More and more DC students are taking AP classes, but what are they getting from the experience?

Although the number of students taking AP classes in the District has gone up dramatically, many fail the AP exam. But there's a way to ensure that kids get a rigorous education without putting them into classes they're not prepared for.

Photo by DC Central Kitchen on Flickr.

Partly due to a push to increase minority and low-income participation, the number of students taking AP classes has nearly doubled across the country in the last 10 years. In DC, the number of students has grown 45% since 2010, according to DCPS.

As access to AP classes has broadened, more students are failing the AP exams. While some say that students who fail the exam nevertheless benefit from taking a rigorous class, others argue that students who are unprepared and don't get enough support can't get anything meaningful out of the experience.

But there's a way to give students a rigorous education without forcing them into water that's over their heads. Instead of teaching them how to fill in bubbles on multiple-choice tests, we need to make sure they truly understand the material that's put in front of them, in every subject and at every grade level. And the best way to do that is to get them to write about it, in a meaningful and structured way.

DCPS policies

In the District, the explosion in AP participation has a lot to do with DCPS policies. For the past 4 years, all DCPS high schools have been required to offer at least one AP class in each of 4 core subjects: Math, Science, English, and Social Studies. Those courses are open to any student who has taken the prerequisites, and the District covers all fees associated with taking the exams.

In addition, DCPS requires that in order to graduate each student must earn at least 2 credits (out of a required 24) in either an AP or International Baccalaureate class, or else in a Career and Technical Education (CTE) class (what used to be referred to as vocational education).

Different high schools offer different CTE classes, and the choices at a particular school may not fit a student's interests. In those cases, students are basically required to take an AP or IB course in order to graduate.

And here, as across the nation, one incentive for high schools to expand their AP offerings has been Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews' High School Challenge Index, which ranks schools by the number of AP exams taken divided by the number of students graduating in a given year.

The ranking doesn't take account of how many students fail the exam. And generally, the AP failure rate is striking. In DC, only 14% of graduating DC seniors got a passing score on an AP exam. That's a 50% increase since 2010, but it's still below the national average of 20%—and even that figure is really low.

Does it matter if you fail?

If, as Mathews believes, it's beneficial for students to take an AP class whether or not they pass the exam, it doesn't matter how many students fail. The point is to include as many students as possible in the classes, not to select only the higher-achieving students who are likely to do well.

Some studies have shown that taking an AP class and the exam that goes with it leads to greater persistence or higher achievement in college, even for those students who fail the exam. But there's some research on the other side, too.

One expert on the AP, Kristin Klopfenstein, doesn't dispute the results of those studies, but she says it's not clear that enrollment in AP classes is actually causing the positive effects. Klopfenstein has said that taking an AP class probably helps only those failing students who come close to passing the exam. If students are far behind, as many low-income students are, they'll need "wrap-around support" in order to have true "access" to AP-level material.

Another AP expert, Philip Sadler, told the Post that for some unprepared students, taking an AP class is like taking an advanced French class without ever having studied French.

School demographics

Whether or not lower-achieving students benefit from taking an AP class may have something to do with the demographics of the school they attend. One AP physics teacher at Wilson High School told the Post she's sure the students in her class benefit no matter what their score on the exam is.

That may be true at a school like Wilson, where 37% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals (FRM). At the other 8 neighborhood (i.e., non-selective DCPS) DC high schools the FRM figure is 99%.

No doubt there are some low-income students who are fully equipped to do AP work, but generally speaking there's a huge and increasing gap in DC between the achievement levels of low- and high-income students. While the proficiency rate on standardized tests is about 60% at Wilson, at the other high schools it's more like 20 or 25%.

So an AP teacher at Wilson who has only a few struggling students in the class may have the time to give them the support they need to get something out of it. At a high-poverty school the majority of students in the class are likely to be struggling, and for most teachers giving them the necessary support will be impossible.

Small AP classes, and writing for everyone

That doesn't mean that DCPS should eliminate AP classes at high-poverty schools, because there are bound to be students there who could benefit, especially if they get some help. But instead of focusing on bringing as many students as possible into those classes, it would make sense for DCPS to drastically decrease their size so that teachers have a chance to give students the attention they need.

And what about the rest of the students at high-poverty schools? They need to be in courses they can understand, but that doesn't mean their education has to be dumbed down.

If teachers use a structured program to get students writing about what they're learning in a meaningful way, as is currently being done at 4 schools under a DCPS pilot program, they'll stand a much better chance of absorbing the material and developing the analytical skills that AP classes are designed to foster. (Disclosure: I have contributed to funding this pilot program.)

