I have been thinking quite a bit lately about the issue of under-representation of certain sub-groups in Advanced Placement courses. In giving a presentation in my own district last year, I used a particularly dramatic example that I will now share with you. The United States’ population is about 12.9% African American and only about 4.4% Asian. Last year, there were 9572 Asian students who earned a 5 (highest possible score) on the AP Calculus BC exam. I asked my audience, “So how many African-American students scored at that level?” Now, I believe to the bottom of my soul that mathematics ability is distributed equally amongst all groups. I am also realistic enough to realize that it hasn’t always been developed equally so we know the number is going to be much lower than the expected value of 27,765. My audience threw out some guesses: “10,000?” offered the most hopeful. “4000?” “Maybe 2000?” guessed the more pessimistic.
Wait for it. The actual number is 390. My audience sat in stunned silence. When I think of the vast reservoir of undeveloped talent, it turns my stomach and makes my heart ache. Students who don’t have access to advanced levels of coursework face the prospect of lower freshman college GPA, less persistence in pursuing their college degrees, or a much longer and more expensive route to their degree. The social, political and economic implications of this under-development are enormous. If you are not moved by the tragedy of unfulfilled potential for some of these individual students, then you must surely be bothered by the cost to our society.
So, as I am feeling tremendously bummed out by this situation, I begin watching the Olympic coverage from London and am buoyed by what I am hearing from there. 29 of the 46 gold medals that the United States won were by female athletes. For the first time in Olympic history, our delegation included more female athletes than male and every single one of the 204 countries that were competing had at least one female there representing their country. You have to remember that when I was in high school (not that long ago!!), girls were still playing half-court basketball because they were thought to be too delicate to play the full-court version. College scholarships for female athletes were virtually non-existent and those who chose to play sports were often derided by their peers. Every girl was counseled to “let the boys win” so as not to appear “unfeminine.” What a load of hooey.
And then things changed. So, what happened? First, a small, but brave group of girls stepped forward and demanded an opportunity to play. Title IX legislation was passed and implemented. Parents supported their daughters’ goals and threatened to go to court if necessary to give them what they deserved. Schools and colleges had to pay attention to the make-up of their athletic population. Cheerleading, which has previously been about cheering for the boys’ teams, became an athletic competition in its own right and also began recruiting males. Everyone should have a chance to develop their talents and their passions—whether those are athletic or academic.
And that brings us back to our AP classes. How closely do the demographics of your AP program (in terms of gender, ethnicity and SES status) match the demographics of your school? If there is under-representation of some groups, what can you do about it this year to begin making the situation better? Let me be absolutely clear that I am not advocating a lowering of standards. (I always get a bunch of comments with that accusation whenever I blog about this issue.) I want us to develop policies and strategies that will help more students to meet our standards so they can enjoy the many benefits that AP classes offer. In my next blog post, I want to share a few ideas that I have, but would love to hear more suggestions from my reading audience. With our collective energy and experience, we can change this situation and give more students their deserved “gold medal opportunity” in our classes.