Let’s Deliver on the Potential of Advanced Coursework

Tuesday, March 10, 2020
Ryan Reyna

What is one of the most powerful predictors of a student’s likelihood to enroll and succeed in higher education? Whether that student earned postsecondary credit while in high school—through completion of a dual enrollment course, passage of an Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) assessment, or earning an industry-recognized credential with labor market value. Expansion of early postsecondary opportunities (EPSOs) has the potential to help dramatically more students, especially those who have been traditionally underserved in higher education, attain a postsecondary credential or degree. Unfortunately, as a country, we are not delivering on that potential. This must change.

Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic shift in the number of students enrolling in and completing EPSOs. The number of students taking at least one AP course doubled between 2007 and 2017. According to the most recent Civil Rights Data Collection, each year about 8 percent of students enroll in a dual enrollment course and nearly 20 percent in an AP course. This expansion can be attributed both to a recognition of the important role these courses play in building momentum for students and to an increase in the number of states including the opportunities as measures in high school accountability systems.

And yet, major gaps remain across zip codes, racial/ethnic groups, and income statuses. As Figures 1 and 2 illustrate, there is significant variation in enrollment patterns within and across states (for more breakdowns by district and metro area, click here). While the number of Black and Hispanic students participating in EPSOs has grown, access to and success in these courses remains a challenge. White students are twice as likely to participate in dual enrollment courses than their Black and Hispanic peers. In 2019, only 32 percent of Black students who took an AP exam received a passing score (e.g., a score of 3, 4, or 5), as compared to 64 percent of White students and 73 percent of Asian students (Figure 3).

Figure 1. Dual Enrollment Participation Rate

Figure 2. AP Participation Rate

Figure 3. AP Exam Score Distribution by Race/Ethnicity, 2019


These gaps exist despite the fact that the country has improved tools to identify students who can succeed in EPSOs, and more students than ever are being identified. “AP Potential,” a metric developed by the College Board, is one particular tool that can and should be used more regularly by schools, districts, and states to identify students who have the potential to benefit from advanced coursework.  Based on performance on the PSAT or SAT, AP Potential identifies students who are predicted to have a greater than 60 percent chance of earning a score of 3+ on a particular AP exam. The indicator is student- and subject-specific (i.e., student has potential for AP Biology) and broadly available to school administrators for use in scheduling decisions.

While the tool was specifically developed to identify students who have potential for AP coursework, it can serve a similar purpose for other early postsecondary opportunities. In my time as Director of the Office of Accountability and Data Management in Delaware, we used AP Potential to flag students for both AP and dual enrollment coursework. Each year, we sent a list of students who demonstrated potential, broken down by course areas, to superintendents and principals, and then tracked what percentage enrolled in advanced coursework in an identified area.

Since 2012, the percentage of students identified with AP Potential has remained relatively consistent – however, when you examine actual numbers you find that 200,000 more students are now identified on an annual basis than 2012. For the 2019 high school graduating class, nearly 1 million students were designated as having AP Potential. Sixty-one percent of students with AP Potential participated in at least one matched AP exam (i.e., the student was identified with potential for AP Statistics and took that exam). The data on AP Potential should both be celebrated and a cause for concern. Despite the growth in student identification and enrollment, students of color who have been identified with AP Potential continue to take and succeed on the exams at lower rates than their peers (Figure 4 and 5).

Figure 4. Percentage of AP Potential Students Who Took 1+ Matched Exams, Three Cohorts

Figure 5. Percentage of Students Who Earned a Score of 3+ on 1+ Matched Exams, Three Cohorts

Unfortunately, too few places are using these data to change practice. According to the AP Participation Survey for the 2017-18 school year that survey AP Coordinators, only a quarter of schools consider AP potential when helping students decide whether to enroll in AP courses. Using data to identify students with potential—whether from prior exam scores, course grades, or other indicators—can help schools and districts overcome intentional and unintentional biases in enrollment decisions.

Although expanding access to EPSOs for students of color and low-income students is critical, it is not enough to simply increase enrollment in these opportunities. Schools and districts also need to put in place supports to ensure each student succeeds. States have a major role to play in supporting this work at the local level. In late 2019, the Level Up coalition, which ESG organizes, and the College in High School Alliance released Unlocking Potential: A State Policy Roadmap for Equity and Quality in College in High School Programs. The report offers a series of policy recommendations to ensure more students of color and low-income students find advanced coursework success, including providing appropriate academic and advising supports.

To truly deliver on the promise of early postsecondary opportunities, every district and state should:

  1. Track Advanced Coursework Potential: Access AP Potential data, or similar data, to build rosters of students who have demonstrated potential early in their high school careers, provide that information to counselors or other administrators involved in scheduling, and communicate to students and parents about the potential.
  2. Investigate Equity Data: Analyze prior potential data to identify schools and/or districts that have eliminated race/ethnicity or income gaps, or shown significant increases in enrollment and success over time. Additionally, it will be important to expand the predictive power of this indicator over time to be inclusive of a full suite of early postsecondary opportunities, including industry-recognized credentials that count for postsecondary credit.
  3. Set a Goal: Every student who demonstrates potential should have the opportunity to take advantage of it. While a goal of 100 percent of students demonstrating potential completing at least one advanced course prior to graduation is lofty for most schools and districts, it is attainable with a concerted effort. It likely will take a few years to realize that goal—and ensure that all of those students actually succeed in the opportunities—so it is important to immediately set a goal and start tracking progress over time.