The opportunity to take college-level coursework through the Advanced Placement program has been easier in some schools than others, as âgatekeeping' policies differ between districts. In response to demand that AP be open to all interested students, in California more schools are now offering Advanced Placement courses to all students after adopting open-enrollment policies.
These schools see equal access to AP courses as a basic educational right. The AP classes, which were long considered an elite track for the most talented, are now open to any students willing to push themselves, according to Teresa Watanabe of The Los Angeles Times.
Open-access to AP classes has worried some critics who say that open enrollment policies will push too many unprepared students into tough classes as "indicated by higher exam failure rates over the last decade and a persistent achievement gap among races." The concern is that open enrollment policies are prompting teachers to weaken courses and inflate grades.
In Los Angeles, Downtown Magnets High School has nearly doubled participation in AP classes over the last five years. According to the school, enrolled students are not necessarily the top students, but AP carries benefits for them nonetheless.
"While expanding access is generally a good thing, we need to make sure we're not watering down the experience for the high achievers," said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based educational policy organization.
The College Board, which manages the AP program, believes that open access has generally been successful. While national participation has doubled in the last decade to 2.1 million students last year, exam failure rates have increased only slightly. "Passing scores have outpaced failing results by nearly 20% over the last decade."
At the same time, access to AP courses remains uneven. Low-income students are twice as likely as others to attend schools without a full array of AP courses, according to a June study by the Education Trust and Equal Opportunity Schools. Such disparities prompted a 2011 California law that encourages schools to offer AP courses in at least five subjects.
Downtown Magnets, whose students are overwhelmingly low-income, is offering 15 different AP courses. The school's 61% exam pass rate far outpaces Los Angeles Unified School District's average of 40%.
Los Angeles Unified School District has overall increased AP participation to 17.7% of high school students this year from 12.5% in 2009 when it adopted a district-wide open-enrollment policy.
The exam pass rate has stayed about the same, at 40%, although it varies from 62.4% for whites to 25.7% for African Americans. The district has received more than $1 million in federal funds to support students and give teachers in 20 schools the AP training required by the College Board.
Long Beach Unified, which opened its AP classes a decade ago, has boosted the percentage of students taking the spring exams to 21% of its sophomores, juniors and seniors this year, from just 10% in 2003.
"We're preparing more students for college and helping parents in the pocketbook when it comes time for college tuition," said Long Beach Unified spokesman Chris Eftychiou.
Mark Keppel High School Principal Jacinth Cisneros said: "I believe every child has the opportunity to redirect their path at any point during their high school career."