Why AP Classes Lack Diversity — and Why We Need to Change This

Historically, AP classes have lacked diversity and created barriers for students of color. Learn about the importance of closing equity gaps in AP classes.

portrait of Ciera Graham, Ph.D.
by Ciera Graham, Ph.D.

Published on March 30, 2022

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

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Why AP Classes Lack Diversity — and Why We Need to Change This


Advanced Placement (AP) classes can help give students a competitive edge in preparing for the rigors of college.

While AP classes often come with a greater workload, they can help prepare students for college, foster effective study skills, and increase engagement among students.

In 2020, the College Board reported that 1.21 million graduating high school seniors took 4.1 million AP exams over their time in high school.

Despite the popularity of AP courses, these classes have historically excluded many Black and Latino/a students, and this problem persists today. As a result, many of these students miss out on vital learning opportunities and the chance to increase their competitiveness during the college admissions process.

Addressing the Equity Gap in AP Courses

AP classes were introduced as a way to standardize high school coursework and give underfunded and low-performing schools an avenue for increasing college preparation among their students.

Policymakers have touted AP classes as a strategy for raising academic performance in underfunded schools. However, research shows that AP classes tend to be more highly concentrated among predominantly white and affluent schools. These institutions are largely lacking diversity.

According to The Education Trust, Black students make up 15% of high schoolers nationwide — but only 9% of these students are enrolled in at least one AP class. Similarly, Latino/a students make up a quarter of U.S. high schoolers, but only 21% enroll in AP courses.

Note that the data source did not clarify the extent to which these racial and ethnic identity categories overlapped or whether respondents were allowed to choose more than one of these identities.

Education is often perceived as a great equalizer and an avenue for leveling the socioeconomic playing field, but many schools lack diversity in their AP classes. Furthermore, many schools that serve predominantly Black and Latino/a students face shortages in AP classes or have no AP opportunities for students at all.

Barriers to AP Classes for Black and Latino/a Students

Black and Latino/a students may encounter several barriers when seeking admittance into AP classes. Here are three reasons why enrolling in AP classes may be difficult for these students.

Resource Inequities

School districts with high concentrations of Black and Latino/a students are more likely to be underfunded than majority-white school districts. According to The Century Foundation, they also face much wider funding gaps, with an average deficit of more than $5,000 per student.

This means that these students are more likely to attend overcrowded schools with little to no access to appropriate textbooks, technology, and other educational amenities.

Underfunded schools also tend to attract less qualified teachers. AP classes are often few and far between at underfunded schools.

Educator Bias

AP classes may require recommendations from school counselors. A recent study showed that Black girls are less likely to be recommended by their high school counselors for AP classes — even when their transcripts are identical to those of their white peers.

Additionally, numerous studies have demonstrated that Black students are more likely to be suspended than white students due to perceptions and biases about being too challenging and unruly.

Educators holding biases about Black students and other students of color while also serving as the gatekeepers for AP classes creates additional barriers for these students.

Lack of Access to Diverse Educators

It's no secret that education has a diversity problem related to recruiting educators and school professionals from a wide array of backgrounds and experiences. For example, public school teachers in elementary and secondary schools are often less racially diverse when compared to the groups of students they serve.

As the U.S. population increasingly includes people with different experiences and backgrounds, we need more educators who share the identities of their students — racially, ethically, and in all the ways people can identify. It is important for teachers to understand the lived experiences of their pupils.

Having a more diverse, open-minded group of educators could help alleviate the negative effects of existing biases about the academic capabilities of students of color. This would also create opportunities for more educators from different backgrounds to teach AP classes.

5 Ways Policymakers Can Increase Equity in Access to AP Classes

If we want to prepare more students of color for college and increase academic performance standards at traditionally underfunded schools, policymakers must invest in equity efforts to increase access to AP classes for students of color.

Here are some strategies that policymakers should adopt.

1. Invest More Funding

Black and Latino/a students are disproportionately concentrated in low-performing and underfunded schools. States need to invest more funding in these schools and expand AP offerings.

2. Improve Educator Pay and Workplace Conditions

Policymakers need to lobby and advocate for increased educator pay and improved benefits and working conditions. Many educators and school personnel are underpaid. As a result, some schools are seeing a mass exodus of teachers leaving due to burnout, low earning potential, poor workplace conditions, and job-related stress and trauma from which they are not well protected.

Teachers regularly face high-stress situations and large workloads. Schools can attract and retain more quality educators by making pay more competitive and improving the workplace culture at schools.

3. Provide Educator Bias Training

States need to advocate for and invest in regular implicit bias training for educators. Racial, ethnic, gender, disability, class, and other identity-based equity training should be given to educators regularly and be part of their professional development.

4. Provide Additional AP Resources

States should provide more resources for students to help them prepare for advanced coursework. This includes increased access to textbooks, testing materials, and technology.

5. Expand AP Course Offerings

Schools should be able to offer culturally relevant AP courses for students. A diverse curriculum is advantageous for students as it expands students' cultural competency skills and helps them learn to work with peers who may be racially or ethnically different from them.

How AP Courses Can Increase Representation

To close equity gaps in AP classes, schools must go beyond simply expanding resources for underfunded schools. Schools should also ensure that diversity exists within the curriculum and that coursework reflects the history and culture of students of all backgrounds.

AP History classes have traditionally told history via a Eurocentric lens, often ignoring the history of people of color in our country. When students of color do not see themselves reflected in the curriculum — or if they only perceive themselves as reflected in specific, inaccurate, or negative ways — they may feel less confident and less engaged, which may inhibit performance.

AP History and AP Government and Politics courses should include more content covering historically underrepresented populations, including people of color, migrants, and LGBTQ+ populations.

Some schools have started new pilot programs in attempts to increase representation in advanced courses. For example, Memphis-Shelby County Schools — where Black students make up roughly 75% of the student body — recently introduced an AP African American Studies class to attract more Black students to AP classes.

The Importance of Increasing Access and Success in AP Courses

Students in AP courses are more likely to express a greater sense of belonging. They also have higher graduation rates and are less likely to experience absences and suspension.

While some work has been done to alleviate educational achievement gaps, many students of color are still significantly impacted by a lack of access to AP classes. By expanding access, these students have the chance to boost their GPAs and feel more prepared for college.

Additionally, by increasing access, these students have more opportunities to earn college credit in high school. This can help students save money on higher education, which can help alleviate the massive student debt that many Black and Latino/a graduates carry after college.

Increasing access to AP courses is an equity issue, and it deserves the attention of educators and policymakers alike.


Feature Image: Hill Street Studios / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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