Test Case

By David Hill — March 01, 2000 19 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
Civil rights advocates put California’s AP program on trial in a pioneering lawsuit.

Like a lot of high school seniors, Rasheda Daniel spends much of her time thinking about college. A 12th grader at Inglewood High School, not far from Los Angeles International Airport, Rasheda has her heart set on nearby Loyola Marymount University. “I just love that school,” she says. Some of her friends have also applied there, and they hope to room together as freshmen. Rasheda, a rail-thin 17-year-old with a quick wit and a flair for the theatrical, has already picked out the décor. “It’s going to have all inflatable furniture,” she says, “and lava lamps!”

Rasheda is an honor-roll student at Inglewood High, which serves about 2,000 working-class kids, nearly all of whom are either Latino or African American. About 25 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Academically, Inglewood ranks in the bottom 10 percent of public schools in California, as measured by a new state rating system.

Until recently, the school offered just three Advanced Placement courses, in English, government, and U.S. history. Rasheda took the history class last year and is currently enrolled in the other two courses. Meanwhile, her peers at Beverly Hills High School, about 10 miles away, choose from more than a dozen AP courses, including chemistry, physics, biology, computer science, and calculus. Of course, not all schools are created equal. Even in a state like California, where public school spending is largely equalized, there are still the haves and the have-nots. It’s no surprise that affluent Beverly Hills High, which prides itself on rigorous academic standards and high expectations, offers so many AP courses. But why shouldn’t students like Rasheda have the same opportunities?

That’s what the American Civil Liberties Union wants to know. Last summer, the organization’s Southern California chapter filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging that the Inglewood Unified School District, the state of California, the state board of education, and the state superintendent of public instruction are denying students like Rasheda equal and adequate access to AP courses. The class action names Rasheda and three other Inglewood High students as plaintiffs. Although the lawsuit singles out Inglewood High, it is a test case designed to force change throughout the state.

‘California is flunking out when it comes to educating these students, denying them intellectually challenging courses designed to prepare them for college.’

Mark Rosenbaum,
Legal Director,
Southern California office

“California is flunking out when it comes to educating these students, denying them intellectually challenging courses designed to prepare them for college and holding them back by squelching their competitive chances of acceptance at colleges and universities,” Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU’s Southern California office, said at a July press conference announcing the lawsuit.

Rasheda and her three fellow plaintiffs-Darren Dix Jr., Andre Green, and Jorge Gutierrez-offered to lend their names to the lawsuit after meeting with ACLU lawyers and staff last spring. “We talked to students and parents from several other schools,” says ACLU attorney Rocio Cordoba, “but these students were the ones who were ready and willing to make this claim. They recognized what kind of precedent this will set for students who come behind them.”

At a Sizzler restaurant in downtown Inglewood, Cordoba and her colleagues told the students about widespread inequities in the AP program in California. “I knew other schools had more AP classes,” says 17-year-old Andre, a senior, “but I didn’t know how bad it was.” Darren, also a senior, confesses that he doesn’t understand how it is that two high schools in the same county- Inglewood and Beverly Hills-can have such dissimilar AP programs. “It’s like having one red shoe and one blue shoe on the same person,” he says, shaking his head. “It doesn’t make sense.”

The case, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, is a modern-day version of the 1950s legal battles that sought to end disparities between black and white schools, particularly in the segregated South. Back then, the courts and education officials turned to desegregation plans and affirmative action programs to close the gap. But today, with these remedies in retreat in California, Texas, and elsewhere, civil rights advocates are pursuing a new strategy, seeking changes in the school curriculum to address education’s historic inequities.

As plaintiffs in a pioneering lawsuit, the four Inglewood High students are being hailed as heroes. Last summer, Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn, of all people, told a reporter, “We should be proud of these kids for making a decision to challenge a system that has not been fair to them.”

The irony of the mayor’s comments weren’t lost on the plaintiffs. “Let me get this straight,” Andre Green joked with a reporter. “We sue the mayor’s school district, and he calls us heroes. Hmm. Interesting.”

From the beginning, the AP tests were supposed to be open to all students.

The Advanced Placement program, which is administered by the College Board and the Educational Testing Service, dates to the mid-1950s. At the time, a number of educators were concerned that too many of the nation’s best high schoolers-in particular, those from elite public and private schools-were bored by introductory college courses, which often repeated material the students had already learned. The educators asked: Why not offer some of these college-level courses in high school and give students college credit if they score well on companion tests? After an experimental exam in 1954 involving students from 27 public and private secondary schools, the Advanced Placement program was born. The College Board designed special AP courses in 11 subjects that could be offered by participating schools. That course list has now grown to 33.

