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Equity & Diversity

The Simple Policy Change That’s Getting More Students of Color in Advanced Courses

By Evie Blad — March 03, 2020 7 min read
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Administrators in dozens of Washington state districts say a simple policy change can make a big difference: Rather than requiring students to seek out more rigorous coursework on their own, their schools automatically enroll them, only allowing them to opt out with parental permission.

Every district in the Evergreen State will be required to adopt a version of the policy, called “academic acceleration,” for math, science, and English classes by 2021-22 under a first-of-its kind state law signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, last year.

The move is designed to tackle a pervasive problem not just in Washington but across the country: Black, Latino, and Native American students and students from low-income households are less likely to take Advanced Placement, dual-enrollment, and other challenging courses than their white, Asian and more-affluent peers.

And that difference can’t be explained away by a lack of academic skill, district leaders say. There’s a difference between being unqualified and being unidentified, a gap that ties into some of the most entrenched forms of inequity in American schools.

Students may not be aware they qualify, teachers may fail to advise them of the value of such coursework, and such barriers as a sense of not belonging or lack of encouragement may affect their motivation to try, supporters of Washington’s new law say.

“We eliminated all of the barriers to having students wondering if they could take that class at all,” said Steve Fisk, the principal at Spokane’s North Central High School, which started to change its approach to rigorous courses in 2008. Spokane followed, adopting a districtwide academic-acceleration policy in 2015.

North Central removed prerequisite “filter courses” which were more remedial and sometimes required before students could advance, and other requirements, such as teacher recommendations, for enrolling in certain advanced courses. Now, students who show mastery on state reading, science, and math tests are automatically placed in the next available rigorous course. And students have more freedom to take science courses, like chemistry and biology, in the order they choose.

“The question was why do we have filter courses for folks to get into advanced courses? What we’ve come to recognize is that we don’t have a good matrix for measuring work ethic, drive, desire,” Fisk said.

So, rather than assume they can decipher which students are motivated or interested in a higher level of academic challenge, teachers have conversations with all students about their options and capabilities.

North Central is about 67 percent white, and about 55 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. About half of the students who take AP tests are from low-income homes, Fisk said, and the school hopes to keep increasing participation.

“Every kid should be asked to stretch, whatever that stretch means,” Fisk said.

That’s important because even participating in an advanced course can make students more likely to succeed in college, research from a University of Washington economist found. That 2012 study, which matched high school courseload against college persistence, found even stronger effects for low-income students who took rigorous courses.

And a lack of advanced high school coursework in such areas as math can put a student far behind before he or she even starts a college program like engineering.

“Sometimes, I think kids can fall into a pathway and not quite know what the consequence is” until they graduate and see the effects of their course choices, Fisk said.

Numbers Steadily Rise

The Federal Way and Tacoma districts were the earliest Washington school systems to adopt districtwide academic-acceleration policies.

In 2009-10, 41 percent of all of Federal Way’s 11th and 12th graders took an advanced course; 35 percent of students of color did. The year after the district passed its acceleration policy, those numbers rose to 67 percent of all students and 61 percent of students of color.

Tackling Racial, Poverty Gaps in Advanced Course Enrollment

March 2010
The Federal Way district becomes the first in Washington state to adopt an academic acceleration policy.

“Advanced programs and course work are available for all students,” that policy says. “When a student has attained established standards for academic achievement and demonstrated acquisition of required knowledge and skills as evidence of preparedness to be successful at the next level, said student will automatically be enrolled in such program/s.”

Federal Way sees growth in overall advanced course participation and in the percentage of students of color enrolling in Advanced Placement and dual-credit programs.

May 2013
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signs a bill that encourages districts to adopt academic acceleration policies. The bill creates a new grant program “to support teacher training, curriculum, technology, examination fees, and other costs associated with offering dual-credit courses to high school students.” The law requires the state’s education department to collect racially disaggregated data on participation and pass rates for rigorous courses.

June 2013
The Tacoma district becomes another early adopter of academic acceleration, approving its own policy. That year, about 33 percent of the district’s 11th and 12th graders took an advanced course. By 2018-19, that number would grow to 71 percent. About a dozen other districts follow suit within months after the state law is signed, advocates estimate.

Stand for Children Washington, a nonprofit that advocated for the state law, estimates that 50 school districts have adopted academic acceleration policies. By 2020, the organization would estimate that 31 of those districts had reached racial parity in advanced course enrollment or that they had made “significant progress.”

May 2019
Inslee signs an education bill that includes a requirement for all districts to adopt academic acceleration policies.

