Today, more than ever, a high school diploma is simply not enough. That is why high schools across Michigan offer a variety of Advanced Placement (AP) courses to expose students to the academic rigors of post-secondary education. Further, with success on the optional end-of-term AP exam, a college bound student can earn credit and ease the future financial burden associated with earning a college degree or certificate.
Many underrepresented high schoolers don’t avail themselves of the full opportunities provided 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. This is the case across the country, but the disparities in Michigan are much more profound.
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 faced by Michigan’s low-income and students of color.
Identifying Some of the Gaps
The U.S. Department of Education reports for the 2017-18 school year, 78,000 Michigan students enrolled in at least one AP course. But AP course enrollment varied by student group when compared to the racial/ethnic composition of the state’s public schools (Chart 1). White and Asian students are overrepresented 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 schools.
Chart 1: Enrollment in AP Courses Compared to Total K-12 Enrollment in 2017-18, by Race and Ethnicity
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, 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) 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%. This places Michigan with the 18th highest non-testing rate, situated between Montana (33%) and Wisconsin (32%).
This overall rate, however, masks considerable variation across student groups (Chart 2). For Black students taking AP courses, 47% did not take an exam, a rate that was nearly 50% larger than the overall state rate. Similarly, American Indian and Hispanic students had much higher non-testing rates. Asian students had the lowest non-testing rate at 28%, while just 30% of white students enrolled in AP classes did not sit for an exam.
Chart 2: Percent of Students Enrolled in AP Courses but Not Taking Exams in 2017-18, by Race and Ethnicity
Michigan’s racial gaps are even more pronounced than those found across the country (Chart 2). For example, just 31% of Black students enrolling in one AP course nationally did not take a test in 2017-18. This is considerably less than the 47% of Michigan’s Black students that did not test that year. Similarly, only 29% of Hispanic students did not take an AP test nationally, compared to the 41% of Michigan Hispanics that did not.
District-level data provides an opportunity to see where equity gaps are largest. The story here is also concerning, but with 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.
Percent of Black Students Enrolled in AP Courses but Not Taking Exams in 2017-18, by District
Racial disparities were stark for four districts; River Rouge, West Bloomfield, Ann Arbor, and Grosse Pointe. Each of the four districts had non-testing rates for Black students that were considerably higher than the statewide rate of 47%. In West Bloomfield and Ann Arbor district-wide non-testing rates were 37% and 32%, respectively, but the districts’ Black student non-testing rates were 72% and 71%. 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%. As a result, its non-testing rate for all student groups was 31%, mirroring Michigan’s rate of 32% 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% of Detroit’s high school students were enrolled in AP courses compared to 38% 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% of adults obtain a post secondary degree or credential by 2030. Currently, just 49% 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 aid 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 sit for an AP exam?
The state has addressed one potential barrier. The State of Michigan picks up all but $5 of the discounted test fee for low-income students. The availability of this financial assistance may not be well understood in some corners of the state. So the state and district leaders might consider targeted educational and outreach to 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. 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 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.