College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says

How to Get Students to Take Advanced Courses Sooner: Strategies for Schools

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 13, 2023 5 min read
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High school students are more likely to choose honors and other advanced courses in their junior or senior years, but for some students, that might be too late.

To ramp up the number of students—particularly Black and Hispanic students—who graduate ready for higher education, schools need to rethink their class prerequisites and provide better access, guidance, and supports to help students prioritize their course progression, according to an ongoing research project in Delaware. It was part of new college-readiness research highlighted on the first day of the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference here. The four-day meeting is expected to draw about 14,000 researchers from around the world and will be followed by a two-day virtual summit in May.

In three studies in the project, University of Delaware researchers analyzed school course catalogues, conducted staff interviews, and reviewed transcripts from about 100,000 students who graduated from Delaware charter and district high schools in 2020 and 2021, to track patterns in how schools offer advanced courses and the supports they give students to choose them.

Researchers found the majority of high schools studied restrict advanced classes—including honors, Advanced Placement, dual-enrollment, and International Baccalaureate courses—either through minimum test score requirements or prerequisite classes. In particular, high-poverty schools were significantly more likely than wealthier schools to have highly restricted access to advanced courses. None of the Title I schools in the study offered unrestricted access to advanced coursework, while eight schools with lower levels of poverty among students have unrestricted access to advanced classes.

Students of color in the state were significantly less likely to take advanced courses at any point in high school. For example, while just over half of all students studied took no advanced math classes in high school, that figure was nearly two-thirds for Black students.

More than 70 percent of the students took general, college-preparatory math classes in their first year of high school, and 27 percent took honors or accelerated math in 9th grade, according to Henry May, the director of the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy and an associate education professor at the University of Delaware, who discussed the transcript study. (Three percent of students took their first high school math course in middle school). The vast majority of students who started honors math in 9th grade continued to take advanced coursework throughout high school, but those who started with standard college-preparatory classes were less likely to go on to take multiple advanced classes in upper grades.

Some course offerings intended to broaden students’ access ended up limiting them instead. For example, students who participated in electives such as yearbook, creative writing, and vocational math in early high school were less likely to take more challenging courses later on, said Zoey (Chu Yi) Lu, a postdoctoral associate at the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy at the University of Delaware, who presented the school course offerings study.

“Having a wide range of courses [offered in school] may appear to be strong,” Lu said, “but in reality, these courses can end up ‘easy ways out’ for a high school student.”

Although creative writing or yearbook electives may fall under language arts, for example, they often don’t meet prerequisites that students need for later advanced courses—and students may not realize this until it’s too late.

“By senior year, the honors-level students have more course choices,” Lu said.

School approaches to help students challenge themselves

Small school changes can help students make better choices about their classes. In a related study, Katrina Morrison, a policy scientist and research associate for CRESP at the University of Delaware and her colleagues interviewed principals, assistant principals, and counselors at 13 charter and district high schools about how students got access to and support for taking challenging courses.

Morrison and her colleagues found three ways schools could expand the number and variety of students choosing challenging courses:

  • Help students see challenging courses both as a tool to open up options in high school and to prepare for college.
  • Boost confidence among students who are taking advanced courses.
  • Provide social and academic supports for students taking advanced courses.

Simple encouragement proved one of the most common supports students needed. Staff reported students are often intimidated by additional homework and consider academic struggle a sign that they “don’t fit” in an honors class. Two of the schools even allow students a six-week trial period in which they can transfer from an honors to a general class if they’re struggling academically, which administrators said led more students to take the chance to challenge themselves with the more difficult courses.

The principal at one special-admissions high school told researchers that teachers have flexibility to recommend students for an honors class even if they do not meet the academic bar on a prerequisite class.

“I’m sure they recommend students [who] have a C, because there could be a student that works really hard, that just doesn’t take great exams. But they’re going to turn in every assignment,” the administrator said. “You have kids with anxiety about exams. ... We say, ‘Hey, [you] are a good student; [you] get a little weirded out with the exam, but let’s continue to challenge yourself.’”

But May cautioned that educators and administrators need to go beyond lifting barriers and encouraging students to enroll in challenging courses. They must understand what students, particularly those from groups underrepresented in advanced courses, need to succeed.

“In math, almost half of the African American kids taking an honors class drop back down [to regular math classes later on],” May said. “That’s a big red flag. What kind of message are we sending? ‘Try this; oh, it didn’t work out, let’s kick you back down.’ Not good. If you get the kid to commit to a more challenging course, you’ve got to make sure the supports are there for them to succeed.”


Education Week is reporting live from AERA, the nation’s premier education research conference. Here’s the latest coverage.

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