Advanced Placement courses are open to all students in more than 539 school districts in the U.S. and Canada — regardless of past achievement, according to the College Board. The approach, which is encouraged by the organization, generally has resulted in higher average exam scores. 

Educators have pored over the merits of opening up Advanced Placement classes to all high school students versus limiting the college-level courses to those with a track record of academic excellence.

At the heart of the debate is the issue of equitable access compared with students’ actual preparedness to take on the challenge.

Bergenfield High School decided to roll the dice in 2006 when it opened up the AP program to all students. That year, the district had just six AP classes, with students scoring an average 1.7 on the exams, Superintendent Michael Kuchar said. By 2011, its course offerings had tripled, and the average score was 3.3. The College Board, which administers the exams, considers a 3 or higher passing.

Kuchar boasts that Bergenfield, which will be receiving an award from the National School Boards Association this spring for its AP program, is “the prototype for open enrollment.” Yet, he acknowledges, the policy is not for everyone.

After switching to open enrollment about two years ago, Fort Lee High School dropped in a statewide ranking, in part because ill-prepared students were attempting — and failing — to pass AP exams. Now there’s community pressure to reinstate requirements such as teacher recommendations and passing prerequisite courses.

“We have noticed a decline in our average AP score,” said Sharon Amato, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “It was determined … that we should look at a fair, but more rigorous, way to gain entry” into the AP program.

Ninth-grader Elijah Smith, who’s not on the honors track, said students who haven’t applied themselves academically in the past may find their niche in an AP class because of the challenging curriculum.

“Some students [are bright] but they don’t try because they’re bored,” he said.

Junior Michelle Kim, 16, who is taking two AP classes, welcomes non-honors students into the program if they are willing to put in the work. She said they should not be written off for low grades in their early years.

“Does that mean for their whole high school life they can’t take AP because they screwed up once?” she said.

Continue Reading about how AP course enrollment open to all students results in higher average test scores.