Why College Board Should Add an AP Ethnic Studies Course

Creating an AP ethnic studies course may encourage more diverse students to pursue AP courses and help participants find postsecondary success.

Updated August 15, 2022

Why College Board Should Add an AP Ethnic Studies Course
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Hill Street Studios / DigitalVision / Getty Images

  • AP courses prepare high school students for college-level coursework.
  • BIPOC student groups have seen a decline in their AP exam pass rates since the 1990s.
  • Classes that feature culturally relevant curricula help participants find success.

Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams provide high school students with an opportunity to earn high school and college credit. Learners who pass these classes can also increase their competitiveness in the college admissions process. The College Board reported that 1.18 million graduating high school seniors in the class of 2021 took at least one AP exam during their time in high school.

Historically, these classes have been more common at predominantly white and affluent high schools. In contrast, underfunded schools that primarily serve students of color may not have the resources to offer these classes. Many AP classes also lack diverse curricula and fail to center the lived experiences and identities of all students.

Although students who were historically and systemically excluded from pursuing AP classes — including many BIPOC learners — have begun enrolling at greater rates over the past few decades, their pass rates for AP exams have declined since the early 1990s.

Attributing the decline in pass rates among BIPOC students to their own academic capabilities and competencies is a flawed, deficit-based assumption. Instead, it is worth questioning why AP classes have not adapted to incorporate more diverse curricula to help all students excel in their studies. Research conducted at Stanford University showed that when students of color have access to culturally relevant courses, they perform better academically and feel more confident about their abilities to succeed.

To help improve learning outcomes, the idea of introducing AP ethnic studies courses has gained traction. White Station High School — a school in Memphis, Tennessee — was recently named as one of 60 schools in the U.S. to pilot an African American studies AP course. Roughly 75% of the school's student population identifies as African American. The establishment of this course was a direct attempt to help Black students learn about and engage with their history.

Many schools are beginning to understand the necessity of offering ethnic studies options to students at the secondary level. Recent high-profile incidents of police violence against people of color have brought increased public attention to learning about the historical and contemporary manifestations of racism. There is also increased pressure on educators to find productive and culturally sensitive ways to talk to students about race in the classroom.

Schools have also begun to implement racial equity initiatives to enhance the academic engagement and sense of belonging of students of color. For example, high schools in Los Angeles, California, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, have instituted non-AP ethnic studies courses as a graduation requirement.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that students of color and low-income students experience disproportionately lower rates of postsecondary success. These students are also more likely to report being unprepared for the rigors of a college education. This is a systemic failure. Providing BIPOC students with access to AP ethnic studies courses can encourage more students to pursue advanced courses and increase the chances that participants will find postsecondary success. For example, AP classes can help students build effective study and time-management skills.

The aforementioned study conducted at Stanford University also showed that offering high school ethnic studies courses boosted student attendance and academic performance of students at risk of dropping out. The study showed positive effects across male, female, Asian, and Hispanic students, although the most significant results were observed among male students and Hispanic students.

One of the key tenets of being an effective educator is the ability to understand the lived experiences of students and incorporate their perspectives into the teaching and learning process. Additionally, a diverse curriculum also benefits students who may not identify as an ethnic minority, as it increases the competencies needed to collaborate with a diverse group of peers.

Schools must continue to move away from curricula that primarily center white students or are taught exclusively from a Eurocentric perspective. Students of color do not benefit from having their history and experiences marginalized. Instead, these experiences should be incorporated into the classroom as a way to expand culturally relevant teaching.

For far too long, schools have ignored inequities that persist in AP entry and pass rates for students of color. Instead of thinking critically about these achievements gaps, discrepancies have been dismissed as a lack of drive, will, or intelligence among students of color.

This narrative must be reframed to acknowledge that students of color bring a wealth of knowledge and experiences to their learning environment. They deserve to take classes that speak to and honor their lived experiences.

The potential of ethnic studies curricula is undeniable, and the College Board should take this evidence to heart and offer more diverse academic options to students.