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Educational Inequality: The College Board Deepens AP Opportunity Gaps

  The College Board’s Advanced Placement Program — in an ideal world — serves as an opportunity for all students to gain rigorous academic enrichment and valuable college credit. In the words of the College Board, a non-profit organization deeply entrenched in our nation’s educational system, the Advanced Placement (AP) Program gives “all willing and academically prepared students the opportunity to participate in AP”.¹ However, there is a distinct and rigid dichotomy between the role that AP should fulfill and the real-world practices of the program. An inequitable distribution of accessibility to the College Board’s Advanced Placement resources, reinforced by a disregard for technological solutions, results in a profoundly negative effect on equal opportunity for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds to achieve success in high school, college, and beyond.

AP's Big Problem

    Disparities involving AP course offerings and enrollment are an issue entrenched in our nation’s educational systems. The effects of inequitable distribution of support and funding often manifest through opportunity gaps in the AP Program. There is a distinct difference between the AP classes and resources offered in upper-class school systems as compared to lower-class systems. Take affluent Livingston Township, New Jersey, for example, with a poverty rate of 2.4%. In Livingston Township a whopping 76% of 11th and 12th graders took at least one AP course last year. Meanwhile, in nearby Irvington Township — its poverty rate of 17.9% nearly double New Jersey’s average — only 12% of 11th and 12th graders took at least one advanced course last year.² The scope of AP accessibility inequality extends deeper than economics alone. An array of social factors, including population density, student interest, teacher availability, and ethnicity can also be determinants.³ In each case, the common denominator remains that some students are not offered the same AP courses that other students take. As a result, equity gaps involving the AP Program’s accessibility hinder our nation’s educational inclusivity and emphasize longstanding inequalities.

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A Promising Solution, Subverted

   Online AP curriculums offer expanded access to advanced coursework and could help close opportunity gaps. The College Board provides two options to prospective high school students. Joining a ‘classroom section’ entails a conventional classroom setting, with standardized requirements. However, there is another option; joining an ‘exam-only section’.⁴ This classification of AP registration allows students to learn virtually or self-paced, implementing flexibility. If a school is not able to fund conventional AP classes, the exam-only section allows willing students to join regardless. A massive amount of potential to foster opportunity lies in College Board’s little-utilized exam-only sections. Unfortunately, this potential has been squandered by improper management at the hands of the College Board.


   The College Board’s refusal to provide all students with equal resources has problematic, far-reaching implications. Students enrolled in conventional classroom sections are provided with customized materials on their specific AP course. This includes critical academic support including practice tests, interactive lessons, example questions, and much more. Exam-only students are not provided with any of these crucial materials, essentially left to fend for themselves for test prep. Instead of utilizing the exam-only option’s potential to provide equal opportunity, the College Board has doubled down, reinforcing the AP’s inequities. The negative implications of this are self-multiplying; not only are lower-class students less likely to have access to conventional AP courses, but they are then also less likely to have access to test-prep resources. The harm caused by this policy further extends into the multitude of social factors affecting AP course accessibility — whether it be economics, population density, student interest, teacher availability, or ethnicity.⁵ Regardless of the form educational inequality takes, its root in the AP Program stems from the College Board’s refusal to share resources equally. The AP Program is inherently inequitable regardless of which axis the inequality may spin. By limiting resource access to exam-only AP sections, the College Board has maintained a self-fulfilling cycle feeding inequalities and impairing social mobility.

   The College Board’s policy regarding the distribution of AP resources needs to change. Exam-only students need to be given access to vital test-prep materials. Only then can the AP Program claim to give "all students" the opportunity for academic success.

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