Small Changes Make a Big Difference: How Behavioral Science Improved Participation in Advanced Placement

Sep 25, 2017

High school student in classroomThe Advanced Placement (AP) program has become a key step on the path to attending a selective college. However, the College Board estimates that nearly 300,000 high school students with the potential to succeed in an AP course graduate every year without ever taking one. Furthermore, high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely than other high-achieving students to never take an AP class.

Behavioral science researchers have shown that making small changes in the way information is presented can have a large impact on a person’s decision to participate in a program. A new issue brief from Mathematica Policy Research examines how a personalized message added to a test score report impacted student participation in the AP program.

To test the effects of the message on participation in the AP program, the study analyzed school records from 10th grade students in the Oakland Unified School District. The study included a survey with over 400 sophomores in one large high school in the district, both immediately before and after they received their PSAT score reports, to examine whether the message affected their beliefs. Students whose PSAT scores met certain criteria received a congratulatory message informing them that they had “potential for success in at least one AP course.” Students who did not meet any of the criteria received a general message inviting them to speak to their counselor to learn more about the AP program.

Key findings from the study include: 

  • Students who received a personal­ized message about their potential to succeed in AP course­work—and who were surveyed for this study—were 49 per­centage points more likely to participate in AP classes than similar students who did not receive the message.
  • These students also became substantially more likely to take an AP exam and passed a higher number of exams, making them eligible for college credit.
  • The personalized message had no effect on students who did not also par­ticipate in the study’s survey.
  • The results suggest that personalized messages can be a cost-effective way to encourage students, but might only work when combined with an effort to call students’ attention to the content of the message.

“Giving qualified students a simple message early in their high school careers proved to be a cost-effective way to increase their participation in the AP program,” said Naihobe Gonzalez, author of the brief and a researcher at Mathematica. “This type of intervention may be worth considering for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are more likely than their peers to miss out on opportunities like AP.”

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Read the issue brief and the Mathematica working paper on which the brief is based.

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