From the beginning, AP tests were open to all students. But as Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews writes in his 1998 book, Class Struggle: What’s Wrong (and Right) With America’s Best Public High Schools, the program for many years “was drenched in the scent of ivy-covered walls and sherry in the common room.” (Mathews is on the board of directors of Editorial Projects in Education, publisher of Teacher Magazine.) AP students were mostly from college-prep academies or suburban high schools in the Northeast, and the majority were bound for elite liberal arts colleges.

Today, however, there are AP courses at nearly 13,000 schools-more than half of all high schools in the country. Last year, more than 700,000 candidates took more than 1.1 million exams. Since the AP’s inception, nearly 8 million candidates have taken almost 12 million exams. The tests, which contain both multiple-choice and free-response sections, are graded on a scale of 1 to 5. Thousands of colleges and universities throughout the world grant credit, advanced placement, or both to students who receive scores of 3 or higher. (AP test-takers may have their scores sent automatically to any college or university. Last year, the top three most popular institutions receiving scores were the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin.)

So well-regarded is the program that many states help foot the bill for schools to train AP teachers. Some states cover some or all of the $76 exam fee for students. In California, qualifying low-income students pay only $5 to take the test. A few states go even farther: Indiana, for example, requires that public high schools offer at least one AP math class and one AP science class. Many educators and policymakers now use AP test results to measure the quality of individual high schools. Schools, too, use the program as a selling point. The Web site for Beverly Hills High boasts that it “offers one of the most comprehensive Advanced Placement programs in the nation.”

In California, the AP program has grown dramatically over the past decade. In 1988, 39,040 public high school students took 56,668 AP exams. Ten years later, those numbers had more than doubled: 87,683 students took more than 145,000 exams. According to a little-noticed report issued last year by the California State University Institute for Education Reform, the AP program has “grown into a major component and integral part of high school education in California.”

AP courses have also become pivotal to the competitive college admissions process in the state—a key point in the Inglewood students’ lawsuit. When calculating the grade-point averages of applicants, schools in both the University of California and California State University systems score grades earned in honors and AP courses one point higher than other grades. An A earned in an AP course, for example, is counted as a 5.0, not the traditional 4.0. This weighted grading gives AP students a built-in advantage in the admissions process. Indeed, the median GPA for students admitted to UCLA and UC Berkeley, the state’s most selective public universities, is now over 4.0-a score that’s impossible for students to reach if their schools have no honors or AP courses.

The AP program has taken on even more importance for minority students at disadvantaged high schools.

Recently, the AP program has taken on even more importance for minority students at disadvantaged high schools. For years, California’s affirmative action policies helped blacks and Hispanics get into the state’s top schools. Often, these were students who had attended schools with few AP offerings, if any. But Proposition 209, the controversial anti-affirmative action measure passed in 1994, prohibits the state from taking race into account in college admissions. Now, minorities with little or no access to the AP program must compete straight-up against students whose GPAs are inflated by AP grades-which strikes many as unfair. Indeed, last year, eight minority students who were denied admission to UC Berkeley sued, arguing that they were rejected because, among other reasons, their schools did not have AP classes.

The number of students who face such a handicap in the admissions process is considerable. The study by the Institute for Education Reform notes that while more than 90 percent of California’s public high schools have an AP program, they don’t always offer many classes. About 20 percent of all high school students in the state attend schools with four or fewer AP classes. Larger schools tend to have more AP classes than smaller ones, and white students tend to have more AP opportunities than other ethnic groups. “But for all ethnic groups,” the report notes, “there are thousands of students enrolled in schools with relatively small AP programs.”

The ACLU’s own research points to similar disparities. The group found that 81,000 students in California have no access to AP classes. More than twice that number-184,000 students-attend schools with 15 or more AP courses. ACLU statistics also suggest that race separates the AP haves and have-nots. Of the state’s 144 schools that offer 15 or more AP classes, 65 percent have enrollments that are more than half white and Asian. What’s more, African Americans and Latinos account for just 13 percent of all AP test takers, though they make up 45 percent of the state’s public high school students.

To the ACLU, California’s checkerboard AP offerings-combined with the weighted grades used for AP coursework in the college admissions process-creates a two-tiered educational system. And that, the organization argues, is in violation of the state’s constitution, which guarantees all persons “equal rights and opportunities in the educational institutions of the state.”

