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How to Make AP STEM Classes More Diverse and Inclusive

By Ileana Najarro — April 21, 2022 5 min read
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Two in 5 Black and Latino students say they want to go to college and have a passion for science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM). But only about 3 percent of these students are enrolled in Advanced Placement STEM courses such as AP Biology, AP Chemistry and AP Physics I, a new report found. And solution to ensuring more Black and Latino students have access to these courses involves more than rethinking enrollment criteria.

The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocating for students from low-income families and students of color, and Equal Opportunity Schools, a nonprofit working with educators to close race and income enrollment gaps in AP and International Baccalaureate programs, partnered on the report using AP STEM course enrollment data in 80 districts across 24 states as well as student survey data.

Among the report’s key findings, researchers identified that a systemic barrier to Black and Latino students’ enrollment in courses that could jump-start STEM careers, is rooted in school climate. Specifically students with a passion for STEM were more likely to enroll in AP STEM courses if they first felt they belonged there, said Allison Rose Socol, one of the report’s authors with the Education Trust.

Other, more-logistical systemic barriers exist. That includes criteria for enrolling students in advanced courses reliant on their grades; teacher recommendations that can limit access for underrepresented groups who end up tracked out of academic opportunities such as honors courses early on; and not factoring in students’ passion for subjects such as STEM as a measure for potential success in advanced courses, Socol said.

But educators shouldn’t underestimate the impact a sense of belonging can have on AP program enrollment.

“Certainly we need to focus on changing the enrollment policy,” Socol said. “But we need to focus also on the experiences that Black and Latino students are having in school and invest in creating positive school climates where students have positive relationships, where they feel like they’re being held to high expectations, and where they feel seen and feel like they belong in those AP courses.”

Take Woodbridge High School in Irvine, Calif., as an example. The school, which is predominantly white and Asian, made major systemic changes a few years back which included no longer limiting recommendation for AP enrollment to students who were on a college prep track in 8th grade and changing the school schedule to allow students to take added course offerings that better prepared all students for AP courses.

Yet even after these changes, students taking AP and honors courses were still disproportionately white, Asian and affluent, said principal Christopher Krebs.

So the work didn’t stop there.

Through a partnership with Equal Opportunity Schools, students underrepresented in advanced courses—be they Black, Latino and/or from lower income families—were surveyed and they shared that they didn’t see themselves belonging in such classes.

In response, the school identified trusted adults who were then trained in how to empower students, how to talk to them about how they had the ability to take more rigorous courses , and where to get information about the AP program, Krebs said.

After four or five years of regular check-ins with students and their families through this trusted adult program, each year an estimated 70 to 100 students who had talent but wouldn’t have otherwise considered taking an AP course were now enrolled.

“These are some of the most powerful, important conversations that we’re having,” Krebs said. “Each year I have 20, 30, 40 parents who after this trusted adult conversation happens will call me and say no one has ever told anyone in my family that we are talented, that we can take these classes.”

And the impact stretches into students’ younger siblings who end up looking at school in a different light after seeing their older siblings’ success, he added.

The trusted adult system has also worked at Pinole Valley High School in Pinole, Calif., which offers an IB program instead of AP courses.

The school, which is predominantly Latino, switched from AP to IB only a few years ago in part to provide more rigorous course offerings to students, including the opportunity to graduate with both a high school and IB diploma by completing a full two-year multi-disciplinary IB program, said Principal Kibby Kleiman.

Yet even for those students not aiming for the extra diploma, offering IB classes in tandem with a trusted adult program has opened doors for students in new ways. Kleiman points to a talented student artist who was a C-plus student otherwise and who was encouraged to take an IB art class. Through that course, she pushed herself to not only elevate her portfolio but also master how to write about her art and her process in an academic way to the point where she got a full ride scholarship to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco for next fall, he said.

When it comes to ensuring more students have access to and are encouraged to enroll in AP STEM courses specifically, the College Board, which runs the AP program, launched the AP Computer Science Principles course in 2016. It covers foundational concepts of computer science and challenges students to explore how computing and technology can impact the world.

It was designed to bring more Black, Latino and female students into computer science and “over the last 5 years, AP CSP participation by underrepresented minorities has more than doubled,” said Trevor Packer, head of the AP program.

“We want to see similar gains across other STEM disciplines, and we’re glad to see an increased focus on equitable access for Black and Latino students,” he added.

And progress is already underway, with Packer saying that “for 2022, Black students have registered for 27 percent more AP science exams than they took in 2021, Hispanic/Latino students for 16 percent more, white students for 6 percent more and Asian students for 4 percent more.”

For both Packer and Socol with the Education Trust, working on improving access to AP STEM courses for underrepresented students is a net gain for the future.

“The future will require a workforce that has the skills and the passion for STEM, and we want that workforce to include the bright and eager and passionate Black and Latino students who aspire to solve the future problems we can’t even see,” Socol said.

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