This is the third article in a three-part series that looks at why AP classes aren’t offered to all students, the barriers to being able to take an AP class, and, in the end, who benefits from these classes and tests.

The beginning of May brings a particular buzz to the halls of high schools as juniors and seniors gear up to spend three hours sitting at spaced-out desks under fluorescent lights. They’ve spent the last eight months challenging themselves in academically difficult classes, which have all led up to this moment. That’s right — it’s time for the AP exams. 

There’s a lot of pressure hinging on these tests.

In the American education system, APs are lauded as the best way to show colleges you’re a good candidate. While the courses do mostly offer a chance to try out a new learning style and push yourself academically, there are many asterisks to whether APs are the best — or only — path forward for everyone. The exams offer the possibility of earning college credit — a time and money-saving prospect for students and families — if you score high enough.

Only about half of Black students who took AP exams in 2020 earned a score that qualified for college credit.

In May 2021, nearly 1.18 million students took at least one AP exam, which was a slight decline from the 1.21 million in 2020. Only 22% of exam-takers in 2021 scored 3 out of 5 possible points, the minimum score most colleges accept in exchange for college credit. This is a drop from the 24% in 2020.

The breakdown by race from 2020, the last year the College Board released such data, shows that only about half of Black students who took AP exams earned a score that qualified for college credit. Black students also have the widest gap between the rate of students who took an AP exam and also earned credit.

Finding the Right Number

A 2013 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that taking five AP classes is generally the most beneficial. There was “almost no difference” in the GPAs of students who took five AP classes compared to students who took six or more.

And second, there isn’t a centralized college admissions system in the United States. While at the National Association of College Admissions Counselor conference, John Moscatiello, founder and CEO of Marco Learning, was curious about how colleges consider APs on resumes.

“I went around the dozens of tables and asked these different colleges, ‘How do you use AP exams in college admissions, and is it a distinct advantage or disadvantage?’ And I got, like, 30 different answers,” Moscatiello says. “We’re in a moment now where we haven’t figured out the future of test-optional/test-blind, and we haven’t figured out if AP is going to replace that standardized testing regime.”

With all of the differing advice and longstanding history of pushing toward AP, how do students figure out their own right path?

Taking the AP Class but Not the Exam

Though some schools are starting to require students in AP classes take the exam at the end of the year, it’s not standard. As a result, many students have the option of taking a challenging class without the pressure of the stressful $96 exam at the end.

Experts agree that AP courses are beneficial to students, even without the potential of earning college credit. They’re “absolutely worthwhile educationally,” says Akil Bello, the senior director of advocacy and advancement at FairTest. 

“There’s some research evidence indicating that kids do get better prepared for college level courses if they have taken what purports to be a college-level class in high school,” says Bob Schaeffer, the executive director of FairTest, which has an active lawsuit against the College Board for technical difficulties with the virtual AP exams in 2020.

Some people try to make AP courses as this panacea for low-income kids. Like, if everybody took AP courses, the world would be a better place.

Dr. Denise Pope, STANFORD UNIVERSITY lecturer and co-founder of Challenge Success

Even if you don’t take the exam, passing the class with an A or B makes you a more competitive college applicant, says Dr. Brett Grant, a postdoctoral fellow at the Black Education Research Collective at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“If you take AP courses, and you’re getting Cs and Ds, that’s not really showing that you’re being competitive when you apply to colleges,” Grant says. “You don’t want to take AP courses and not do well. That’s not going to help you.”

Dr. Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and co-founder of the nonprofit Challenge Success, thinks the decision comes down to each student’s motives. Her children took AP classes because they were interested in the subject and wanted to be challenged, but didn’t take some of the tests because they “didn’t feel like they needed to prove anything.”

“Even [without] taking the test, it was still valuable to be in an AP class to know what sort of rigorous high standards looked like and to get you excited about college work or show you that you had the ability to do college work,” Pope says.

Who Benefits from AP Classes?

Like most things, AP classes mostly benefit people who have already had the most opportunities to succeed, Schaeffer says. This includes wealthy, well-informed, largely male, largely white, private school students, Bello summarizes.

“They get the most benefit from probably everything in this process,” Bello says. “Because not only are they able to take advantage of these programs at a higher rate, they’re able to do any extra work necessary to ensure that they pass the test.”

But that doesn’t mean you need those factors to ensure success.

A support system is a huge factor in who benefits from APs, Grant says, acknowledging that the benefits spread wider than college credit: the school looks good, pride from family members, and increasing eligibility for grants and financial aid.

Pope echoes the importance of a support system, saying a big part of benefitting from AP classes is knowing what to expect and being adequately prepared. Challenge Success offers a variety of resources, including a printable worksheet to help students be realistic about their schedules. They also host workshops to help both students and parents understand what these classes require.

“You have to have someone sign off saying, ‘Yes, I understand that this is more work. I understand what this is going to entail before I sign up for it,’” Pope says. “Those are educating people what it means, how many is appropriate to take, how many makes sense for your schedule.”

What’s the Future of AP?

But it’s important to remember AP classes and exams aren’t the key to success. 

“Some people try to make AP courses as this panacea for low-income kids,” Pope says. “Like, if everybody took AP courses, the world would be a better place.”

Instead, Pope says, the most proven success with underserved students and schools is opening up programs that start before high school to help get students prepared for the kind of work they’re going to face.

“You can’t just plop them in and say, ‘Oh, we have APs now in our school, so our students are going to do better.’ It doesn’t work that way,” Pope says. “You need to have the students understand what that means and be ready for college-level work; you have to have the teachers understand what that means and know how to teach that.”

We’re in a moment now where we haven’t figured out the future of test-optional/test-blind, and we haven’t figured out if AP is going to replace that standardized testing regime.

John Moscatiello, founder and CEO of Marco Learning

“I do not think that all the schools — especially schools, in areas and neighborhoods experiencing low investments and not enough access to resources — are getting the information about AP courses and what it takes to be competitive for college,” Grant says.

Overall, students need the opportunity to challenge themselves academically. Not necessarily through a program run by the College Board, but a standardized, academically challenging curriculum that exposes students to more advanced coursework “sounds good in theory,” Bello says. 

“The benefit, to me, should be in the classroom, the learning that takes place,” Bello says, “not the three-hour test that is used to get college credit. It’s sort of backwards.”

Read Part 1: Despite ‘AP for All,’ the Program Still Isn’t Reaching Black Students
Read Part 2: The 4 Biggest Barriers Keeping Black Students Out of Advanced Classes

Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...