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More Students Are Taking AP Tests, But Racial Gap Remains Wide, City Says

By Amy Zimmer | October 11, 2017 9:46am
 Two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, yet they're only a third of those passing AP exams.
Two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, yet they're only a third of those passing AP exams.
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MANHATTAN — A record number of New York City students took and passed Advanced Placement exams, Department of Education officials announced Tuesday.

But a large racial gap persists, according to DOE data.

Roughly 48 percent of the 49,364 students who took at least one AP class last year were black or Hispanic. Those numbers were up from the year before, with nearly 9 percent more black students and 13 percent more Hispanic students taking the exam.

Still, the numbers lagged considering that black and Hispanic students make up roughly 67 percent of the city's public school system.

Watchdogs also questioned whether gains in test takers were meaningful considering there were smaller gains for black and Hispanic students when it came to passing rates.

Of the roughly 25,800 students, who passed one or more AP exams, about 32 percent of them were black or Hispanic, DOE data showed.

AP courses, which can count toward college credit and are considered more rigorous than standard honors classes, prepare students for a $94 exam administered by the College Board (which is optional to take and can be subsidized in part by the state for qualifying low-income students). Access to these courses is often seen as a barometer of how well a school is preparing its students for college.

The city has been pushing to expand the number of AP courses, particularly at schools serving large populations of black and Hispanic students, as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “equity and excellence” agenda.

Last year, for instance, the city spent $21 million to support the AP for All initiative, adding AP classes at 63 schools — including 30 that offered no AP courses in the previous year — and providing materials for the program, direct student support through widely available Saturday study sessions and for professional development, including training for teachers to bolster curricula for students before they get to the AP-level classes.

The city aims to ensure that 75 percent of high school students will have access to at least five AP classes by fall 2018, and all high school students will have access by fall 2021, city officials said.

“For too long, our students’ access to AP courses has been dictated by their ZIP code,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We are making the investments to right that wrong, and to ensure that every kid has access to the challenging courses they need to be ready for college and careers.”

But only about 27 percent of black students passed one or more AP exams and about 43.6 percent of Hispanic students passed, according to DOE data.

Those numbers were up from last year, 6.5 and 4.3 percent, respectively. Yet, these increases were smaller than those of Asian and white students, who each saw a roughly 10 percent increase. 

Moreover, the pass rates of black and Hispanic students paled compared to their counterparts. More than 67 percent of Asian students passed one or more exams, and roughly 66 percent of white students passed.

“I'm impressed with the expansion of AP offerings because that is an important first step,” said Nicole Mader, senior research fellow at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

“But I think it's time to start focusing more of our attention on how many students are passing the AP exams, so we know whether these courses are meeting the national standard and preparing students of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds for college,” she continued. “Until the pass rates are similar at all schools or between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers, access is not the same thing as equity.”

Some schools are taking seriously their charge to bolster their students' success in AP courses.

At the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, in order for a student to take AP class, she has to apply with an essay, an interview and her parent has to sign a contract, explained principal Allison Persad.

“If you’re not walking into it with the mindset that I’m committed, it changes the success,” Persad said.

And the girls are showered with recognition when they pass, receiving a personal note from Persad and celebrated at an AP pinning ceremony.

“With new added testing, you’re adding additional layers. We want to make sure they don’t feel overwhelmed, rather they feel motivated,” she said.

The Title 1 school with 85 percent of students on free or reduced lunch, went from zero to four AP courses last year, added two more this year and will likely add another next year in response to students’ needs, Persad said.

“When I came into Astoria [three years ago] that was something that a lot of the students asked for.  We felt like we were losing students to specialized schools,” she said. “When we examined our college readiness rates — it was one of the missing ingredients. I know a lot of kids who skip their first year of college because of AP classes. They save a lot of money.”

Still, some experts questioned the value of advanced placement courses, especially if they are taking away limited resources from other students since AP classes tend to be smaller with a schools' most experienced teachers.

“Schools have to increase the sizes of their non-AP classes, shift strong teachers away from non-AP classes, and do away with non-AP course offerings, such as 'honors' courses,” author John Tierney, who taught high school and college, wrote in a 2012 Atlantic article. “These opportunity costs are real in every school, but they're of special concern in low-income school districts.”

The city's schools, however, are trying to find creative ways to pool resources to provide AP classes.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña's announcement Tuesday on the uptick of test takers was delivered at Washington Heights’ George Washington Educational Campus, where four co-located high schools now offer eight shared AP courses that students across the building can access. So, if each school has a handful of students wanting to enroll in AP, they can cross school lines. (One school still pays for that teacher's salary but the AP for All program provides other support, DOE officials explained.)

The George Washington campus saw a nearly 65 percent increase in students taking an AP exam last year and a 43 percent increase in students passing an AP exam, DOE officials said.