The beginning of May brings a particular buzz to the halls of high schools as juniors and seniors gear up to spend three hours sitting at spaced-out desks under fluorescent lights. They’ve spent the last eight months challenging themselves in academically difficult classes, which have all led up to this moment. That’s right — it’s time for the AP exams. 

There’s a lot of pressure hinging on these tests.

In the American education system, APs are lauded as the best way to show colleges you’re a good candidate. While the courses do mostly offer a chance to try out a new learning style and push yourself academically, there are many asterisks to whether APs are the best — or only — path forward for everyone. The exams offer the possibility of earning college credit — a time and money-saving prospect for students and families — if you score high enough.

Only about half of Black students who took AP exams in 2020 earned a score that qualified for college credit.

In May 2021, nearly 1.18 million students took at least one AP exam, which was a slight decline from the 1.21 million in 2020. Only 22% of exam-takers in 2021 scored 3 out of 5 possible points, the minimum score most colleges accept in exchange for college credit. This is already a drop from the 24% in 2020, and an even steeper drop from 2019, when roughly 60% of exam takers scored 3 or higher.

The breakdown by race from 2020, the last year the College Board released such data, shows that only about half of Black students who took AP exams earned a score that qualified for college credit. Black students also have the widest gap between the rate of students who took an AP exam and also earned credit.

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