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2 in 5 Black and Latino students say they really enjoy STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses and aspire to go to college, but less that 3 percent are enrolling in STEM courses. Many aspiring young Black and Latino students across the nation who show a love for science early on and express an interest in pursuing it as a career, want to discover something new, to make a difference, and to help their families and their communities. 

Unfortunately, nearly 225,000 Black and Latino students are missing out on AP Courses they should otherwise have access to while in high school.

The Education Trust teamed up with Equal Opportunity Schools to look specifically at access to AP STEM courses. We analyzed student survey data, administrative school files, school course enrollment, and interviewed 10 school leaders and educators across six districts.

We found that Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds are being denied access to AP STEM opportunities such as AP Biology, AP Physics, and AP Chemistry, despite voicing interest in going to college and pursuing a career in a STEM field. In fact, our analysis shows that for many Black and Latino students, STEM courses are their favorite subject areas.

Why then are they not enrolled in these courses?

Systemic causes for under-enrollment include:

  1. Reliance of education leaders on s student’s persistence or assumptions about their intelligence instead of addressing barriers that make it difficult for students to enroll
  2. Reliance on single denominators of readiness, such as GPA and test scores

To increase enrollment of students of color in AP STEM courses, leaders must create positive school climates where students of color feel safe and have a sense of belonging, where they interact with adults who have high expectations for them, there they receive adequate information on how to access AP STEM opportunities, and where they have rigorous, culturally relevant, and identity affirming curricula.

PART 1: Meeting Students’ Aspirations and Interests

FINDING 1: Black and Latino students aspire to go to college and really enjoy STEM

Our research and findings are clear that under-enrollment in advanced courses is not a reflection of a lack of interest on the part of Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds. On average, roughly 2 in 5 (our 40%) of the Black and Latino students in our sample and 1 in 4 (or 25%) of the students from low-income backgrounds in our sample aspire to go to college and name STEM subjects as their favorites.

FINDING 2: Even though Black and Latino students are interested in college and STEM courses, very few of them are actually enrolled in advanced placement STEM courses

Based on these reasons, these students should be enrolling in advanced STEM courses. But we find that they are not. Only a fraction of these students is actually enrolled in AP Biology (less than 2% for Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds), AP Chemistry (less than 1% for all groups), or AP Physics 1: Algebra based (less than 2% for all groups).

The data is shocking and heartbreaking when considering the full personal and societal weight of these missed opportunities for Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds.

Systemic Barriers to Advanced Placement STEM Courses

The under-enrollment of Black and Latino students from low-income backgrounds in AP STEM courses has been linked to several factors:

  1. Funding Inequities contribute to schools serving Black and Latino students having fewer seats in advanced courses.
  2. Even if schools do have an adequate number of advanced courses available, Educator Bias and Mindsets often limit students’ access.
  3. Racialized Tracking in the early grades is also a barrier to AP STEM enrollment. As early as elementary school, students of color and students from low-income backgrounds do not receive the same opportunities to enroll in advanced STEM courses as their more affluent and White peers.

“If you really believe truly that [students] can do it, it just shifts the conversation. So, I do think that core beliefs in key areas like on our counseling team, our scheduler, and our administrators is critical.”

—PRINCIPAL, OREGON

Fortunately, there are several policies and practices that school, district, and state leaders can implement to remove these barriers. Part Three below includes recommendations to advance equity in access and success in advanced coursework.

But while it is necessary for state, district, and school leaders to adopt and implement policies that remove barriers that prevent Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds from accessing AP courses, they must also ensure that the school environments within which these policies are to be adopted are safe, inclusive, and welcoming. In Part Two we examine the relationship between school climate and AP access and highlight factors that increase the likelihood that students of color will enroll.

PART 2: Creating a Positive School Climate

FINDING 1: Students are 105% more likely to take an AP class when they aspire to go to college

FINDING 2: Students who aspire to go to college are 16% more likely to take an AP class when they are given adequate information on how to enroll in those courses

FINDING 3: Students who aspire to go to college are 11% more likely to take an AP class when they feel like they belong in the class

A positive school climate includes positive relationships among and between staff and students, a safe environment where students feel they belong, and where they receive equitable supports to meet high expectations. Too often, however, students of color do not experience positive school climate. The responsibility is on the adults in schools to examine their own biases and make changes to policies and practices to improve students’ learning environment.

Aspects of a Positive School Climate for Equitable Access to Advanced Courses

  1. Information-Sharing and College-Going Cultures
    Positive school cultures where college is emphasized, or “college-going cultures,” are information and resource-rich environments designed to assist all students in their journey of preparing for, enrolling in, and graduating from college.
  2. A Sense of Belonging
    Other research suggests that student perception, experience, and understanding of their identity (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender identity, socioeconomic status, etc.) shapes the experiences of students of color in STEM courses. It should come as no surprise that students opt out of STEM courses when their identities are erased from the curriculum and culture of the classroom and when they do not see themselves reflected in those leading the courses or leading STEM fields.
  3. Identity-Affirming Teaching and Educator Diversity
    Research also suggests the importance of culturally relevant teaching and learning when creating positive school climates. Having a same race teacher, for example, can have a positive effect on enrollment in advanced STEM courses. 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. This not only helps students of color to see themselves reflected in the classroom, but to also feel less of a burden of representing an entire group of students.

