FOR FOUR YEARS RUNNING, Massachusetts was first in the nation for students succeeding in Advanced Placement. This year, our ranking dropped to No. 3. While the spread was small – Massachusetts was only half a percentage point behind top-ranked Connecticut – it still behooves us to look to Connecticut for useful lessons.
Connecticut has leveled the playing field with respect to the costs of AP, as well as the rewards (college credit) for scoring a 3 or higher on AP exams. The state has fully covered AP exam fees for students from low-income families for the last seven years. In 2019, the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education adopted a universal policy for AP credit for the institutions within the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, granting academic credit to any student earning a score of 3 or higher on any AP exam.
In addition, the Connecticut State Department of Education encourages students to strive, by annually sending letters to tens of thousands of students in grades 10 and 11 who demonstrate potential for success in rigorous coursework in high school.
Despite its success in K-12 education, Massachusetts has recently been criticized as “No. 1, for some,” hearkening to the large equity gaps that remain in student achievement, and COVID has only exacerbated long existing inequities. Massachusetts needs to create equitable on-ramps to higher education for all students as a part of efforts to become No. 1 for all.
While Education Commissioner Jeff Riley should be complimented for finding money for exam fee subsidies, reducing the cost of AP exams for low-income students to $15 per exam, there is no state line item for guaranteed fee funding. There is also nothing in state policy or legislation that requires the consistent guarantee of college credit for AP scores of 3 or higher, and as a result, differences abound. For example, students need to score a 4 on the AP exam to receive calculus credit at Berkshire and Cape Cod community colleges but can earn credit for a score of 3 at other community colleges, as well as at a number of state universities, UMass Dartmouth, and UMass Lowell.
The lack of these policies unquestionably has disparate impacts. Money for tests is an obstacle and black and Latinx students in Massachusetts are four to five times more likely to live below the poverty line than their white counterparts.
Black, Latinx, and low-income students are also more likely to pass their AP exams with a score of 3, as opposed to a 4 or 5. According to the College Board, out of all the AP scores of 3 or higher sent by Massachusetts students to Massachusetts public higher education institutions in 2017, 42 percent were scores of 3. But the percentage of 3s increased to 50 percent, 60 percent, and 54 percent for Hispanic, African American, and low-income students, respectively. Money for college tuition is also an obstacle and starting with college credits already earned in high school can lower that barrier.
Massachusetts is working hard to create Early College programs, in addition to supporting AP, and rightly so. Students should have multiple pathways to higher education, and they all should be equitable and of college-level high quality. Students in the state’s Early College programs have their courses paid for, and the state’s MassTransfer program guarantees that Early College credits will be recognized across our state institutions.
Students in both AP and Early College engage in college level coursework. All should be financially supported and equally rewarded for their results. We want to be No. 1 for all. We need to create a through line of equity to do that.
Susan F. Lusi is the president & CEO of Mass Insight Education & Research. Mass Insight’s Advanced Placement STEM & English program partners with more than 80 Massachusetts high schools to increase and diversify student enrollment in college-level AP courses.