The College Board used to annually publish granular breakdowns of how students scored on its Advanced Placement, or AP exams. And Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University, would painstakingly download each data set to translate into a more digestible format on his admissions blog.
The testing provider’s reports represented an in-depth dive into the assessments, which can earn K-12 students college credit if they receive a high enough score.
The College Board would share a state-by-state look at how high school students performed on the tests, as well as demographic data, so anyone in the public could see how students — based on their ethnicity — fared. So detailed were these summaries that one could look, for instance, Black students’ average score on the AP Biology test up for any given year.
That was up until 2021, when the College Board stopped releasing most of those data points. It still posts the number of students who tested, and how many scored in exams’ range of 1 to 5, a 5 being the highest mark. But the public could no longer sort test results by ethnicity.
Higher Ed Dive could find no evidence the College Board announced the change. It also appears to have scrubbed that type of data from its website archives.
It was a conspicuous absence to Boeckenstedt, one of Twitter’s most prolific admissions professionals. In February, he called out the College Board on the social media platform, urging his followers to tell the company to once again publish the data and arguing that walking it back did not match its professed commitment to transparency.
The College Board has come under fire for peddling products like the AP and SAT tests that critics perceive as disadvantaging marginalized groups in higher education. Underrepresented students, such as those who are Hispanic and Black, were generally scoring lower on AP exams compared to their White peers, according to prior years’ data. The testing provider has said the SAT is not a racist instrument.
The College Board in an emailed statement did not address why it removed demographic data. It said that it provides that information to schools, districts and state departments of education and that it has already sent it to the former two groups.
Researchers can also request AP data online, the College Board said.
The history of AP exams traces back to the 1950s, when concerns arose that American students were underprepared for college. A study at that time by three elite secondary schools, as well as Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities, recommended students dabble in college work in high school.
Soon after, high-level courses in about a dozen subjects were piloted, and the College Board took over administration of what would be known as the Advanced Placement program.
In the decades that followed, AP exploded across the U.S., particularly in the last 10 years. About 1.2 million students in the class of 2021 took at least one AP exam, up from about 898,000 in the class of 2011. Roughly 2.5 million students, not just high school seniors, sat for AP tests in 2021, down slightly from the prior year, though this is likely because of the coronavirus pandemic.
States have embraced the assessments. As of fall 2021, 32 states adopted AP policies that typically require all public institutions to award college credit to students who score a 3 or higher on the tests.
The last decade or so has also been defined by a push to broaden access to the exams, especially for low-income students. The College Board often touts initiatives like test fee reductions and government funding that helps subsidize students. The price of AP exams is considered a barrier to taking them. Each test costs $96 for U.S. and Canadian students.
However, rising numbers of students taking the test over time doesn’t mean AP course enrollment is equitable.
Take Florida, which had the highest AP test participation rate in 2020. Although a quarter of all students in Florida public K-12 high schools took an AP class, only 15% of Black students did, according to a study this year from the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
And across the country, Black and Hispanic students aren’t scoring highly on the exams compared to their White peers.
Based on 2020 score data Boeckenstedt analyzed when it was still publicly available, only about 5% of Black students scored a 5 on one of the exams, versus about 15% of White students.
Meanwhile, the College Board points to its own research that it says indicates even earning a 1 or 2 on an AP test can improve college performance. The organization notes, however, that “these analyses do not make causal claims that AP course taking independently produces these results.”
Where are the results now?
Boeckenstedt said in an email he dinged the College Board on Twitter because he wondered whether the pandemic had changed testing outcomes and he couldn’t find the data. He said the College Board has not responded to him.
He said he agrees with the testing provider that “taking challenging classes in high school is the best preparation for college,” but that the disparities present in the data are concerning.
“Schools and students are spending a lot of money to purchase AP products and exams that might be better dedicated elsewhere,” Boeckenstedt said. “I’m not saying this with clarity or definity: I’m asking whether people have thought about this more deeply than the revenue-focus of College Board allows them to do.”
The College Board still publishes state-level reports on SAT test-takers, which also provide statistics about their ethnicities. The SAT has also been criticized for screening out underrepresented students, as their wealthier counterparts can afford more extensive tutoring. Many colleges stopped requiring the SAT and ACT for admissions, albeit some temporarily, when the coronavirus began to spread.
The company said on its online archive of AP testing information, which spans back to 2002, that it started “streamlining how we report data on College Board programs and services, including AP data.”
Collin Palmer, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Toledo, said he wondered whether the College Board hid the data because it showed disparities by ethnicity have worsened.
“I’d be interested in knowing their justification, I definitely see value in knowing that data,” he said.
He also questioned whether colleges are able to license students’ demographic information, as institutions buy prospects’ names after they take the College Board’s exams as a way to target them to enroll.
David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said in an emailed statement that withholding the data will likely not much affect the admissions side of enrollment management.
“AP test scores are most helpful to colleges and universities in the placement and credit evaluation process, and admissions offices tend to be more focused on grades reported on transcripts,” Hawkins said.