“There is no reason why [minority] students should be denied the ability to compete equally for admission to California’s elite universities, or to succeed in college degree programs, simply because their school did not provide an adequate AP program,” says the ACLU’s Cordoba.

The ACLU wants to dismantle what it sees as a culture of low expectations.

Ultimately, the ACLU’s lawsuit aims to do more than simply increase the state’s AP offerings. The group wants to dismantle what it sees as a culture of low expectations. Often, Rosenbaum explains, school administrators don’t embrace the AP program because they believe many kids can’t handle-and don’t want-a rigorous curriculum. “In too many schools,” he says, “there is not an ethos that kids can and should succeed at the highest levels of achievement.”

The culture of low expectations infects state officials as well, Rosenbaum argues. “California doesn’t regard these kids-particularly low- income, African American, and Latino kids-as its children and doesn’t expect them to succeed and doesn’t do what it needs to do to make sure they succeed.

“This case has race all over it,” he continues. “But that’s irrelevant. Every kid in the state of California should be given the opportunity to have the richest, most challenging education that he or she can handle.”

To show the state how it can meet this goal and resolve the litigation, the ACLU hired Jeannie Oakes, a UCLA education professor who has written extensively on school equity issues, to come up with a plan. Oakes, in turn, assembled a team of five other University of California educators. Together, they drafted a 30-page report that makes a case for state action.

The report blames California’s AP inequities on several factors. When the weighted-grade scheme for AP courses was adopted by the state’s university systems in the mid-1980s, it fueled tremendous growth in the program. But the schools that beefed up their AP offerings were those that already had an established college-preparatory curriculum, qualified teachers, and well-prepared students (usually middle-class whites). Many disadvantaged schools, by contrast, lacked such a foundation. When AP courses took on even more importance for college-bound students after Proposition 209, these schools were left even further behind. California, the report contends, has changed the rules of the college-admissions game “in a way that negatively impacts its poorest and most vulnerable communities.”

Oakes and her colleagues recommend that, within five years, California schools with more than 500 students should offer at least six AP courses, including one each in mathematics and science. But they also advocate that the state provide the support for every school to create a “college-going culture,” with college-prep courses for all students, well-qualified teachers, specially trained college counselors, and a “vigorous” AP program. To that end, the experts propose a state grant program for schools with limited AP offerings. How much will such a plan cost? Oakes and her colleagues don’t say, but they argue that California, with its “thriving economy and sizeable budget surpluses . . . is currently well-positioned to support this remedy.”

‘Everyone concedes that, factually, there are disparities in the AP program,’

Michael Hersher,
Deputy General Counsel,
California State Department of Education

The Oakes report was presented to lawyers from the district and the state in January, and negotiations between the ACLU and the state are under way to settle the lawsuit. “I don’t think anyone wants to stand up and fight this thing out,” says Michael Hersher, deputy general counsel for the state department of education, one of the defendants in the case. “Everyone concedes that, factually, there are disparities in the AP program.”

But whether the state will agree to the plan proposed by Oakes and her colleagues remains to be seen. “It’s a pretty good plan,” Hersher says. “But the devil is in the details.” If settlement talks break down, the state is prepared to take the case to trial and argue that the AP program is a private entity and not subject to the state constitution. “If the ACLU wants to roll the dice and see what a judge will rule,” Hersher says, “then we’ll do that.”

Counters Rosenbaum, “We’re prepared to go to court, and we have a water-tight complaint. But we’re hopeful that it will be resolved.” He adds: “If we go to trial, the state will be forced to defend the indefensible.”

Already, though, it appears that the lawsuit has prodded the state to act. In January, when Governor Gray Davis presented his budget plan, he called on the legislature to provide funds to make at least one AP class available to every high school student by next fall. The following year, Davis wants to spend $20.5 million to ensure that at least four AP classes are available to every student. “No child in California,” he said, “capable of taking AP classes will be held back because we couldn’t get the job done.”

That’s a good start, Rosenbaum says, but it’s not enough. “I don’t think it helps to look simply at the number of AP classes,” he says. “Our experts say there ought to be at least six courses. But that’s not the only ball to keep our eyes on.” Rosenbaum says schools must have college counselors, training for teachers, and other support if large numbers of kids are going to take advantage of the increased AP offerings.

Officials at the College Board are closely following events in California.

Officials at the College Board, meanwhile, are closely following events in California. Spokeswoman Chiara Coletti applauds Davis’ goals. “That may not be fast enough for some people,” Coletti says, “but it indicates that the governor is trying to be a pragmatist. You can’t do it overnight.”

