Barriers blocking Black students from advanced classes

Black and Latino students in advanced courses miss out compared to their white peers.

Barriers blocking Black students from advanced classes
Barriers blocking Black students from advanced classes.

Amir Cannon struggled taking International Baccalaureate classes, a rigorous option similar to the College Board’s Advanced Placement program, in their junior and senior year of high school. The program, Cannon explained, treats students like a “monolithic body” with a “blanketed curriculum” instead of navigating different learning styles and helping to support everyone.

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“The IB program disregards such diversity in learning solely to focus on prestige, elite, and white academic goals for each of the students,” Cannon, now 29, wrote in a class assignment at Metropolitan State University. However, they highlighted that the program has tools to address the biases “and ensure Black students like myself receive an equitable education that supports our success.”

Without the coursework being personal to Cannon’s experiences, aspirations, and learning style, it was difficult to succeed.

Was I challenged? Yes, but it was at the expense of feeling othered, ostracized, and marginalized among what I considered the ‘smart kids’AMIR CANNON, METROPOLITAN STATE UNIVERSITY STUDENT

“I felt disconnected not just from the curriculum, but the entirety of the IB program,” Cannon, an individualized studies major focusing on equitable economic and community development, wrote. “Was I challenged? Yes, but it was at the expense of feeling othered, ostracized, and marginalized among what I considered the ‘smart kids,’ who were predominantly white, in the IB program.”

This isn’t a singular experience. Across the country, 225,000 Black and Latino students are missing out on advanced courses, according to Education Trust’s new report, Shut Out. And, on average, the number of Black students enrolled in an AP class in 2020 across the country was significantly lower than other racial groups, according to school-level data from the Urban Institute.

“The lack of representation of Black and Latino students is not about a lack of preparedness or a lack of desire,” says Dr. Allison Socol, the assistant director of P-12 policy at Education Trust. “That this is about systems that are shutting out Black and Latino students from the courses that would further their interests and aspirations and put them on the path to college and have a meaningful career and their choice.” 

School Qualifications Block Students From Advanced Courses

When it comes time to fill in your class schedule, there isn’t any standard way, including who’s able to enroll in AP classes. Some schools have open enrollment, allowing anyone who’s interested to sign up for the course, while others have prerequisites, like specific academic tracts or a minimum GPA.

The prerequisites create limitations in student choice. For example, some schools use qualifying SAT or PSAT scores for particular math tracts, says Akil Bello, the senior director of advocacy and advancement at FairTest. Other times, you have to plan unreasonably far in advance, like taking Algebra 1 in seventh grade to get into a calculus class in your junior or senior year of high school.

“It changes your options,” Bello says. “Many colleges are reviewing applications in context. But how do you account for unacknowledged biases? How do you guarantee that a reader is aware of the structural limitations put in place for registering for APs at one school versus another?”

“It is very hard for admissions officers who are told to value AP above other classes to fully understand the pathways and limitations that might exist to getting into those classes,” Bello adds.

But most AP courses don’t have natural prerequisites, says Dr. Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and co-founder of the nonprofit Challenge Success. She especially takes issue with a school saying that your ability to take AP Chemistry, for example, is based on your grade in chemistry. 

“You could throw a whole bunch of reasons not to get as good a grade in a class, which has nothing to do with your interest or even ability to do well at a college-level course in that content,” Pope says.

Teacher Bias Limits Students’ Opportunities

Yet another barrier facing Black students trying to enroll in advanced coursework: their teachers. Across the country, the K-12 education workforce is largely white —  more than 80% of teachers are white and only 10% are Black.

“There’s real evidence that teacher expectations differ by teacher race,” says Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings. “White teachers tend to, through unconscious bias, underestimate the performance of students of color in their classroom relative to other white kids in the classroom.”

This problem also comes up when it’s up to teachers to decide if there’s enough demand to offer an AP class or if the school requires teacher recommendations to enroll.

“They’re looking around at their students, and they see maybe a few Black and Latino kids who are on the edge, maybe they’re not quite there, so we’re not going to offer that class this year,” Hansen says. “That could be a manifestation of an unconscious bias that does hinder the school from being able to offer this class.”

In many school districts, the primary way of identifying students for advanced classes comes from teacher recommendations, Socol adds. The approach, she says, brings in a lot of bias.

“The biases of educators, implicit or explicit, means that often bright and eager Black and Latino students are overlooked for advanced courses,” Socol says, “despite being academically prepared, expressing an interest in those courses, wanting to go to college, and being eager to be challenged.”