Obviously, all this will cost money. But putting kids into classes they're not prepared for and then not giving them the support they need to understand the material may well be a waste of time for many students, and their teachers.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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So the participation rate has increased 45% since 2010 while the pass rate has increased 50%. That seems like pretty strong evidence in support of the expansion rather than against it. Is there any breakdown in the data of where the pass rate increases took place? If they were all or mostly in WoTR high schools like Wilson, it would make me wonder why the expansion didn't happen there sooner. If there was a substantial increase at high-poverty high schools, that would pretty much negate the premise of this article. I think more and better data is needed to understand what's going on.

As a Congress Heights resident and graduate of high-poverty public schools, I must say I am disturbed by recent articles arguing for limiting the number of slots in EoTR algebra and AP classes b/c the students may not be ready for them. If students aren't offered the opportunity, then they will never be ready for them. The obvious answer to me is to beef up the offerings in the classes leading up to AP and middle-school algebra.

by PG2SE on Feb 14, 2014 1:17 pm • linkreport

The arguments here in favor of decreasing class size and wrap around student support are warranted, but why can't these happen in AP classes? AP classes tend to involve more writing than non-AP classes, and the curricula are often more engaging than district-level, non-AP course curricula. There's no reason why AP classes can't be differentiated for their respective audiences, and there's more reasons that high poverty students need every chance at college credits that AP classes can offer.

by Joe on Feb 14, 2014 1:53 pm • linkreport

If AP pass rates have increased concurrently with increasing participation rates, how is the argument to decrease class size warranted?

by PG2SE on Feb 14, 2014 2:25 pm • linkreport

As a "minority", I strongly feel that AP courses should not differentiate based on demographic or income. This has been the problem across the board and it doesn't work especially in a standardized testing environment. Not to mention, the psychological effects on a child who is considered gifted in a certain demographic dares to cross over into more diverse learning environment end up failing; leaving them to question their own abilities. If a child is advanced\gifted they are gifted no matter the background. With that said, make the AP courses accessible to all demographics with the SAME standards, while providing the proper teaching environment/foundation that will enable the child to manage their abilities on a level playing field.

by JJs_Mom on Feb 14, 2014 2:38 pm • linkreport

PG2SE - I agree that we need data about the pass rates specifically for high-poverty schools and students. There is some information that breaks down AP data by income and racial categories on the College Board website, but I was having a hard time interpreting it, so I decided not to include it in the post. Basically, it tells you the percentage of successful test-takers who were low-income (36.4%, down from 40.9% last year) and African-American (33.7%, down from 41.9%). But that doesn't tell you what percentage of low-income (or black) students who took the exam passed it. Here's a link to the report: And as far as I know, there's no school-by-school breakdown available.

But the fact that the percentage of successful test-takers decreased in those categories, while the overall number of successful test-takers increased, seems to indicate a lower pass rate. And of course, none of this tells us anything about students who take AP classes who don't end up taking the exam. We don't know how many of them there are or how much they got out of the class.

I would also point you to an article in the Baltimore Sun saying that failure rates on the AP at some high-poverty schools in Maryland are 75% or more:,0,583144.htmlpage#.Uv5yhYWHwc9

I agree with you that we need to "beef up" the offerings in the classes leading up to AP or other advanced courses. And I think you and I probably agree that all students need to be challenged and led to develop their potential as much as possible. But from what I've seen and heard from teachers, putting large numbers of unprepared students in AP classes isn't the best way to do it. If you have a different view, possibly based on your own experience, I would sincerely love to hear more about it.

Joe: Yes, smaller class size and wrap-around support can happen in AP classes. That's exactly what I'm advocating. But I also think students in non-AP classes need to be writing far more than they are now, and they need to be explicitly taught how to write well. If that happens, we should end up with more students who are truly prepared to do AP-level work, at all income levels.

by Natalie Wexler on Feb 14, 2014 2:57 pm • linkreport

One big problem is that if an AP class contains a majority of students who are simply unprepared for the material, than everyone in the class is going to suffer as end up learning less than they would ofherwise. One of the appeals of AP classes is that they are populated by high achievers working at a top level of academic ability.

by Tyro on Feb 14, 2014 3:07 pm • linkreport

I attended an intercity Denver high school, 30 of us would take the AP English or American History or Chemistry and maybe 5 would pass. One year we had a record 25 kids pass. This school had 2,000 students a 50% drop out rate and a very high teen pregnancy rate. If I had not had access to those AP classes I doubt I would have made it through college. My brother who did not take them struggled and it took him about 8 years and several tries to make it through college.

