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What is automatic enrollment?

Automatic enrollment is a policy that ensures all students who are ready for advanced courses have access to them. These policies automatically enroll every student who has demonstrated their proficiency in a subject, such as math, into an advanced course in that subject the following year, unless their parents opt them out of the advanced class. These policies most commonly utilize standardized test scores, along with other methods of evaluation like student grades, to determine which students are “proficient” in a subject, and therefore ready for an advanced class.

Why are automatic enrollment policies necessary?

For decades, research has shown that students of color are enrolled in advanced courses at much lower rates than their white peers, even though students of color are no less likely to succeed when enrolled in these courses. This is due to many factors, including unintentional (or intentional) educator bias, a lack of communication with families about advanced opportunities, funding inequities that lead schools serving predominantly students of color to offer fewer advanced courses, and a feeling among students of color that they are not welcome in advanced classes. Automatic enrollment policies aim to eliminate some of these factors so that more students of color have access to advanced material.

Data Point: Although Black students make up 15% of the student population, they only account for 9.5% of students enrolled in AP courses. EdTrust’s research shows that if the demographics of students enrolled in AP courses accurately reflected the demographics of the U.S. student body, an additional 640,000 students of color and low-income students would be enrolled in AP courses. That is more than the population of Wyoming.

Who benefits from automatic enrollment policies?

Automatic enrollment policies benefit ALL students.  While these policies are often enacted with the goal of supporting students of color, studies show that automatic enrollment policies have a positive effect on students of all races because they ensure that no student who has demonstrated their proficiency in a subject is overlooked.

Employers and the community at large also benefit from automatic enrollment policies: Students who participate in advanced courses are more likely to complete high school and go on to attain a postsecondary degree, thus potentially increasing their lifetime earnings and setting them up for greater success in the workforce.

Data Point: A recent study of Washington’s automatic enrollment policy found that it increased all qualified students’ likelihood of being enrolled in an advanced course, regardless of their race. However, the policy had an outsized impact on students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, who became significantly more likely to enroll in an advanced course following the policy’s implementation.

Case Study: In 2023, Texas passed an automatic enrollment policy for middle school math. One of the authors of the bill, state Sen. Brandon Creighton, cited workforce needs as his main reason for sponsoring the bill. “We just are hearing over and over again … that the workforce is just not where it needs to be,” and the bill gets students “on the pathway to [a secondary credential] and I think that’s only to the good of all of us,” he said.

Do automatic enrollment policies push students into courses they aren’t ready for?

No. Automatic enrollment policies only enroll students who have demonstrated that they are ready for an advanced course through one or more measures as determined by their state or school district. However, unlike a system based on teacher recommendations, automatic enrollment policies utilize quantifiable measures of student readiness in an effort to ensure that all students who are ready for advanced courses have access to them. This may lead to an increased number of students in an advanced class, but it’s not because students are being enrolled in courses they aren’t prepared for; it’s because the data shows that there are many more students who are ready for advanced courses than are currently enrolled in them.

Data Point: When AdvanceKentucky helped a small group of schools implement automatic enrollment policies, an additional 14,119 students were enrolled in AP courses. Despite this increase in the number of students taking AP courses, the percentage of students at these schools who passed their AP exams remained high at 45%, only slightly less than the AP passage rate at schools without automatic enrollment policies (48%).

Do automatic enrollment policies force students to take advanced courses if they don’t want to?

No. Automatic enrollment policies mandate that the student and/or parent(s) be notified if a student is placed in an advanced course based on their assessment score. This notification includes information on how to “opt out” of this placement if they so desire. Should a student be automatically placed in an advanced course they don’t want to be in, they would simply notify their school and be reassigned to a traditional course in the same subject. EdTrust recommends that all automatic enrollment policies include this “opt-out” provision.

Do automatic enrollment policies decrease the rigor of advanced courses by lowering the standard for admission?

Automatic enrollment policies have no effect on the content or quality of advanced courses. Questions like this assume that the number of students currently enrolled in advanced courses accurately reflects the number of students who are ready for this coursework. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Additionally, the belief that allowing more students, particularly those of color, into advanced courses lowers the quality of those courses is linked to harmful stereotypes about students of color being less intelligent than their white peers. Therefore, increasing access to advanced coursework is not decreasing the standards for enrollment in these courses, but increasing the number of students taking advanced courses from a pool that has already proven they can handle this material.