Without teachers of color in these positions, it’s harder for students of color to see themselves represented and feel like they belong. And the teacher bias means Black and Brown students aren’t groomed or given the same information about advanced courses, says Dr. Brett Grant, a postdoctoral fellow at the Black Education Research Collective at Teachers College, Columbia University. They’re not “tracked” into the college curricular courses.

“It means a lot when you’re encouraged to take a course, especially in high school when you’re so vulnerable and your personality is still forming,” Grant says. “When someone encourages you to take those courses, it does something for your self-esteem. It makes you feel like you have a support system behind you.”

AP Class Materials Cost Money

On top of costing school districts money to train teachers and purchase the necessary resources, some of the funding for AP classes comes from students and their families. Families pony up the cash because if their student takes the AP test and scores high enough, they can get college credit and save thousands of dollars. But that hinges on each students’ ability to pay for the exam, which costs a minimum of $96 per test. Then add in the potential that a school will bump up the fee to help them cover the costs of their proctoring and administration.

College Board offers $34 fee reductions per exam for students with “significant financial need.” And funding from individual states might be able to further lower the cost.

That said, it can get pricey. 

And, the Shut Out report found, “school districts serving the largest populations of Black, Latino, or Native students receive 13% less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color.” This equates to a school district serving 5,000 students having an annual $9 million funding gap.

“The federal government, for example, provides a good chunk of money to allow them to fund AP exams for low-income students, which is arguably a good thing,” says Bob Schaeffer, the executive director of FairTest, which has an active lawsuit against the College Board for technical difficulties with the virtual AP exams in 2020. “But the extent that they can pass the costs on to taxpayers rather than to parents, it becomes a very efficient way to make money.”

The Good News: These Problems Have Solutions

Fortunately, there are many paths forward to create more equitable systems. 

The first step is giving students more choice and power when it comes to their education, including open access to AP classes. And to ensure students feel empowered and won’t get left behind, Pope suggests a “safety net,” where students can switch out of the class for whatever reason — they realize they’re in over their head, a personal reason, lost interest — without having to totally change their schedule. 

And, in her book “Overloaded and Underprepared,” Pope wrote about hybrid classes: a U.S. History class, for example, that has both students who are and aren’t taking it for AP credit. The students taking it for AP credit would have additional assignments, like practice essay questions similar to what appears on AP exams. This would help open up higher-level instruction to students who are usually underrepresented in these classes.

“Not everyone has to do the extra work required to get AP status or to prepare for the AP test at the end,” Pope says. “But all kids are benefiting from good, rigorous instruction and the discussion that happens with a mix of kids in that class.”

Something Socol has seen in different districts is setting up an automatic enrollment policy, which allows students to opt out of advanced classes instead of putting the onus on them to opt in.

“We see much greater numbers of Black and Latino students enrolling,” Socol says. “We need to do more to proactively identify Black and Latino students rather than just relying on the recommendations of teachers.”

We need to do more to proactively identify Black and Latino students rather than just relying on the recommendations of teachers.DR. ALLISON SOCOL, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR OF P-12 POLICY AT EDUCATION TRUST

And, of course, hiring a more diverse teacher workforce. Students of color are more likely to be referred for advanced courses when they have a teacher of color, Socol says. According to Shut Out, “teachers of color also create identity-affirming environments by demonstrating a successful person of color who has mastered the content being taught and using culturally responsive teaching practices,” which helps students see themselves reflected in the classroom and “feel less of a burden of representing an entire group of students.”

“It means that students of color will be more likely to have access to and be encouraged to take the kinds of rigorous courses that they deserve and are ready for,” Socol says.

But, when AP isn’t an option, Grant emphasizes competitive eligibility. Many districts offer programs with names like dual or concurrent enrollment, which allow students to take community college classes comparable to AP. But these programs, though very effective in helping make a student competitive for college, aren’t always widely shared, Grant says.

“When we met with students and parents, we could advise them that you can go to the local community college and take courses there, and check with the transfer counselor to make sure that those courses count as AP courses,” Grant says. “That’s the difference, is having access to that information.”

Though these problems are long-standing, there are real-world examples in districts and states across the country that are making changes we can learn from.

“This is not an unsolvable problem,” Socol says. “Hopefully, those will become models for other places to adapt.”

-By Maya Pottiger for Word in Black