Automatic Enrollment Policies for Advanced Coursework

Advanced coursework refers to courses which offer learners more challenging learning experiences and/or opportunities to earn college credit. Students are provided opportunities to gain advanced knowledge and skills while also demonstrating their readiness to transition to postsecondary education. These courses could include Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, honors classes, dual enrollment and dual credit programs, and other accelerated or specialized courses. Taking advanced coursework sets students on a path toward success in college and career. 

However, many students with college and career aspirations are not offered advanced learning opportunities even when they show readiness for higher-level coursework. This is especially true for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, leading to persistent opportunity gaps.  

The 2020-21 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) found that millions of students lack access to advanced courses: For example, 39% of public middle schools do not offer Algebra I, 33% of public high schools do not offer advanced math, and schools that serve large numbers of Black and Latino students are significantly less likely to offer advanced STEM courses. Data also highlighted existing disparities in courses that allow students to earn college credit (see chart).  

  • Latino students make up 27% of all high school students, but only 21% of all dual credit students are Latino, and 24.9% of all Advanced Placement students. 
  • The situation is even more pronounced for Black students, who make up 15% of all high school students, but only 9% of dual credit students, and 9.5% of students in AP. 
  • Students with disabilities make up 14% of high school students, but 4% of students in dual credit, and 2% of students in AP. 

What are Automatic Enrollment Policies?

circle graphs on CRDC data on advanced courses

As a result, these students are being sent a harmful message that advanced courses are not for them and are missing out on essential opportunities that can set them up for success in college and careers. 

Inequities in Advanced Coursework


The Benefits of Opt-Out Policies or Automatic Enrollment

Automatic enrollment in advanced coursework policies, also called “opt-out” policies, are a particularly potent and relatively simple policy solution to extend access to underserved students. Generally, students are placed in advanced courses through educator, school counselor, or parent recommendation, or need to “opt-in.” EdTrust has found that when placement is tied to just educator recommendation, teachers may make assumptions about a student’s intelligence rather than addressing barriers that make it difficult for students to enroll, which can replicate racial biases. 

But with automatic enrollment policies, any student who meets or exceeds the state standard on the statewide exam in the preceding level to the advanced courses (or through another measure) can be enrolled into advanced classes automatically, rather than asking students and families to “opt in” or relying on identification by teacher or school counselor recommendation. This reduces barriers to dual credit and advanced classes, particularly for underrepresented groups, and can help address hidden systemic inequities by more equitably enrolling students who are ready and eager to be in advanced classes based on multiple measures. 

Success Story: North Carolina

In 2017, investigative reporting by the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, found that students from low-income backgrounds were being placed in advanced coursework at lower rates than more affluent peers with the same levels of achievement. In response, North Carolina enacted an automatic enrollment policy that guarantees all students who score at the highest level on their end-of-grade math test are placed into an advanced learning opportunity (grades 3-5) or an advanced math course (sixth grade and above) during the following school year. In 2022-23, 92% of North Carolina students in grades 6 and above who scored at the highest level on their end-of-grade math test were placed in an advanced math course.

6 Ways that State & District Leaders Can Increase Access to Advanced Coursework

  1. Change identification and enrollment policies, such as automatic enrollment policies with an opt-out option 
  2. Use multiple measures to identify more students for advanced coursework opportunities, including but not limited to: expressed desire to enroll, exam scores, grades in relevant prerequisite courses, PSAT/SAT scores
  3. Partner with families early and often so all learners are aware of the benefits of advanced coursework and how to access opportunities
  4. Foster a positive school climate to ensure students feel like they belong in advanced classes
  5. Provide sufficient support for students to prepare for advanced coursework and for their success once enrolled
  6. Expand the number of advanced courses offered and incentivize teachers to teach advanced courses 

Success Story: Washington

In 2013, inspired by success in Federal Way School District, the Washington State legislature passed a law encouraging districts to adopt an automatic enrollment policy and allocated grant funds to cover costs such as teacher training, technology, transportation, books, and fees. In 2019, the state became the first in the country to adopt an automatic enrollment policy, which required that districts enroll any student who meets or exceeds state standards on the eighth grade or high school English language arts or math statewide assessments in advanced math, English, and science classes. Districts must notify students and their guardians about policy and advanced courses available. Districts are eligible for one-time grants to help expand their advanced coursework capacity.

Examples of States’ Opt-Out Policy Approaches

  • In 2019, Washington became the first state in the country to adopt an automatic enrollment policy for advanced math, English, and science classes in all high schools for any student who meets or exceeds state standard on 8th grade or high school statewide assessments. Schools are eligible for one-time grants to help expand their advanced coursework capacity.  
  • Similarly, Illinois’ state law requires districts to automatically enroll students if they meet or exceeds state standards in ELA, math, science in an advanced opportunity in high school, with policy language around the use of multiple measures to promote equity in enrollment. 
  • North Carolina’s 2019 policy focuses on automatic enrollment in advanced math opportunities for grades 3 and higher, with robust reporting requirements. Nevada’s law also requires that schools establish and carry out a plan to opt-in students in grades 3 and above, but also includes subjects such as English and social studies in addition to math.  
  • In 2023, Texas passed an “opt-out” policy centered on middle school math. The policy automatically enrolls fifth graders who score in the top 40% on the state standardized math test (or a local measure that includes class score and/or demonstrated proficiency in classwork) in advanced math in sixth grade, with the expressed purpose of improving the chances of gaining access to Algebra I in eighth grade.  
  • Colorado has a competitive grant program for districts to develop policies to automatically enroll students entering the ninth grade or higher in advanced courses based on specific criteria. LEAs can use grant funds to expand the number of advanced courses offered, incentivize teachers to teach advanced courses, and expand family engagement efforts. 

