ORLANDO, Fla. -- Every year, more than 600,000 academically promising high school students -- most of them poor, Latino or African-American -- fail to enroll in Advanced Placement courses, often viewed as head starts for the college-bound.
Some of them do not know about these courses, which offer an accelerated curriculum and can lead to college credit. Others assume that they will be too difficult. But many are held back by entrenched perceptions among administrators and teachers - whose referrals are often required for enrollment - about who belongs in what has long served as an elite preserve within public schools.
"Many teachers don't truly believe that these programs are for all kids or that students of color or low-income kids can succeed in these classes," said Christina Theokas, director of research at the Education Trust, a nonprofit group.
Theokas said that, if those underrepresented students had taken AP courses at the same rate as their white and more affluent peers in 2010, there would have been about 614,500 more students in those classes.
In an effort to overcome those obstacles, an increasing number of school districts, including Boston, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., have recently begun initiatives to expand Advanced Placement course offerings and enroll more black and Hispanic students, children from low-income families and those who aspire to be the first in their generation to go to college. In the spring, lawmakers in Washington state passed legislation encouraging all districts to enroll in advanced courses any student who meets a minimum threshold on state standardized tests or the Preliminary SAT exam.
While some critics say AP classes are little more than another round of test prep, supporters say part of the value of such courses is that they can foster a culture of learning.
Humberto Fuentes, a senior here at Freedom High School taking his first AP classes, in English literature and economics, said they were the first time he had been around peers who enjoyed school.
"In regular classes people are trying to distract you with music videos or saying, 'Hey, look at this cat playing a piano' on their phones," said Humberto, 17, who emigrated with his parents from Ecuador when he was an infant and hopes to be the first in his family to attend college. "Whereas in an AP class, they will show you something from the text and say, 'Hey, this is fun.'"
Expanding access to the advanced classes can require far more of teachers.
"If AP courses are going to be a successful experience for a variety of students," said Trevor Packer, the head of the Advanced Placement program at the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the exams, "AP teaching can't rely on the 'sage on the stage' model that characterized and continues to characterize some of AP teaching today."
At Freedom High School, teachers offer tutoring at lunchtime, after school and on Saturdays. Starting this year, their district, Orange County Public Schools, allocated $12,000 to $14,000 to each high school to pay for extra instructional time for AP students. Many students are also enrolled in study review classes sponsored by Advancement Via Individual Determination, a nonprofit group that works to help prepare disadvantaged students for college.
Cashira Chery, a 14-year-old whose mother works as a hotel housekeeper, is one of the new AP students. In middle school, she was a straight-A student who scored well on standardized tests, and her guidance counselor at Freedom High registered her for two Advanced Placement courses, biology and geography.
Sometimes, Cashira said, she has to ask classmates to "dumb down" material she does not understand. But she is determined to stick with the courses, which she sees as prerequisites to her plans to pursue a career as a pediatrician or an engineer.
"It's very important to finish college," said Cashira, who is the daughter of Haitian immigrants. "Not finishing college has gotten my mom into her job."
As AP classes across the country have opened to a more diverse group of students, some teachers and parents are worried that instructors will be forced to water down the curriculum, while some educational experts say there is little conclusive evidence that students who take such courses perform better in college.
Increasing access has had mixed success: Last year, 3.15 million tests were taken, more than double the number a decade earlier, and 57 percent were passing scores. That rate was 4 percentage points lower than in 2002.
Even so, school officials in Orlando are convinced that the courses will improve their students' chances in college. Three years ago, the district dropped its requirement of teacher recommendations for AP classes, and schools began mining data from Preliminary SAT exams more intensively to find students whose scores indicated that they could handle more difficult courses.
"We wanted to find the students who might be flying under the radar," said Barbara Jenkins, superintendent of Orange County Public Schools, the country's 10th-largest school district, where about half the African-American and Latino students with qualifying test scores take AP classes.
At Freedom High, a campus of 3,240 students, the administration began a push to increase AP enrollment five years ago, taking advantage of state bonuses for teachers whose students pass AP courses. Since 2009, the number of students taking the advanced courses at Freedom has nearly tripled, with the school offering 150 sections in 30 subjects, including macroeconomics, computer science and Mandarin.
This year, close to half the students in AP classes are Latino, 12 percent are African-American, and nearly half are eligible for free or reduced lunches. Schoolwide, 70 percent of students are Hispanic, 6 percent are African-American, and more than two-thirds qualify for lunch aid.
At the same time, passing rates on AP exams have edged up. In 2009, 49 percent of the Freedom students who took one received a passing score of 3 or higher. Last year, the rate was 51 percent.
Some parents around the country have resisted the expansion of AP, saying that classes are growing too large and filling with students who cannot manage the work. And pass rates remain low: Last spring, 25 percent of African-Americans and 32 percent of Hispanics who took an AP English exam received a passing score; the rates in the social sciences were 30 percent and 35 percent, respectively. About two-thirds of white students who took an exam in English or a social science received a passing score.
Some educational experts are skeptical that pushing more children into AP classes will help them. In research that has shown positive links between students who score a 3 or higher and their college performance, it is difficult to disentangle the factors, said Kristin Klopfenstein, the executive director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado.
"The things that cause kids to enroll in AP classes and do well in them are the same things that cause them to go to college and succeed in college," Klopfenstein said. "Supportive families, a college-going culture at home, a high school with a college-going culture."
Some teachers say students who come from more educated backgrounds can help the new AP students.
During an advanced calculus class at Freedom High one morning, the teacher, Amanda Kraemer, circulated among student groups of four working together to solve quadratic equations. Most of them, she said, did not have college-educated parents. But peer grouping, she said, "gets kids who come in with a lot of skills to solidify them by helping other students."
Kraemer's approach seems to work: Last spring, more than 90 percent of her students received a passing score on the most rigorous AP calculus exam.
By MOTOKO RICH
The New York Times