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Why promising minority students aren't signing up for AP exams

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Since its inception in the 1950s, the AP program has grown into a staple of the college preparatory curriculum in American high schools. The AP curriculum teaches college-level material to high school students in 31 subjects across a wide range of disciplines, including both traditional courses like physics and US history and atypical specialties like human geography and Japanese language and culture.

Passing an AP exam in high school is correlated to a higher college grade point average and an increased likelihood of graduating from a four-year college, the College Board reports. It can also bring down tuition costs for students who enter college with credits earned through AP scores. Exams are scored on a five-point scale – three points or higher counts as passing and can be used for college credit or placement at many universities.

Enrollment in AP courses has recently become more diverse. In 2002, less than 18 percent of AP exam takers were so-called “underserved minorities.” Now the figure is 26 percent. And the number of low-income students in the AP program has grown from 11 percent to nearly 27 percent in the same time period. This is due in part to widespread subsidies to help offset the test's nearly $100 price tag.  

Mr. Packer says that low-enrollment in AP courses and exams among minority students is often a function of availability. But other education experts argue that the problem is more systemic.  

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