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Using Advanced Placement as a lever for social justice

The former school superintendent of Hartford, Conn., Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, once told me that “the public education system is the great sorting mechanism for American society.” I use that line often, as it succinctly conveys both the connection of public education to the larger society and the never-ending debate about its purpose. Should public education serve to elevate all students, regardless of background so they can attend a four-year college or should it weed out students based on merit and perceived ability?

Nowhere does this dynamic play out more clearly than in the assignment of students to Advanced Placement classes. AP has become a symbol of excellence and accountability for many school systems. Regardless of the actual value the courses have in relationship to learning important content, they’re seen as a measure of a school’s excellence and used as an accountability metric: The more AP classes a school offers, the better it is believed to prepare students for college; the greater the numbers of nonwhite and Asian students who take AP classes and pass AP tests, the more the school is said to be promoting equity.

But while these metrics are important first-level indicators of equity, the pursuit of social justice requires a much deeper understanding of how AP classes are administered and to whom they are offered.

Gateway courses

When I was superintendent of Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, the associate superintendent for high schools, Chris Garran, told me about his AP awakening: When he became the principal of a well-regarded and diverse high school, he discovered that none of the school’s black graduates had qualified for a scholarship based on their success in AP courses. When he and his guidance team dug into the data, they found that many white and Asian students were taking AP Government and Politics (also called AP NSL) as freshmen and sophomores, while black and Hispanic students didn’t start taking AP until junior or senior year.

He discovered that NSL was considered a gateway course that helped students understand the requirements of AP and build the necessary “AP muscle” they’d need for more difficult classes. So, white and Asian students who were deemed AP-ready coming out of middle school were encouraged to enroll in NSL and then ended up taking multiple AP courses in high school, while black and Hispanic students would take just one or two (most often AP Psychology).

When Garran became the district’s associate superintendent for high schools, he checked to see whether the 25 high schools in the county were enrolling black, Hispanic, and students on free and reduced-price meals in AP courses starting in 9th grade. Finding patterns similar to what he had seen as a principal, Garran began an annual review process meant to broaden enrollment.

As a result, from 2013 to 2016 (I left in 2015), the percentage of students enrolled in AP Government and Politics who scored a 3 or higher on exams increased by 2 percentage points (to almost three-quarters of all high school students) and by 6 percentage points for black students and 5 percentage points for Hispanic students ( AdvancedPlacement).

Across the country, high schools have restricted access to AP courses by requiring certain grade point averages and standardized test scores or recommendations from specific teachers. Supposedly, such rules are necessary to maintain AP’s reputation as a merit-based accomplishment. In reality, though, they function to exclude many young people. According to Education Trust (2013):

[O]ur examination of reach across different groups of students revealed wide differences in participation. Middle- and high-income students who attend schools with AP classes are three times as likely to enroll in an AP course as are low-income students. Asian students participate at more than twice the national average, while black and American Indian students participate at about half the rate of the national average (p. 4).

Similarly, the College Board, which administers the AP program, has acknowledged that significant numbers of black and Hispanic students who have the potential to succeed in AP never take those classes, either because their schools don’t offer them or because they aren’t placed into them.

Expanding access, expecting resistance

When I was superintendent in Stamford, Conn., one of the local high schools, Westhill, decided to open access to AP. A forward-thinking English department head and a supportive principal led the initiative, which then spread to other departments. Yet, even though we won a grant to support the work, we ran into fierce resistance from various quarters.

Parents of affluent white students, especially, argued that black and Hispanic kids simply weren’t ready for the rigors of AP; they should be shielded from failure, they said. And if those kids were allowed to take the courses, then the AP program would be dumbed-down, or the teachers would have to go more slowly.

Likewise, the teachers’ union leadership contested our decision (even though many teachers supported it). Apparently, cash rewards had been given to teachers whose students scored a 3 or above (on a 5-point scale) on AP tests, and they were worried that expanding access would dilute the pool of high-scoring students, putting those rewards at risk. Fortunately, we won in arbitration, setting a precedent for the entire state, and the initiative continued. As a result, participation in AP courses by black students increased by 12 percentage points and by Hispanic students by 11 percentage points during my tenure. Participation by white and Asian students continued and even increased. Overall success in AP (as measured by passing an exam) increased by 12 percentage points during that time and doubled for black and Hispanic students (although they continued to lag behind their peers) ( ).

Opening access to AP for all students isn’t an easy undertaking nor is overcoming the inevitable resistance. But it is an essential move for any school or system leader who wants to lead from a social justice perspective. If AP is a critical part of the pathway to college and if we want more students to pursue four-year degrees, then we have to rewrite the rules to take the onus off the individual student and put it on the adults in the system to support all students’ access to and success in higher-level courses. Further, the more routinely we steer all students into advanced coursework, the more successful those students are likely to be. Researchers have found that when one or two students of color are placed in an AP course, they don’t do as well as they do when they are part of a sizeable cohort — the so-called posse effect tends to provide a boost for students of color who’ve been given messages throughout their schooling that they’re not as worthy or entitled to upper-level courses as white and Asian students.

Leading from a social justice lens requires that school and system leaders understand the rules that have been created to privilege some and oppress others. The seemingly objective entrance criteria for AP classes have served to rank and sort our public school students so that white and Asian students continue to excel while black and Hispanic students are kept out of such opportunities. Leaders must deliberately and intentionally change those conditions by rewriting the rules, examining the data, supporting students, teachers and leaders, and establishing accountability based on the idea that all students must have access to the highest academic levels a school offers.


Education Trust. (2013, June). Washington, DC: Author.

JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va.

Originally published in October 2017 (2), 72-73. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.

Many entrenched school practices perpetuate the public education system as “the great sorting mechanism for American society.”

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