of color? There might be a proportion thing going on there. It also seems as though the greater problem, at least in your case, isn’t that the students of color aren’t taking your classes, it’s that they’re not enrolled in your school, which seems to have a fairly rigorous curriculum and would tend to encourage the bulk of the students to take advanced courses.

  5. Being one who has seen a number of black students struggle in my college courses at small college USA, I think the big issue facing minority students is their secondary prep. Many do not take the right courses to get ready for my courses. Not enough writing or reading courses. Is this institutional, I do not know. Your point about Jim Crow cannot be ignored. Racism is a factor that has contributed in an indirect way to the low numbers above. As a white moderate, I do support Affirmative Action. I know you do Carson. I have seen students of color get a chance only to do very well.

  6. Carson – I am on the diversity committee, remember? We missed you at the last meeting…

    Kristi – good point about the whole proportion thing. You hit the nail on the head.

  7. It may just be a coincidence but a friend of mine from elementary school was telling me about a book that he was reading for his social studies class to help understand demographics better. Normally, I would have passed it up over at Barnes and Nobles, but the title of it really struck me. It’s called “Is Bill Cosby Right (Or Has The Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind)” and is written by Michael Eric Dyson. I was actually laying down reading it as this post came up and I have spent the past couple hours trying to find a way to let some of you read it. Alas, the link below will allow many of you to view the book. If anything, please take the time to read the preface of the book, it is very good and it will definitely interest you in what the book has to say. (Please don’t be offended by what the book has to say, it is not in any way intended to be a hate mongering article!)

  8. whoops, looks like the middle part of my article was replaced by the link rather than being an addition to it. Essentially what I meant to say was that I see the problem as people not being able to agree that there is a problem with society that largely takes root in the home. I am in no way one of the “flaming” Conservatives that think that all lower class African Americans are “lazy.” But I do think that there is a large amount of validity to what the Cos has to say. To read his full speech, click on the link that I had put on additionally.


  9. I do think approaching students during their freshman year (earlier if possible … not so at HCHS) is key … they need to be in the AP/Pre-AP “pipeline” as soon as possible. Although I am not teaching AP this year, I have taught AP Stats for the past 9 years. I have had between 50 – 85 students in my program (in a school of 2500 students) … so I have had a diverse population of students within my classes … and some of my BEST students have been SOCs … unfortunately, the percent of SOCs in my AP and Pre-AP classes were not proportional to the SOCs in the student body … still lots of room for improvement …

    One thing we did last year to make sure that students and the community realized the diversity within our AP program and to promote the program was that principal bought AP t-shirts for every student (over 300 students … I believe around 360) and every AP teacher … it was awesome. I hope they do it again this year. The hope is that more students at Brazoswood will aspire to take at least one AP course in his/her strongest subject … just something to think about.

    I know I will be keeping my eye out for any student of academic promise and encourage him/her to pursue AP courses …


  10. Carson – did you get a chance to meet Dyson? I need to read “Is Bill Cosby Right.” So little books…so little time.

  11. Carson,

    I have two books you might want to look at … “Removing the Mask: Giftedness in Poverty” by Drs. Paul D. Slocumb and Ruby K. Payne and “Fair Game? The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher Education” by Rebecca Zwick. They are both very interesting reads dealing with different issues related to this blog piece. Mi biblioteca us su biblioteca.


  12. I have been in private schools for the better part of my life and in Houston Christian there is not much diversity. In Texas, many of the public school systems do not provide adequate education. This is one of the reasons my parents moved me to the private school. Many of these schools are populated highly by black and hispanic students. This poor education might lead to the “unpreparedness” for later AP courses or even the lack of opportunities due to the absences of these higher level courses. Though I am not an expert on race or even education for that matter, I raise up the question: Is this difference of race in AP courses due racial tendencies or the failure of our educational institutions?

  13. I appreciate this article. You have done a good job presenting the challenges. But take it a step further. What does Scripture have to say about race and gender as it pertains to providing opportunities for children to study without social or educational barriers? Contrast this to other religions that discriminate against young women in their pursuit of adequate training for a career. As Christians, isn’t this belief and commitment the foundation of our position?

  14. Steve:

    You are right. As Christians, I think we should set the standard for showing all people a sense of opportunity and hope — if not here later when the end arrives. I do know that the book of Matthew states that there will always be wars, poverty, and conflict seeing that man makes so many calls; however, the answer is found once we move beyond this world.

    Great comment.

  15. As you may know I came to Houston Christian this year from a very diverse high school, called Stratford. The difference between the two is eye opening, at Stratford there was many different cultures but if you walk into any of the Pre-AP or AP classes you will see one culture…white. Now I’m not saying that there were no other cultures at all but it was rare to find another other than white. In my sociology class we were discussing why this was and the some of the conclusions we came up were that in some cultures even though it is a very good and impressing achievment, It is looked upon as “dorky” or “uncool” to be in an upper level class. An other conclusion is the parents, but this goes for all people. If they don’t have the motivation to do better than they won’t and that is why schools need to make the parents aware of higher level courses such as Pre-AP and AP courses.

  16. I am middle class, and I’m the only black student enrolled in AP European History.
    I’m also the only kid who got an A in that class.
    Those who say “I’m failing because I’m black and different dialect etc etc etc” are just making excuses, really.

  17. Looking at your statistics, it was interesting to see that there are more SOC in AP Human Geography than in any other AP course. As a teacher of AP Euro and AP Human Geography, and as a teacher of AP teacher training classes, I can tell you that the statistics don’t lie. My AP Summer Institutes for Human Geography teachers are extremely diverse and, from what they tell me, so are their classes. However, my AP Euro Institutes are filled with white teachers– and so are their classes. I teach as much as I possibly can about the minority experience in European History, but many SOC are interested in what they see as courses that are relevant to themselves and thier experiences. Human Geography is the class of choice for this reason.

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