Essay Disparities in Advanced Placement Course Enrollment and Test Taking: National and State-Level Perspectives
An Essay for the Learning Curve
Paula Kim-Christian, Logan McDermott
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In addition to providing students access to college-level content, Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams provide high schoolers an advantage before entering college. Students who take and receive a passing score on the exam may be able to receive college credit or placement, which might allow some students to skip introductory courses, gain greater flexibility in their choice of first-year college coursework, fulfill college graduation requirements early, and earn a degree more quickly.

Enrollment in an AP class does not necessarily translate into participation in AP exams, however. Despite recent efforts to expand AP course offerings in more schools and enroll more students in AP courses, serious inequities across various demographics in AP exam taking persist.

Key Data

Data from the 2017–18 school year show the following:

  • Of students enrolled in at least one AP course, 40 percent of English language learners and 45 percent of students with disabilities did not take any AP exams.
  • Thirty percent of Black and Hispanic students enrolled in at least one AP coursedid not take any AP exams compared with 25 percent of white students and 15 percent of Asian students.
  • Racial and ethnic gaps in AP test taking vary by state, but there is a bigger gap between AP enrollment and test taking among Black and Hispanic students in almost every state relative to their white and Asian peers.


National trends in test-taking gaps remain largely consistent across individual states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, but disparities in course enrollment and test taking are substantially larger in some states. For example, in Delaware, only 33 percent of Black students enrolled in AP courses completed an AP exam, in stark contrast to the 59 percent of the white students and 84 percent of Asian students. In Utah, 67 percent of white students enrolled in an AP course went on to complete an AP exam compared with 45 percent of enrolled Hispanic students.

One possible explanation for such wide variation in course completion across racial and geographic groups is that the size of student groups influences average test-taking rates. And the same number of students who do not take the AP exam in a different state with a larger population of enrolled AP students translates into a smaller test-taking gap. But another explanation is that AP exams may be cost prohibitive for some students. Though the College Board offers reduced fees to low-income students, there is wide variation in state and school district policies regarding additional financial support to pay for exams that range from zero dollars to covering exam fees in full. But even in states like Florida that cover the costs of AP tests, gaps in who takes the exams persist.

These national and state-level findings of AP exam taking among public school students can help educators and policymakers better understand which students are not receiving the full academic benefits of AP courses. In the future, states can encourage AP test completion for all groups, rather than focusing on AP course enrollment, to potentially reduce course credit burdens in postsecondary education.

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Additional Resources

Research Areas Education
Tags Structural racism Secondary education Racial and ethnic disparities
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy