Underrepresentation of Minorities in AP Courses

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Literature Search Strategy

A systematic literature review was conducted using the keywords: AP courses, advanced placement, college preparatory classes, minority students, minority student perceptions, talented and gifted classes, African American, Hispanic, minority representation, minority underrepresentation in AP courses, critical race theory, social cognitive theory, and STEM. Academic databases, including: PubMed, EBSCO, CINAHL, The Cochrane Library, Google Scholar, MEDLINE, and ProQuest. To be included in the search, all articles were required to be published between 2012-2017 in peer-reviewed journals. The articles were not required to be published in the United States to meet the inclusion criteria, but, due to a lack of international sources, those used in this review are all published by American journals. A second search was conducted to yield articles dating prior to that (1989-2011) to establish historical and ongoing relevance; these articles were included to establish a research base. All research studies cited were published between 2012-present.

Results yielded a mixture of both historic (i.e., published between 1990-2005) and modern research, indicating that this problem has persisted over time and is academically relevant. Furthermore, the research revealed several levels of analyses, which were included in this literature review: observational studies, case studies, theoretical research, pilot studies, longitudinal analyses, and pilot studies for implementing improved minority representation.

Despite the wide array of literature, a gap in research regarding administrative practices and models for improvement exist. Wood (2016) and Demaree (2016) indicated that there is a gap in research regarding administrative practices that could be connected to improved representation of ethnic subgroups in AP programs. Rowland and Shircliffe (2016) also noted the need for increased understanding of administrative practices that might eliminate the barriers between underserved students and college preparation (Rowland & Shircliffe, 2016). Giersch, Bottia, Mickelson and Stearns (2016) indicated that administrative decisions regarding resources was connected to low enrollment of ethnic subgroups in AP courses. Finally, Carter (2016), emphasized the need to understand the administrative practices that optimize the school capacity for engaging students behaviorally, emotionally and cognitively especially those serving the ethnic subgroups. This current research affirms that there is a gap in knowledge about administrative practices designed to engage ethnic subgroups in advanced academic achievement.

Conceptual Framework/Theoretical Foundation

The theoretical framework provides structure for the research project. Frameworks provide the conceptual underpinning of a study, which dictates the researcher’s approach, method, and objectives (Ravitch & Carl, 2016). This research intends to implement Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) to explore how inequality perpetuates inequity outcomes, including AP enrollment and retention. 

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is the foundation of this research. CRT originated in socio-economic and legal theory, specifically during the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995, p. 7). However, it can be used to explore education, development, and behavior through social standing. Notably, CRT posits that racial inequality is engrained into American culture. The first tenant of CRT states that: “Race continues to be a significant factor in determining inequity in the United States” (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). Current research identified that minority students are underrepresented in AP courses; CRT is used to explain that the foundation of this underrepresentation is in inequity and racism.

In 1991, Jonathan Kozol extrapolated CRT to the disciplines of sociology and education:  Kozol observed that educational experience of a middle-class, White student was markedly different from a lower-class African American student (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). Differences in experience included unequal access to educational materials, as well as the learning environment, expectations, content, and drop-out rates. Kozol used CRT to illustrate how minority students (Latinos and African Americans) continuously suffer from greater rates of dropouts, suspensions, expulsions, and poor grades than their White, middle-class counterparts (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). CRT states that this classism is ingrained into culture, and therefore perpetuated. This further links social and academic integration to the student “experience.” Kozol (1991) used CRT to suggest that minority students lack the degree of “social integration” that would facilitate a confident learning environment: 

Academic integration is the degree to which students believe they have established significant relationships with peers and the campus community and academic integration as the degree to which students feel they have established a relationship and connection with faculty members. Students who report higher levels of social and academic integration into their campus environments also demonstrate higher levels of institutional and goal commitment and persistence to degree completion. (Kozol, 1991, p. 52).

In this way, CRT explains the historic, initial racial inequity in the classroom. Furthermore, Kozol (1991) suggests that inequity is tied to the “student experience,” or “academic integration” that leads to academic involvement, confidence, and success. By identifying not only a resource inequity, but a cultural inequity (“academic integration”), Kozol laid the foundation for this, and successive research. 

Building on this foundation, James et al. (2016) used the CRT to explore how inequality creates inequity outcomes, specifically how equality of access directly impacts equality of outcomes (James et al., 2016). The AP program is tied to greater collegiate and post-collegiate otucomes: AP enrollment, retention, and national exam scores are strong predictors of post-collegiate behavior (Butterfield, Jones, & Mokuria, 2016). Students who have access to these programs, therefore, have greater outcomes following high school. James et al.’s research explained that the AP program is an exercise in equality: the program was originally accessible only to students deemed “gifted” (James et al., 2016, p. 16). During the program’s formative years – which coincided with the height of the Civil Rights movement – it was exclusively White. Since the 2000s, enrollment and accessibility have more than tripled; however, James et al. found that minority groups continue to be disproportionally underrepresented in these classrooms nationwide (James et al., 2016). Findings indicated that race negatively impacts access to AP courses, which therefore is a negative predictor for outcomes (collegiate or post-collegiate) (James et al., 2016). CRT, therefore, may explain the perpetual underrepresentation of minority students in these courses via resource inequity, class distribution, and students’ perceived “academic experience.”

Critical Race Theory is used to construct the foundation of this research, delineating factors which impact negative minority presence in these advanced courses. In addition, research by James et al. (2016) used the CRT as an “equity guide” that can be used as a checklist in creating or improving minority access in schools (James et al., 2016). In this way, this theory critically analyzes the cause of minority underrepresentation, as well as proposes methods for improvement. This can improve the development of school- or district-wide intervention programs. Therefore, by identifying poor minority presence in AP courses, improvements can be made to improve enrollment numbers, cultural sensitivity, cultural diversity, and student outcomes.

Building on Kozol’s “academic experience” of Critical Race Theory, the conceptual framework of this dissertation aims to explore how “academic experience” can be influenced and improved among minority students. Therefore, Bandura’s (1993) Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) is used as a secondary framework. This theory posits that learning is a social experience: “occurs in a social context with a dynamic and reciprocal interaction of the person, environment, and behavior” (Bandura, 1993; Bandura, 1989). This will be used to explain social and cultural factors which influence minority presence in AP courses.

The constructs of SCT theory that are most relevant to the study are (a) “affective influences,” (b) “motivational influences,” (c) “selection processes” and (d) “cognitive learning,” (p. 118). This theory can be used to deconstruct the “academic experience” and motivating factors that encourage or discourage participation in AP courses. The first construct, “affective influences,” the interplay between mood and cognition, has been linked to administrative practices that influence student choices, such as whether or not to enroll in AP courses (Ramsey, Spira, Parisi, & Rebok, 2016). Secondly, “motivational influences” are incentive conditions that affect the motivational state, which was established in the work of Torre et al. (2017). Torre et al. (2017) found that administrative practices, such as the implementation of safe places for student/teacher interactions, provided motivational influences that increased student success.

Bandura’s construct of “selection processes” refers to the choice of activities and environments that students make based on their beliefs of personal efficacy (Bandura, 1993, p. 134). Daniel (2015) demonstrated that selection processes allow students to excel in challenging tasks even when those tasks do not correspond to the students’ inherent abilities (p. 114). Lastly, Bandura’s construct of cognitive learning was used by Kotok (2017) to demonstrate the differences between ethnic subgroups and their non-ethnic counterparts in accessing advanced learning opportunities. The affective, motivational, selection, and cognitive constructs of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory form the conceptual framework. The socio-cultural nuances of racism in education are complex; this research aims to use CRT and SCT to explore: (1) access to AP courses, (2) a student’s “academic experience” that dictates his or her participation in courses, and (3) motivational influences or incentives that can be created to equalize minority presence in AP courses.


Literature Review Related to Key Concepts and Variable

Advanced Placement (AP) courses provide high school students with an accelerated track toward college preparation, wherein “gifted” students take on challenging courses that facilitate critical thinking skills, time management, and exam-oriented lessons that better represent the collegiate education. Research has demonstrated that students in AP programs have higher achievement, college readiness, and college completion rates than those enrolled in standard high school classes (Kettler & Hurts, 2017). Despite the utility associated with AP courses, Hispanic, African-American, and Native American students are significantly less likely to be enrolled in AP courses than European and Asian students, even when they have equivalent levels of readiness (College Board, 2016). In 2013, an analysis by the College Board found that African American students comprised 14.5% of the nation’s graduating class, but only 9.2% of the nation’s AP exam taking students (Havis, 2015). This indicates that the problem or poor minority representation in these courses is both systemic and nationwide.

Access to advanced or gifted courses has improved outcomes in student achievement, with AP students citing higher rates of college admissions, scholarships, grade point averages, and college completion rates compared to their non-AP counterparts (Davis, Slate, Moore, et al., 2015; Ecker-Lyster & Niileksela, 2017; Ford & Witing, 2016; Little, 2016; Tyson, 2013). AP courses have been associated with higher educational performance, especially when placed in context of college preparation, exam readiness, and professional career trajectories (Witenko, Mireles-Rios, & Rios, 2016). Despite their utility, Ford et al. (2016) found that, nationally, AP courses are predominantly comprised of White/Caucasian and Asian/Pacific Islander (Ford & Whiting, 2016). Instead, Black and Hispanic students generally do not participate in AP programs at the same rate as same-school White/Caucasian students. According to Kettler (2017), this “leaves White students to benefit disproportionately in the transition from high school to college” (Kettler & Hurst, 2017, p. 3). Furthermore, racial gaps in AP programs persist, neither increasing nor decreasing over a 10-year retrospective study (Kettler & Hurst, 2017). This suggests that racial underrepresentation is systemic.

In response to these poor numbers, the College Board initiated the “Advanced Placement Equity 2000” initiative, which aimed to improve minority presence during the years 1999-2002 (Havis, 2015). Poor representation was initially determined to be a due to a gap in “equity and access” (College Board, 2014). AP courses require expensive textbooks, special-access to the classes (i.e., school preparedness), and $89 for each state exam fee; these factors amount to fiscal resources that are not always accessible to underprivelaged students, students of lower socio-economic status, and minorities. Furthermore, it is evident that the expansion of Advanced Placement program has not reached out to entice all subgroups and, therefore, has yielded inequitable access. Underrepresentation of minority and low socio-economic students in AP courses has become a common phenomenon in high schools across the U.S.; this has negative implications for education, class, and professional gaps. 

Inequality can stem from poor access to courses, tracking and early identification as “gifted” in school, education level of parents, socioeconomic status, and non-academic influences (e.g., peer pressure, feeling accepted in school, prioritizing education, feeling capable of succeeding).

Inequality in Access to Courses

The biggest driver in minority presence in these courses is the inequity in access to courses, course materials, and testing. Davis et al. (2015)’s research noted that minority students are less likely to enroll in AP courses, providing further support for the foundation of this research. They found that lack of “equity” for minority students contributes to poor minority presence in these courses. Findings revealed that many urban and rural schools lack the appropriate AP resources needed, including specific AP teachers, classrooms, textbooks, resources, and accessibility to the $89 national exam (Davis, Slate, & Moore, 2015). This fuels poor “AP exposure,” wherein students are less aware of AP courses and the opportunities associated with them.

Building on this, Gagnon and Mattingly (2016) analyzed the AP enrollment, access, and success across the nation’s most urban and rural schools. Findings illustrated that poor and remote schools are at inherent disadvantages with regard to promoting AP courses, let alone promoting AP success (Gagnon & Mattingly, 2016). The logistical challenges that schools face include teaching constraints, teacher availability, classroom availability, and lack of access to tangible resources needed to conduct a college preparatory class. Furthermore, this study is relevant to the base of this research, in that findings found that even when rural schools do offer AP courses, overall enrollment and success are significantly lower than in affluent schools (Gagnon & Mattingly, 2016). This suggests that inequity is tied to other non-academic factors, aside from tangible resources, which will be discussed subsequently.

Race & Achievement Gaps: Early Identification

Ecker-Lyster et al. (2017) conducted a systematic and critical evaluation on the presence of minorities in “gifted” courses. Findings reveal that “gifted” students are generally labelled as such early on in their educational career—e.g., in elementary or middle school. Early “tagging” of students as academically “gifted” as serious implications for the student’s sense of performance and ability thereon (Ecker-Lyster & Niileksela, 2017). However, this research also identifies components of programs that improve student recruitment and retention, including: multicultural education, mentoring, and skill development that have evidence-based success. This provides useful tools for outlining components of a successful “support” or “intervention” program.

Perpetuation of the racial gap has been shown to begin in the early years of a child’s education, and persists when students lack emotional and academic support. A longitudinal research study by Morgan et al. (2015) suggested that this ethnic gap begins in elementary and middle schools, only to persist in later academic years. Morgan et al. (2015) found that White, English-speaking children are more likely to be identified as students in need of special education services, whether they be labeled “gifted” or “disabled,” compared to minority children (Morgan, Farkas, Hillmeier, et al., 2015). This class inequity begins in kindergarten and early elementary school, and Morgan et al.’s research found that ethnic-minority children were less likely to be identified as gifted, disabled, impaired, or in need of special education services (Morgan et al., 2015). A descriptive research study by Witenko et al. (2016) suggests that this contributes to poor minority representation in AP courses later in the student’s educational career (Witenko, Rios, & Rios, 2016). 

Rehm (2014) reinforced the increasing importance of AP courses in American education. While AP course enrollment, overall, continues to increase, minority student presence continues to decline in these courses (Rehm, 2014). Despite the College Board’s initiative in performance in 2000, minority participation in these courses had dropped below 10% in the nation’s AP tests (Rehm, 2014). This research does not provide useful intervention components or program recommendations, but instead reiterates the importance of acknowledging and mitigating this education gap.

Current research indicates that racial gaps persist across all advanced-level courses, including AP courses and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses in high schools. Bean et al. (2016) supported the evidence that gaps persist in education, and that racial gaps persist in all advanced-level high school courses. This research also provided implications for ethnic minority underrepresentation in higher education

Non-Academic Drivers

Findings reveal that the primary barrier to AP courses is lack of access to them—i.e., a student cannot participate in a course that is not offered. However, additional barriers to success persist, preventing minority students from enrolling in the AP program. Of these, student perception has been found to be paramount. The high expectations of the college and career standards demand more rigorous and challenging academic programs to prepare the students for higher education (Gagnon & Mattingly, 2016). Gagnon et al. (2016) found that students who lacked a positive perception of academics were less likely to enroll in AP courses (Gagnon & Mattingly, 2016). In addition, students whose parents did not achieve a high level of education (i.e., “some college” or greater) were less likely to enroll than students whose parents had only achieved a high school diploma (Gagnon & Mattingly, 2016). This suggests that the culture of learning and education is facilitated by a student’s perception of his or her abilities (“gifted” or not) as well as other social influences, including socio-economics and educational status in the home. 

Lastly, the student’s “network of encouragement,” including peer pressure or support, had dramatic impacts on AP enrollment for minority students.

Networks of Encouragement

Recent research concurs that minority students do not include AP courses in their educational experience at the same rate that White and Asian students do (Hitt & Tucker, 2016). This suggests that other non-academic factors influence their choice to not participate in these courses, even when they are offered. Witenko et al. (2016) conducted a qualitative analysis that suggests non-academic drivers are just as meaningful in the AP course selection process: it is not sufficient that a school simply offer AP courses; instead, full minority participation relies on an intricate, and ongoing “network of encouragement.” This refers to the support a student receives from his peers, teachers, administrators, parents, and school environment (Yob, 2016).

Yob (2016) used individual, semi-structured interviews with high school educators, to reveal that “cultural context” shapes the way educators interact with students: faculty members want to support the curriculum design and student preparation, but also feel obligated to fulfill a “social responsibility” to students (Witenko, Mireles-Rio, & Rios, 2016). When “social responsibility” is partnered with academic support, students have improved outcomes: Witenko et al. (2016) found that there is a positive association between emotional support and academic achievement and, moreover, that Latino/Latina students have different “networks of encouragement” compared to White/Caucasian students (Witenko et al., 2016). The role of a student’s peer group is also essential: Witenko et al. (2016) found that students whose friends enrolled in AP classes were more likely to enroll as well, suggesting that peer pressure has a significant role in student participation. Witenko et al. (2016) found that peer pressure had adverse effects on minority and cultural subgroups, where African American and Hispanic students were less likely to “see” themselves succeed in these courses, and therefore did not encourage their peers to enroll (Witenko et al., 2016). This suggests that the network must be active, engaging, and culturally sensitive to a minority population.

This network is imperative for students and educators alike: findings revealed that teachers must be given an administrative “network of support” in order to offer a quality AP experience, recruit minority students, and maintain cultural sensitivity.

These findings were reaffirmed by Olszewski-Kubiluis et al. (2016), who found that poor diversity representation in higher-achievement classes can be attributed to poor “student support,” or networks of encouragement that facilitate study groups, community support, and mentors (Olszewski-Kubiluis et al., 2016). This descriptive research study provides insight into the driving factors that contribute to a student’s success, participation, or academic involvement in later years. Drivers include social support (peer pressure, peer participation), parental involvement, education level of parents, relationship with teachers, and previous academic perceptions (Olszewski-Kubiluis et al., 2016).

Models for Improvement

The poor representation of minority students in AP courses has been documented. With this, efforts to improve diversity and AP-exposure have been implemented with positive results. Project Rise Up 4 CS aims to expand computer education pathways for African American students, with the intent of increasing the number of Black students who pass the AP computer science (CS) exam (Ericson & McKlin, 2015). This is necessary given that African Americans have the lowest AP exam “pass rate” of any ethnic group, nationally (Ericson & McKlin, 2015). In the study, “Project Rise Up 4 CS uses an intervention of ‘student support’ to promote success: the program uses help sessions, near-peer role models, competitions, financial incentives, and a community of learners” to improve the student “support system” with regard to AP classes (Ericson & McKlin, 2015, p. 6). The program began in 2013, and since then has increased African American student enrollment and success by 27% since 2012; this indicates that positive interventions that incorporate (1) positive role models, (2) incentives, and (3) networks for encouragement can positively influence student retention and success (Ericson & McKlin, 2015).

Similarly, in 2016, the tenants of this program were applied to four New Jersey school districts to increase minority student presence in AP courses (Roegman & Hatch, 2016). The New Jersey initiative comprised 15 superintendents who worked together to develop “system wide approaches to educational equity,” which included (1) increasing access to AP classes, (2) placing more students in AP classes, and (3) increasing student support networks for AP participation (Roegman & Hatch, 2016). This initiative effectively incentivized AP course participation for minority students. Results from this study found that placing more students in AP courses did not negatively impact overall test scores, suggesting that student readiness can be impacted by a systemic support system (Roegman & Hatch, 2016). Roegman et al. (2016) noted that the primary challenge remains ensuring that access to AP classes continues to be equitable (Roegman & Hatch, 2016). This indicates that a multi-intervention plan that improves student exposure to AP classes, financial support, and community support has positive implications for success. 

A substantial barrier in AP enrollment is poor academic perception—students do not feel they can succeed, do not feel prepared, or do not meet the pre-requisites needed to enter the AP class (Little, 2016). In 1995, Charlotte-Mecklenburg School removed all pre-requisites associated with AP enrollment, and subsequently saw the enrollment of African American students in AP courses triple (Little, 2016). The population of Charlotte, NC is approximately 45% White, 35% African American, and 13% Hispanic; therefore, this school was an appropriate case study to explore racial and administrative drivers for AP enrollment (Little, 2016). This indicates a possible solution to improving minority enrollment is to remove additional, unnecessary academic barriers preventing students from participating. 

In 2016, the state of Florida partnered with the College Board via the Florida Partnership in an effort to expand minority access to AP courses (Preston, 216). The partnership trained 16,000 teachers across the state on recruiting and retaining minority students, paid for the AP exam, and expanded access to AP courses in low-income areas (Preston, 2016). Results of the partnership are still pending, but this provides a noteworthy model on the importance of teacher education, outreach, cultural sensitivity, and mitigating socioeconomic barriers in education.

Research by Rowland and Shircliffe (2016) examined educators’ perceptions on value-based learning incentives. This study revealed that educators do not feel that linking AP test scores with “value added model” for teacher evaluations is effective or fair. Furthermore, results confirmed that student performance can only be achieved by increasing school support systems, wherein a “support system” is designed to give one-on-one attention to minority students and enhance their college preparedness overall. This reaffirms the importance of implementing a systemic model – or “network of encouragement” – within the school system.

Gaps in Literature

The literature clearly supports the statement that minority students are underrepresented in AP courses nationwide, regardless of school characteristics (i.e., resources, location). However, gaps in the research persist; notably, research did not identify how minority students score when they do take the national exams, their graduation and/or college acceptance rate, whether participation changes if students commute to neighboring schools, and what constitutes appropriate “administrative support” or “teacher training” for creating a comprehensive support environment. This research aims to explore how administrative support and teacher support can be clearly defined, facilitated, and implemented in improving minority recruitment and retention in these courses.

Summary and Conclusions

Advanced Placement (AP) classes have gained a significant standing in the American high school curriculum. These courses are aimed to improve academic understanding and also facilitate cognitive skills that better-prepare students for college classes. However, recent research indicates that minority students (e.g., African American, Hispanic, and Native American) are vastly underrepresented in these classes—instead, AP courses are dominated by White/Caucasian and Asian students. This discrepancy has negative implications for college readiness and post-graduation professional life for minority students. Current research cites the several academic and non-academic barriers to minority participation in these courses. However, this complex problem can begin to be mitigated with improved administrative, network support.












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