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State calls on school districts to ensure equal access to advanced coursework

State calls on school districts to ensure equal access to advanced coursework

Research points to racial disparities in AP, IB and other advanced classes
State calls on school districts to ensure equal access to advanced coursework
Photographer: Shutterstock

School districts across the state should ensure all students have equal access to advanced courses that can set students on the path to successful college careers, according to new guidance from the state Education Department released in November.

The guidance offers school districts a framework to improve equity among students taking advanced coursework – simply put, are racial groups equally represented in regular and advanced classes? Because a study released last year suggests black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in courses like those offered as part of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs and other courses that set students apart as early as middle school. Referred to as “gatekeeper courses” in the study and guidance, the classes are key for setting students up to get into college and succeed while there.

The guidance says that state education officials are “committed to ensuring that all students succeed and thrive in school no matter who they are, where they are from, where they live, or where they go to school.” That commitment includes “increasing students’ access to rigorous learning opportunities so that all students are prepared for success after high school.”

The guidance outlines five areas for districts to focus their efforts:

  • provide for early-grade classes that set a foundation for advanced course work in later grades
  • create multiple “access points” to advanced courses 
  • only use enrollment criteria in advanced classes deemed “educationally necessary"
  • offer student supports so all students can access advanced courses, and
  • publish materials that to “encourage all students to participate in advanced courses” in multiple languages

The new guidance comes after Education Trust-New York, along with a coalition of other advocacy groups across the state working under the banner of the New York Equity Coaltion, released a report last year highlighting major racial disparities in students taking advanced courses at schools across the state.

“The data revealed that Latino and black students were both less likely to attend schools that offer critical courses and less likely to be equally represented even when their schools do offer these courses,” according to the report’s findings.

Across the state during the 2016-2017 school year, white students were nearly three times as likely as their black and Latino counterparts to take advanced classes like AP math and science, according to the report. In high schools offering calculus, for example, Latino students represented 21 percent of all students and 12 percent of students enrolled in calculus, while black students represented 13 percent of all students and 7 percent of students enrolled in calculus.

Those disparities surfaced in the Capital Region as well, according to data provided by Education Trust-New York.

The analysis of 2016-2017 school year data showed that across Schenectady, Albany, Saratoga and Montgomery counties, white students were at least twice as likely to be enrolled in calculus, algebra, physics and AP and IB courses as students of color. In some instances, the disparities were enormous. In Saratoga County, for example, white students were more than eight times as likely to be enrolled in calculus as black students, according to the Education Trust data. In Montgomery County, white students were many times more likely to be enrolled in Algebra I as middle school students than Hispanic students.

The guidance calls on districts to ramp up student supports for advanced classes across grade levels and evaluate enrollment policies for those courses to ensure they aren’t biased against groups of students. The guidance asks districts to consider practices “that may have a negative impact on access to advanced coursework for underserved students, including” teacher and principal recommendations, GPA cutoffs, entrance exams and “nonessential prerequisites.”

“An equitable course enrollment policy is rooted in the understanding that students can succeed in advanced courses when they are well-prepared with the appropriate foundation and provided with appropriate supports,” according to the guidance document.

Editors note: This story was updated Dec. 4, 2019 to include the name of the broader coalition of advocacy groups that participated in an analysis of student access to advanced courses. 

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