Automatic Enrollment: Building on Success at the Local Level

Many of the states that adopted automatic enrollment policies focused on early signs of success in districts or regions. The earliest example of this was in 2010, when Federal Way School District in Washington State passed an automatic enrollment policy and immediately saw a large increase in the percentage of students of color who took an advanced course, from 35% in 2009-10 to 61% to 2010-2011. Additionally, the passing rate for advanced courses remained high at 94% (10% above the district average). This success inspired the introduction of legislation that eventually led to Washington’s statewide policy.  

Similarly, Texas had previously established success across multiple districts in central Texas that were trying their own automatic enrollment policies. The data-driven education collaborative E3 Alliance found that 2 out of 3 Black students, and about half of the Latino students in central Texas who scored at the highest level on the fifth grade statewide math exam in 2014 had not completed algebra by eighth grade, despite having clearly demonstrated an early readiness for rigorous math. The organization worked with school districts to put into practice recommendations such as promoting the advantages of advanced math, automatically enrolling students in advanced courses, and offering training for teachers, and saw improvement in just a few years. In 2021, nearly 80% of Black and Latino students in central Texas who scored at the highest level on the fifth grade state exam in 2017 were enrolled in eighth grade Algebra I. By implementing an opt-out policy and more equitable, consistent student advising for middle school accelerated math, high-performing Latino participation in eighth grade Algebra I increased by 20 percentage points, and for high-performing Black students increased by over 30 percentage points.  

Dallas Independent School District has also gotten attention for their actions to increase racial diversity in advanced coursework. The district’s 2017 Racial Equity Advisory Council noted that many capable Latino, Black, and English learner students were not opting-in to honors classes or were passed over by their instructors. When the district moved from an opt-in to an opt-out policy in the 2019-2020 school year, they saw a 40-percentage point increase in enrollment in Algebra I, and this increase has not led to a decrease in student scores. 

Expanding Access to Advanced Coursework at the Federal Level

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) introduced the Advanced Coursework Equity Act, which would establish a competitive grant program for states and districts to increase the enrollment and performance of underrepresented students in advanced courses. The bill would allow eligible schools and school districts to receive up to $60 million to implement universal screening for advanced students, expand enrollment in advanced courses through automatic and open enrollment, cover course fees for low-income students, train or hire teachers for advanced courses, prepare students for postsecondary STEM pathways, and create or expand related efforts. 

Key Considerations for Advocates

To ensure automatic enrollment policies intentionally reach and support students who have been systemically shut out of advanced coursework, state policies should prioritize the following six conditions for success: 

(1) Policies are based in equity 

  • Several states include background on why the law is necessary, including data that shows inequities. This can be helpful to outline why the state thinks it is important, but also communicates to districts and schools the problem the policy addresses. 
  • Successful policies consider that adult expectations drive student learning and positive school climates, and districts should clearly communicate the policy to educators, because their buy-in makes the difference. 
  • Impactful policies remove barriers like fees and paperwork. Eliminating barriers, even small ones, is a no-brainer for expanding access to and belonging in advanced courses.  

(2) Require robust yearly data collection & reporting  Successful policies must be transparent with data around access and success and use regular data reports to inform implementation. For example, in North Carolina, 2022-23 data found that statewide, 8% of students in grades 6 and above who scored at the highest level on their prior year’s exam were not placed in an advanced math course, so districts should investigate if there are hidden barriers keeping out students. 

(3) Policies prioritize communication and relationship-building with families  Successful policies prioritize early communication with families, including information sharing about opportunities for, how to enroll, and the benefits of advanced coursework at the middle school level at the latest. 

(4) Qualifying measures include multiples measures of eligibility  One test measure can be a starting point, and there is data to show even that single measure can expand access to students who show readiness but have been kept out of advanced opportunities. But truly successful policies have expansive definitions of readiness — considering things like student ambition, student mindsets, or class grade.  

(5) Acceleration should be happening before high school  Research shows that an important time to get students thinking about their future paths is in middle school. Successful policies in North Carolina and Texas target students in the grades 3-5, with Texas’ policy focused on middle school to get more students into Algebra I classes in the eighth grade. The potential for long-term impact of automatic enrollment policies is heightened if the policy is implemented in middle school. 

(6) One subject is good, but more subjects are better   Several policies focus on only one subject (math), but more states have opened up automatic enrollment policies to additional subjects, like science, humanities, and English language arts. By broadening the type of rigorous classes, successful policies will yield increased enrollment and access to advanced coursework for more students across disciplines. 

To help further advocacy for advanced coursework, check out our memo for advocates: What are Automatic Enrollment Policies?