Study sheds light on Advanced Placement courses in Arizona schools

Advanced Placement (AP) courses offer students the opportunity to take rigorous, college-level classes in high school. Many colleges and universities offer college credit to students who earn a sufficiently high score on AP exams in one or more of 34 subjects. But access to the courses and student success on AP tests varies among Arizona’s urban and rural areas and racial/ethnic groups, according to a new study.

The study conducted by a faculty member in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, assisted by a group of students pursuing their doctorate degrees in educational policy and evaluation, examines students’ access, participation, and success in AP courses in Arizona’s public high schools.

“We hope that our results help district leaders and policymakers better understand students’ participation in AP courses and test-taking as they consider the place AP courses have in a district’s curriculum and the allocation of resources,” said Jeanne M. Powers, an associate professor in Teachers College who was the lead author of “Advanced Placement Courses: Access, Participation, and Outcomes in Arizona,” recently published in Policy Points by ASU’s Morrison Institute of Public Policy.

Powers and her students analyzed 2009-2010 data from Arizona schools located in districts serving more than 3,000 students and a sample of smaller districts. Of those 172 public high schools, 80 percent offered at least one AP course. The majority of these schools are located in cities and suburbs. An average of 14 percent of students in these schools took at least one AP class. On average, Asian American and White students were overrepresented in AP courses, while American Indian, Black and Hispanic students were underrepresented.

The percentages of Arizona students taking and passing AP exams are below the national average. Of the Arizona students enrolled in AP courses, 54 percent took AP tests in at least one subject and 32 percent of enrolled students passed at least one AP test. While Hispanic students were the racial/ethnic group with the largest proportion of test takers, only 26 percent of the Hispanic students enrolled in AP courses passed at least one AP test. White and Asian students had lower rates of AP test-taking than Hispanic students, but passed AP tests at higher rates.

“During the process of putting the policy brief together, it was difficult to decide which findings to highlight,” said doctoral student Jesus Cisneros. “We suspected that disparities existed, but wanted to identify the communities most impacted by systematic inequalities.

“The argument could still be made that it is not just institutions with predominately minority student populations who have limited access to AP courses, but rather, institutions with predominately Hispanic student populations. Given the pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment encompassing our state, these findings are timely and significant. But we ultimately agreed that excluding other non-Hispanic minority students from our analysis would be a disservice to these populations, despite the potential impact of our findings,” Cisneros said.

“Unfortunately, I cannot say that I was shocked at the disparities we discovered in the reduced access for students who attend predominantly minority schools and rural schools, as this fits well within the larger body of literature regarding AP access,” said student Jessica Holloway-Libell. “I was, however, surprised to see the small percentages of students who take advantage of AP courses where courses are available. It would be interesting to explore the reasons behind this phenomenon.”

Powers and her student coauthors conclude the policy brief with a section addressing policy implications of their findings about AP courses and exams for Arizona’s schools and school districts.

“Having spent the past nine years in the field of education, I have seen firsthand the impact that education policies can have on the lives of students and teachers,” Holloway-Libell said. “I felt inclined to pursue a Ph.D. in this area to better understand the motivations behind, as well the intended and unintended consequences of such policies. I hope to one day contribute valuable research that helps policymakers develop policies that are in the best interest of students.”

Powers and the students worked together on researching their topic and writing up the analysis. Students wrote longer research papers related to the topic last fall as their finals; in the spring they continued working together to write the brief, which was submitted to the Morrison Institute in the fall.

“Having our doctoral students conduct research on local issues benefits the communities we serve,” said Suzanne Painter, director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation in Teachers College. “I’m especially pleased that they did this work collaboratively, as they had to wrestle together with the complexities of research, and defend their methods and perspectives to each other.”

“The process of putting together a policy brief proved insightful for me as I learn to navigate the world of scholarship,” Holloway-Libell said. “One of the greatest challenges was the task of blending the voices, perspectives and personal values of seven individuals into one cohesive brief. After months of writing and rewriting, we arrived at what I consider a timely piece that adds important details to the overall discussion about AP courses in Arizona.”

The “Advanced Placement Courses: Access, Participation, and Outcomes in Arizona” study may be found online at