Case Study: In Federal Way Public Schools in Washington state, 80% of students met proficiency on state reading and writing exams, but only 30% took advanced coursework. After the district piloted an automatic enrollment policy, it saw a 25% increase in the number of students of color who took an advanced course, while the pass rate for these courses remained high at 92%.

Since teachers know their students best, why shouldn’t they be the ones to determine who is ready for advanced courses?

Teachers, like all people, have bias. Unfortunately, the data shows that, even unknowingly, teachers are more likely to recommend students of their same race or ethnicity for advanced courses. Since only 20% of US teachers are people of color, while over 50% of students are, students of color are more likely to have a teacher of a different race who is less likely to recommend them for advanced courses. Implicit (or explicit) bias may lead teachers to believe that their students of color are not ready for advanced coursework. Automatic enrollment policies seek to eliminate this bias by supplementing teacher recommendations with other methods of determining readiness, like assessment scores, so that more students can access advanced courses.

Case Study: An IB program coordinator in California told EdTrust, “There are some members of our teaching staff, counseling staff, and even our community that will say, ‘Our kids can’t do that.’ … and so, there’s a lot of education that we have to do in convincing people that, you know what? Yes, our kids can.”

Do automatic enrollment policies rely only on test scores to determine students’ readiness for advanced courses?

Most automatic enrollment policies encourage school districts to utilize multiple criteria when determining which students are ready for advanced courses. Automatic enrollment policies do rely most heavily on standardized test scores because they provide a quantifiable and standardized way to compare student performance. However, under these policies, test scores supplement, but do not replace, other ways that students can be identified as ready for advanced courses, such as through demonstrated interest or course grades. The use of standardized test scores in automatic enrollment policies just ensures that qualified students don’t get overlooked by other, less systematic approaches to determining their readiness.

What if my school doesn’t have enough extra spots in its current advanced classes to accommodate an influx of new students? What if my school doesn’t offer any advanced courses at all?

Automatic enrollment policies are often implemented over the course of a few years to allow schools and districts the time they need to increase their capacity and provide advanced courses to all students who are ready for them. Additionally, these policies ideally include some form of financial and/or technical support for districts to train more teachers and begin offering advanced classes or expand upon the ones they currently offer. In more rural or smaller schools where offering additional advanced courses may not be practical given the size of the student body, districts have facilitated partnerships between schools to offer one set of advanced courses that is available to all qualified students in the area.

How much will this cost?

On their face, automatic enrollment policies don’t require funds, and states have implemented these policies without them. However, because automatic enrollment policies may require some schools to start offering advanced courses if they don’t already, or to increase the number of advanced courses they already offer, EdTrust recommends that a small amount of funding be made available for districts to apply for as needed. These funds can help districts enhance their capacity to offer advanced courses by: purchasing new curriculum materials, covering the exam fees of low-income students, providing direct services like tutoring to students from under-represented groups, training or hiring teachers, strengthening the school’s climate to ensure schoolwide buy-in for the new policy, or hiring staff to monitor student data and ensure students are being correctly identified for advanced courses.

Case Study: Among states with automatic enrollment policies, the funding they have provided to districts for implementation has varied widely, and experts have not recommended a specific amount. When Washington implemented its policy, the state invited each district to apply for a grant of up to $10,000 to assist with implementation. Under Colorado’s policy, the state has offered funding on an as-needed basis, with grants ranging from $9,000 to $65,000.

Should automatic enrollment policies focus on a specific grade or subject area?

There isn’t strong research on this subject. If states or districts have existing automatic enrollment policies in one subject or for one grade level, they should consider expanding these policies to cover additional subjects or grades. If districts are implementing an automatic enrollment policy for the first time and need to narrow the scope of the policy to one subject, math is the most popular option. Additionally, we know that students are “tracked” into different subject levels as early as elementary school, and that this has long-term impacts on the opportunities they have access to later in life. Therefore, the earlier policies like automatic enrollment are implemented, the better.