Here is the familiar story of a disparity in AP achievement, in a nutshell:
Nationally, 56 percent of AP exams taken by the high school class of 2011 earned a 3 or higher, but there are wide disparities. The mean score is 3.01 for white students and 1.94 for blacks. In New Hampshire, almost three-quarters of exams earn a 3 or higher; in Mississippi, it's under a third. In the District of Columbia, more than half of exams score a 1.
At Detroit's Mumford High School last year, none of 62 AP exams earned higher than a 1. But at the nearby Renaissance magnet high school, a quarter of the 113 AP exams earned a 3 or higher, and the school had the second most black students scoring 3 or higher in literature in the country.The disparity in AP achievement is a reflection of the class disparities between rich and poor families, as well as rich and poor schools. Students in poor communities arrive in high school many years behind in basic academic skills. While every student should have access to rigorous courses, the rigor sought for struggling students should be growth, not a superman's leap.
I believe the AP serves as a useful tool for teachers to evaluate their local standards and align their courses to rigorous, relevant content and skills. I also believe that all students should face serious academic rigor (such as an AP class) during their high school years, even if they aren't ready for it. Having one or two extremely challenging classes, where students have to reach beyond what anyone thinks is possible, does help establish a clear benchmark for what college work looks like, and gives all students a chance to achieve an unlikely, but meaningful goal.
At the same time, disadvantaged students gain no advantage by suffering through multiple courses they are not prepared for, under high pressure conditions, only to score a failing grade on the exams. While failing can be a valuable learning experience, it should only happen when a reasonable chance at success is tied to the risk. Why isn't there more strategy playing out in high schools that bring AP tests to underprepared students? Doing this successfully requires investments in curriculum, remediation, innovative teaching methods, excellent teachers, excellent resources, student counseling and parent investment. Otherwise, we are leaving students to drown.