They quit offering the AP classes about 10 years after I graduated to focus on students dropping out. They now have only 600 students attending the school and I think it will soon be closed. Every one of my parents neighbors have ruled out that high school as an option because it offers no advanced track. There are more kids than we appreciate able to do this work that are poor. However, we may need to invest in them more to get them there, but they can do it.

One other thought about AP. It is often said we don't have a college attendance problem, we have a college completion problem. These AP's make a difference, they save money, they expose you to rigor and they are a more honest demonstration of what will be expected than much of the coursework currently given these kids.

by DC Parent on Feb 14, 2014 4:00 pm • linkreport

1. I think DCPS needs to do a better job tracking AP pass rates by school and, if possible, race & income level. Everyone talks about working to close the achievement gap, but I don't see how that's going to happen w/o the proper data. What I see here are some dangerous arguments about limiting access to advanced classes in the very places where they are needed most based on anecdote and incomplete data. If we're going to limit access to AP, we had better be sure it's for a good reason.

2. A high failure rate on the AP exam doesn't mean those students were led astray and didn't develop their potential as much as possible. The alternative would have been a non-AP class. Are these teachers arguing those students would have gotten more out of the non-AP class than the AP class whose test they flunked? If so, on what objective basis do they make that claim?

3. I'm not on the ground in DCPS schools to know, but I suspect the AP classes in high-poverty schools were put in as replacements for the highest level courses offered in that subject area before. I think that's a quick and dirty and not highly effective way to raise student achievement. But just because it's not highly effective doesn't mean it's ineffective or harmful. I think the courses are needed and increased participation is a good thing. A better thing would be to beef up pipeline courses like, for instance, not leaving an 8th algebra class empty b/c administrators don't think their best 8th grade math students are ready for it. That's a sure way to make certain they won't be ready for Calc AB/BC later.

I agree that additional wrap around services would be a good thing and improved writing instruction would help greatly. I think good writing is evidence of good thinking, so improving writing instruction would definitely help raise student achievement. But decreasing AP access is a complete non-starter for me.

Good students go through high-poverty schools not developing to their full potential because their classes don't ask enough of them, and they're usually not even aware of it since they've always taken the most advanced classes their schools offer and didn't know there were other, higher options out there.

by PG2SE on Feb 14, 2014 4:22 pm • linkreport

Co-sign on DC Parent's post.

by PG2SE on Feb 14, 2014 4:25 pm • linkreport

Also, I just took a look at the DC AP report you posted. Last year is the first year since participation rates jumped in 2010 that pass rates went down for low income and African American students. In 2011 and 2012, they went up for both groups.

by PG2SE on Feb 14, 2014 5:21 pm • linkreport

It’s the rest of the students left behind we should be concerned with! Those taking advanced classes have a bright future already. What segregating the small group of AP students from the majority “general population” does is to inform most of the students in no uncertain terms that very little will ever be expected of them; that they are the coasters and most likely the losers of the future. Segregation does not work for the whole and never has.

by AndrewJ on Feb 15, 2014 6:30 am • linkreport

It’s the rest of the students left behind we should be concerned with! Those taking advanced classes have a bright future already.

You can still provide lots of resources, support, and challenges to high achieving students while also supporting the students being left behind. It's not exclusive to one or the other. What you are saying is that school is essentially a remedial experience, not a place where talent is nurtured and achievement is encouraged.

by Tyro on Feb 15, 2014 10:35 am • linkreport

*The Advanced Placement Exams are not standard pass/fail assessments.

The score a student earns may qualify them to earn college credit, and those credit-earning scores vary by college. Usually a student must earn at least a 3, while competitive colleges, if the credits are accepted at all, require a score of 5.

by DC Educator on Feb 15, 2014 1:38 pm • linkreport

I would love to know where the AP exam 5s are in DCPS by the numbers. Are they in selective schools? Wilson? At Eastern? Any from schools east of the Anacostia?

by Andy on Feb 16, 2014 9:18 am • linkreport

"Instead of teaching them how to fill in bubbles on multiple-choice tests, we need to make sure they truly understand the material that's put in front of them, in every subject and at every grade level."
This is a misrepresentation of AP tests, many of which are not multiple choice, as well as an unfair implied criticism of multiple choice tests, which can be very well designed to require true understanding.

