AP Opportunity Gap: NY's Poor Students Enroll in Fewer College-Prep Courses

New York's neediest students have fewer opportunities to earn college credit in high school than do wealthy students, according to an analysis conducted by Pro Publica and NBC New York.

The study examined Advanced Placement course enrollment at hundreds of high schools throughout New York state. 

Among the findings: New York ranks among the nation's 10 worst states when it comes to enrolling needy kids in Advanced Placement classes. The study also found many of the state's affluent school districts offer far more AP classes than do economically disadvantaged schools with high percentages of minority students.

"At a time when our state is becoming more and more diverse, we are enrolling very few minority students. This is going to be a crisis for the state of New York in its future and for the country," said Pedro Noguera, who leads the Urban Education program at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education.

Advanced Placement courses are classes that allow students to earn college credit while still in high school.  Experts say they are an important predictor of future success in higher education.

Noguera said if schools don't challenge students with AP courses, they send the message "that we don’t expect that they will be able to apply to and go to college."

The study is based on data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.

Investigative journalists at the non-profit Pro Publica used the data to record AP enrollment at schools with high poverty levels, as represented by the percentage of students who receive federally subsidized lunch.

The analysis found a strong correlation between poverty and limited AP enrollment.

"New York state, according to our analysis, does have a pretty strong relationship between the number of poor kids in your school and the percentage of those kids who are enrolled in at least one AP course," said Sharona Coutts, a Pro Publica reporter who worked on the study.

The analysis casts doubt on New York's traditional story of AP success.  For decades, the state has been at or near the top of the nation when it comes to students passing AP exams.

"New York's success in AP on the surface is really very much a surface success," said Trevor Packer, a vice president at the College Board, the company that designs and sells AP tests.

Packer says New York's relatively lackluster performance when it comes to enrolling poor students in AP should encourage school districts to make their AP programs more robust.

He warns, though, that simply adding more Advanced Placement courses is not a solution in and of itself.

"It would be wrong for us to say a solution is 'Let’s put all students in an AP course,' because all students are not prepared for AP, just as all students are not currently prepared for college," he said. "But it would be equally problematic for us to turn a blind eye to the fact that there are tens of thousands of students from low-income and minority households who have the exact same level of academic preparation for AP as the fraction of American high school students who are gaining access today."

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