The board would like to see the AP program become more widely available, particularly to minority students, Coletti says. At the same time, it worries that the program could be watered down if it were imposed on schools where students and teachers lack training and preparation. The ACLU’s proposal addresses these concerns, Coletti admits, “but that will require a lot of funding.”

These issues are not new to the board. In the 1980s, teacher Jaime Escalante proved that low-income, inner-city students could handle the rigors of AP calculus. The story of Escalante and his students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles was widely heralded, in both a best-selling book-Jay Mathews’ Escalante: The Best Teacher in America-and a popular movie-Stand and Deliver. The film, Mathews writes in Class Struggle, portrayed the Educational Testing Service and its staff “as chilly bureaucrats, unwilling to accept the notion that poor Mexican American students could do so well on a test designed for prep schools. But to the surprise of many at ETS headquarters, the film became one of its most effective promotional devices. If barrio children could successfully conquer AP calculus, why couldn’t everyone? Interest in AP began to grow exponentially.”

More than a decade later, the ACLU uses the Escalante story as proof that low-income, minority students, if given the opportunity, will not only enroll in AP classes, but also thrive in them. “School districts rarely say, ‘Our kids can’t do the work that AP classes require,’ ” Rosenbaum says, “but that’s clearly part of the subtext of what’s taking place. The reality is that when these kids do have the proper preparation-and even when they don’t-the results are astounding. And the most famous example is Garfield High School.”

“For sure we need more AP classes,” Rhuenette Montle, acting superintendent of the Inglewood schools, said after the ACLU filed its lawsuit last summer. When school opened in the fall, Inglewood High suddenly had six additional AP classes, including courses in biology, calculus, physics, chemistry, and economics. Montle promised “a more rigorous, competitive education for all students.” The additional AP courses, she said, had been in the works long before the ACLU announced its legal action. “It is unfortunate that the students who filed the lawsuit did not come to the district administration first.”

Rosenbaum is certain the district added the AP courses because of the lawsuit. “Of course they did,” he says.

Oddly, none of the four plaintiffs has enrolled in the new AP classes. “That really surprised me,” says Inglewood High assistant principal Joyce Mayfield. “I would have expected them to be eager to sign up for them.”

Indeed, the lawsuit says that the students want to take more AP courses, particularly in math and science, to enhance their college and career prospects. According to the complaint, for example, Darren Dix hopes “to attend medical school after doing his undergraduate work at a University of California school in order to become a pediatrician.” Jorge Gutierrez, at 14 the youngest of the plaintiffs, is described as someone “who wants the opportunity to enroll in AP courses in the languages and sciences, especially earth science, biology, or chemistry, as he . . . hopes to become a veterinarian.”

Jorge is only a sophomore, so he may take some of the new AP courses another year. But the others seem to be suffering from senioritis. They are busy making college plans, and each is already taking AP English and government.

“It’s a hectic year, being a senior,” says Darren, 18, sipping a Sprite at the Sizzler restaurant in downtown Inglewood, where he and the others first met the ACLU lawyers. He elected not to take any more science classes this year. (He’s taken all of them, except for the new AP courses.) He still wants to become a doctor, though he’s now decided to apply to two California State University schools-Dominguez Hills and Los Angeles-and not to any of the more selective University of California schools. A thoughtful, soft-spoken young man with a friendly smile, he seems certain to go far.

Darren and the others say they’re fighting for the next generation of students.

Darren and the others make it clear that, ultimately, the lawsuit isn’t really about them at all. Although they’re proud to be part of it, they say they’re fighting for the next generation of students. “I have a younger sister and also younger cousins,” explains Andre, who is tall and lanky with cornrowed hair, “and I don’t want them to have to go through school getting a lesser education than any other kid.”

Once, Andre visited a large suburban high school in affluent Orange County. “This school was big,” he says. “I mean, it makes Inglewood High look like a small parking lot. It’s like a university. I went to some of the classrooms, and they had computers in almost every room. New books for everyone-a home set and a set for school. Basically, they had everything that is needed to get a good education.”

And how did it make him feel? “Cheated!” he says. “Like, why can’t we have the same thing? At some suburban schools, the students get taught more because they’re expected to know more, whereas if you go to school in an area like this, some people say, ‘Why teach them this? Why give them this? All they’re going to do is mess it up.’ And that’s wrong.”


School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Creating Confident Readers: Why Differentiated Instruction is Equitable Instruction
Join us as we break down how differentiated instruction can advance your school’s literacy and equity goals.
Content provided by Lexia Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: April 17, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 20, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 13, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: February 21, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read