Perhaps a better solution is that the classes leading up to the AP classes also need a similar level of evaluation that gives student a more accurate picture of which topics they have learned and which they need to practice. Since grades in DC schools, especially ones that are just passing, are no indicator of whether the student has mastered the material, they are a poor guide as to whom is prepared for an AP exam.

"No doubt there are some low-income students who are fully equipped to do AP work, but generally speaking there's a huge and increasing gap in DC between the achievement levels of low- and high-income students."

I find this to be a troubling perspective. While there may be a correlation there, we absolutely cannot stereotype students based on their income. There are a number of stellar low-income students, and low-income alone does not cause a student to be worse than a student from a high-income family. These may be useful proxies for other benefits, but are merely an artifact of other factors that actually affect achievement, but are harder to measure. We should not use income to determine the educational approach for any one student any more than we should use race.

by Matt on Feb 17, 2014 11:53 am • linkreport

Matt -- I'm not sure we actually disagree. My comment about multiple choice tests wasn't meant to be a description of AP exams, and your proposed solution (more rigorous classes before students take AP courses) is basically what I'm proposing as well.

Nor would I ever want to bar a student from taking an AP class because of his or her income level. But the data does indicate that, because of our achievement gap in DC, there are fewer students in high-poverty schools who are ready to do AP-level work. So why not have smaller AP classes in those schools?

by Natalie Wexler on Feb 17, 2014 5:13 pm • linkreport

I'm still confused as to the main idea of this post - is it that the writing program which the author is involved in combined with smaller AP class sizes in high poverty schools will help the students pass the AP exams? Or is it that the graduation requirement that students must take 2 AP or CTE classes should be changed to not require AP? I would be interested to hear the perspective of the students themselves on this topic.

by grumpy on Feb 17, 2014 7:56 pm • linkreport

It's the curriculum, not the class size, that is the problem. My experience has been that there are wide differences between the level of instruction at affluent schools compared to high poverty schools at every grade and student performance level. Sure if we were somehow able to identify the 50% of students who are not going to pass the AP exam before they even step foot in the class, we could artificially double the pass rate. So what? That doesn't do anything for the absolute number of passes. What about the half who didn't get a chance at AP? And would the other half who did increase their 3s to 4s, their 4s to 5s? Or would they likely have gotten the same scores had the failing half been allowed in the classroom? Any potential benefit seems small to me in comparison to the potential cost. It also seems that whatever benefit there might be accrues mostly to alleviating teacher frustration rather than improving student achievement.

by PG2SE on Feb 17, 2014 11:47 pm • linkreport

I agree with your last post PG2SE. There is a huge difference in curriculum; yet, the testing is standardized.

by JJs_Mom on Feb 18, 2014 7:00 am • linkreport

There is a huge difference in curriculum; yet, the testing is standardized.

One of the reasons for this is that teachers in many of the poorer schools have to spend their time catering to the less qualified students to make sure they get a base level of understanding of the material, whereas with a higher level pool of students the teacher can teach the material on a more rigorous level, leaving them better prepared for the AP exam.

I realize things have changed over the years, but when I was in high school in the 1990s, taking an AP class was something you were only allowed to do if you demonstrated high levels of achievement in lower level classes.

by Tyro on Feb 18, 2014 10:22 am • linkreport

"One of the reasons for this is that teachers in many of the poorer schools have to spend their time catering to the less qualified students to make sure they get a base level of understanding of the material, whereas with a higher level pool of students the teacher can teach the material on a more rigorous level, leaving them better prepared for the AP exam."

I want to go further back, say prek and kindergarten at the foundation of learning; the content is still different, dare I say inferior. Yes, there are learning disabilities in all demographics but with the wealthy they can afford to pay for therapy whereas, the poor go undiagnosed or assumed deficient. Moreover, the assumption is made for all poor students in certain demographics where the inferior curriculum is implemented, what do you expect the outcome of the testing results for many in this scenario?

by JJs_Mom on Feb 18, 2014 11:12 am • linkreport

JJs_Mom- I wish you were wrong about the content that is taught is less at poorer schools. I experienced it first hand when we attended Thomson elementary and then moved to a school a school in ward 3 and there was nearly a year's difference between the reading and math programs. Much of it was because so many children were loosing English proficiencey over the summer. We can't get around the consequences of poverty on children.

by DC Parent on Feb 18, 2014 1:38 pm • linkreport

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