January 2020
Washington lawmakers begin considering a bill that would cover advanced course enrollment and exam fees for all students. Some districts already cover those costs, but proponents of the bill hope it would permanently eliminate a barrier that keeps some students from participating.

All districts must have acceleration policies in place.

Source: Education Week

Those trends have held. In 2019, well over 60 percent of students in all demographic groups except Native American students took a dual credit, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or Cambridge International course, state data show. For Native Americans, that number was about 59.5 percent.

Since 2013, when the state encouraged school systems to consider voluntary policies, about 50 out of 294 districts have made participation in college-bound classes the default for qualifying students, said a 2018 report by Stand for Children, an advocacy group that pushed for the new law.

“Some of this is really simple,” said Libuse Binder, the executive director of Stand for Children Washington. “It’s just about making sure that adults are asking the right questions.”

No state has made such a broad attempt to tackle disparities in advanced courses in this fashion, but other states have adopted narrower policies.

North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill in 2018 that requires districts to enroll students in grades 3-12 in advanced-math courses if they scored at the highest level on the previous year’s state test. That effort followed an investigation by The News & Observer in Raleigh that found the state’s schools failed to enroll thousands of qualifying low-income students in gifted coursework.

Colorado lawmakers last year created a grant program for districts that voluntarily adopt acceleration policies. Grant funding can be used to add advanced courses, to provide incentives for educators to teach them, or for efforts to engage students and families in selecting classes that fit students’ goals.

‘Huge Opportunity’

Supporters of Washington’s law said they expect to hear more from researchers and advocacy groups in other states as it takes effect. “It’s a huge opportunity,” Binder said. “We feel a lot of responsibility to get this right and to make sure we are always leading the conversation with equity so that we don’t just revert to old practices.”

A policy change is sort of a “blunt instrument” to fix a complicated problem, she said. Rather than just changing the text of their policies, schools will also have to re-engineer their approaches to engaging students and help change the mindsets of their educators, she said.

At Spokane’s North Central High, that meant more one-on-one meetings with students, confronting the internalized beliefs some teenagers carry that they “just aren’t math people,” and working with parents who may be concerned about their child’s ability to keep up with more rigorous courses, said Jessica Everman, an assistant principal.

“Every kid comes into a building with a different luggage or suitcase packed based on experiences at home and their feeder elementary and middle schools,” she said.

The school also uses students’ PSAT and state test scores to project their scores on an AP exam before they take the course. Even if a student doesn’t eventually pass that end-of-course exam, teachers strive to help them increase their score beyond the projection.

“We need to have high expectations for all students and provide them with the same amount of supports to access those classes we are asking them to take,” Everman said.

Stand for Children Washington works with principals and superintendents around the state to help improve efforts to place students in advanced courses. Their strategy includes brief surveys that ask students about career goals, why they may be hesitant to enroll in advanced courses, and their perceptions of the school environment.

Another barrier: Students may avoid advanced or dual-enrollment courses if they can’t afford fees associated with gaining college credit or taking year-end exams. Washington provides some grants for those and other expenses. Some districts have already taken on those costs.

Changing enrollment policies doesn’t address the lack of advanced courses at some schools. Nationwide, high-poverty and rural schools often have fewer rigorous courses than those in more-affluent and higher-population areas.

That reality spurred big changes in Bridgeport, a town 2,500 people in north-central Washington. Educators there found creative ways to expand college-credit-bearing classes for students, even though the nearest community college, Wenatchee Valley College, is about 50 miles away.

In 2003, the district began getting its high school teachers onboarded as adjuncts through the two-year college so their high school courses yielded college credit. Bridgeport pays students’ enrollment fees and AP exams.

The majority-Latino district faced some resistance, Superintendent Scott Stattler said. Some parents who hadn’t been to college themselves were hesistant to ask their children to take on that challenge in high school. And some worried it would have domino effects on other areas, like athletics. But participation has become a norm, he said.

Bridgeport hasn’t yet adopted a formal acceleration policy, but it may as well have, Sattler said. Administrators expect about 11 of the district’s 55 seniors will get an associate degree along with their high school diploma when they graduate this spring. Every year, about 70 percent of graduates immediately enroll in college or vocational-training programs, a big change. “Before, we would celebrate if even five went,” Sattler said.

“Over time, our philosophy has remained steadfast,” he said. “We knew where we wanted to get with this program. We were able to get that vision in mind and keep marching toward it.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as Tearing Down the Gates to Advanced Courses


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