AP Test Data Reveals Racial Gap in AP Test Participation

Pie Chart made on Meta Chart with data from the College Board, showing the ethnic composition of the 267 AP test-takers who reported their races in 2021 (Photo: Josephine Rivera-Hoagland, The Puma Prensa)

by Josephine Rivera-Hoagland, features editor

Based on data from the California Department of Education and the College Board, the participation rate for end-of-year Advanced Placement exams varies widely among the five largest ethnic groups at Maria Carrillo High School: African American/Black, Asian, White, Multiracial/Biracial and Hispanic/Latino.

Advanced Placement exams are not a measure of intelligence or future success, as Carrillo AP Government and Macroeconomics teacher Trevor Brady noted; however, they are an important part of college admissions and are widely accepted as some of the more academically “challenging” classes that American high schools have to offer.

It is important to note a few things before we get into the numbers: For both the entire school and the AP exam data, a small percentage (from 1-13 students) did not report their races. In addition, the Filipino population was combined with the Asian population in order to calculate AP participation (Filipino is not an option for ethnicity on the AP test), and Pacific Islander and Native American demographics were not shown since so few students identified themselves as such on test forms. Finally, the 2019-2020 data was excluded due to the sudden onset of the pandemic, and  students that participated in the class but did not take the AP exam were not included.

Below is a summary of the data, as well as Maria Carrillo faculty and students’ responses.

African American/Black students

The smallest demographic on campus according to the district website, Maria Carrillo’s Black student body dwindled from 40 students in 2017-2018 to 27 students in the 2020-2021 school year. This group’s participation rate in the AP program has been consistently low as well, reflecting national trends. According to information provided by Vice Principal Amy Wiese, who is in charge of testing on campus, two African American/Black students took at least one AP exam during the 2021 testing administration, and less than 1% of AP students over the past four years have been African American, even though African American/Black students make up 3% of the school population as a whole.

Ashley Busienei, an African American senior who is taking three AP classes, attributes the issue to “home life” and “society”–specifically, the lack of encouragement for underrepresented minorities to attempt harder classes. She doesn’t place blame on MCHS but says that this structural issue is on society, even as society “refuses to fix it.” “For Black or for Hispanic kids, or any kids of color, being a doctor or being a nurse isn’t as pushed towards us as it is for other kids,” she elaborated. She also mentioned a past conversation with a representative from a college nursing program, who told her, “You don’t get to see people that look like you.”

Asian students

Asian students were consistently above the school average for participation, pass rates and average number of tests. Around a third of Asian students took at least one AP exam in each of the three years examined, and that group’s average number of tests was the only demographic never to drop below two per student.

Even still, junior AP student and ASB president Timothy Liu said, “I would love to see more representation. I feel like AP classes have such a stigma of being like, ‘Oh, you have to be really smart to take them’…[but] if you work hard, you can do decently in the class.” “You need to see someone that looks like you…for it to feel like you can take it as well,” Liu added.

Additionally, the AP tests cost $100 each, which caused Liu to speculate that some groups may have more resources to purchase the tests and therefore potentially receive college credit. However, the discount tests for low income students are only $30, and Lui mentioned “If that information was more put out there, more people [would be] willing to take that class.”

“Two or more races, non-Hispanic” Students

Biracial and multiracial students make up about six percent of Carrillo students. Mixed race, multiracial or biracial refers to students who come from multiple ethnic groups and self-identify as such.

These students generally fell somewhere between the performance ranges of white and Asian students, with Carrillo’s highest average pass rate (of the combined time period of 2018, 2019 and 2021), at 83%.

Sofia Sodhi, a biracial junior, believes that white students generally have a socioeconomic advantage, and thinks that the stereotype of students of Asian descent being pressured to do well often holds true.

However, Sodhi, who is half Indian, describes herself as self-motivated to take AP and honors classes. When asked if Maria Carrillo could do more, Sodhi responded that “covering the costs of AP tests and SATs” could be beneficial, because “money is an issue.”

Hispanic or Latino Students

Despite making up around 26% of the Carrillo population, on average, Hispanic or Latino students comprise only 15% of AP test takers across the three years examined. Hispanic students’ average number of tests and pass rates dropped over the years examined, from 1.7 tests and a 66% pass rate to 1.5 tests per Hispanic AP student and a 59% pass rate, respectively.

Senior Sara Rivera, noted that her AP Spanish class had plenty of Hispanic students, but it was her impression that her other AP class had few if any other Hispanic students. “I never really felt worthy of taking an AP class because I didn’t think I was smart enough for it,” she said. Rivera then proposed that if the school community involved the Hispanic student body more “they’d be more willing to take harder classes,” and that Carrillo should be “making more representation for Hispanic students as a whole” in clubs as well as honors classes, like making a Latino student organization. 

White Students

Falling into the middle of the data set, white students at Maria Carrillo had pretty average data compared to the other ethnic groups. White students are the majority at Carrillo, at around half the school population, and consistently make up half of the AP student population as well. 

Rebekah Taylor, a white AP student, is not 100 percent sure how the school would go about fixing the performance gap between students; however, she agrees that “it is a problem” that should be addressed. Comparing her classes, Taylor reported that the racial makeup starkly contrasted between AP and academic classes. “If we could promote the change, that would be a good thing, and spreading awareness about that would be great, but I wouldn’t want to force people to do something that they don’t want to do,” she said.

Teacher Opinion

AP United States History teacher, Jerry Deakins,  believes that Carrillo provides the “equal opportunity to be successful” regardless of race. According to Deakins, the school is already providing counseling services and surveys students to gauge student needs. However, he acknowledges that there are “deeper issues” at play and that Carrillo has a “responsibility to engage in social awareness” regarding racial issues present in society. No teacher has the time to actively recruit students from certain ethnic groups, income levels or genders, he said; instead they give a quality education inside the classroom to whoever walks in the door.

Cindy Lui, AP Calculus teacher, believes that outreach needs to happen at a younger age rather than in high school. Citing the MATHCOUNTS program at Rincon Valley Middle School, she notes that “those students at the middle school level that get really into the math are pretty much just the ones where their parents make them go,” rather than being spurred by individual motivation.

Due to this environment, Lui said the MATHCOUNTS 2022 competition was “100% Asian” for the middle school, and these students generally go on to do AP math classes in high school. “I think we need to get more of them interested in doing it at the middle school [level],” Lui added.

The AP testing data revealed a continuing divide among the five largest racial groups at Maria Carrillo in the three years examined; however, no clear plan from the school or district has emerged. Some kind of outreach seems to be in order if gaps are to be closed, but as Lui said about the MATHCOUNTS team, “It can’t just start at junior or senior year.”

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