“We started doing outreach groups, and we found that outside of the White and Asian community, especially our Latino community, there was a very transactional relationship between parents and students, meaning they thought that they came to high school to get a good education, but they didn’t necessarily see themselves as part of the community. And community. And so, we were trying to build a sense of belonging and identity on campus that was missing before.” we were trying to build a sense of belonging and identity on campus that was missing before.”

—Principal, California

”One thing I’ve learned since I’ve been in education: If you have a relationship with a student, they will want to work for you. They want to please you because they know that you care about them. And I think that’s been very important. Not just in our building, but as we just continue to group children and prepare them.”

– Assistant Principal, North Carolina

PART 3: Recommendations

Federal

Congress should support and incentivize states and districts to advance equity in access to and success in advanced coursework opportunities by:

  • Encouraging states to incorporate detailed and disaggregated data around advanced coursework enrollment and success on their state report cards and requiring them to set goals for and create meaningful action plans for increasing access to and success in advanced coursework
  • Increasing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Title IV funding to allow more students of color and students from low-income backgrounds to access and receive credit for advanced courses
  • Establishing a competitive grant program for states and school districts to increase enrollment opportunities and success of underrepresented students in advanced courses and programs
  • Supporting and incentivizing states and districts to recruit, retain, and support teachers and school leaders of color through increased funding for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), minority-serving institutions (MSIs), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), and tribal colleges and universities (TCUs); increased funding for the Higher Education Act (HEA) Title II-Part A; and funding for the Augustus Hawkins Centers of Excellence Grant program to provide crucial funding to HBCUs and MSIs to provide increased and enhanced clinical experience and increased financial aid to prospective teachers of color, and improved HEA Title II data reporting requirements
  • Supporting and incentivizing states and districts to prioritize safe, equitable, and positive learning environments through increased funding for whole child supports that will allow district and school leaders to hire adequate and well-trained support staff (restorative justice coordinators, school counselors, psychologists, nurses); provide professional development and coaching on topics such as reducing bias and anti-racist mindsets; provide curricular resources that are affirming of individual identities; engage and support families; and develop a positive school climate through alternatives to punitive and exclusionary discipline practices

The Department of Education should:

  • Issue guidance and offer technical assistance to state and district leaders on strategies for equitably enrolling more students of color and students from low-income backgrounds in advanced coursework opportunities (e.g., open enrollment or automatic enrollment), including guidance for ensuring that undocumented students are not denied opportunities to participate in advanced courses
  • Disseminate guidance on increasing the racial and linguistic diversity of the teacher workforce and reinstate a strengthened version of the guidance issued by the Departments of Education and Justice in 2014 related to the nondiscriminatory administration of school discipline
  • Ensure that the Civil Rights Data Collection contains data elements pertaining to Advanced Placement course taking and exam success rates by race, ethnicity, English learners, disability status, and gender

State

State leaders can increase access to and success in advanced coursework for Black and Latino students by:

  • Enacting more equitable enrollment policies and practices, such as:
    • Requiring districts to use multiple measures to identify students for advanced coursework opportunities, including but not limited to expressed desire to enroll, exam scores, grades in relevant prerequisite courses, PSAT/SAT scores, and recommendations from trusted school staff
    • Passing automatic enrollment policies for all advanced coursework opportunities (K-12) so that students identified for advanced coursework through any of the measures above are automatically enrolled in advanced coursework opportunities, with the option to opt out
    • Monitoring progress of automatic enrollment to ensure schools are implementing the policy in ways that increase enrollment in advanced courses for historically underserved students
    • Providing technical support for schools and districts struggling to adequately enroll students of color and students from low-income backgrounds in advanced coursework opportunities, especially those opportunities that are the foundation for future success (e.g., Algebra I and II, Biology, Physics, Chemistry)
  • Eliminating longstanding barriers to accessing advanced coursework opportunities by:
    • Covering the cost of exams, transportation, books, and other required materials for advanced coursework
    • Requiring districts and/or schools to notify families about advanced coursework opportunities available in the school and district, the benefits of enrolling in those courses, and the process around how to enroll, in the family’s home language
    • Providing funding to recruit or train teachers to teach advanced courses, especially in schools serving large concentrations of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds
  • Annually monitoring disaggregated data on enrollment in advanced courses, by course type, and providing technical assistance to districts who are under-enrolling students of color in advanced courses. This data should be publicly reported on report cards, so that communities have a better understanding of course availability, enrollment, and success in advanced courses
  • Setting and holding themselves accountable for public goals that, within an ambitious number of years, Black and Latino students and students from low-income families will be fairly represented in access to and success in advanced coursework from elementary through high school
  • Implementing policies to support district and school leaders in creating safe, equitable, and positive learning environments in advanced courses by:
    • Providing professional development and coaching for educators to create culturally affirming environments, build relationships with and understand their students, support students’ academic success, and develop anti-racist mindsets
    • Investing in preparing, recruiting, and supporting teachers and counselors of color, given the research that shows educators of color are more likely to refer students of color for advanced courses
    • Requiring districts and schools to use culturally relevant, anti-racist pedagogy, practices, and curricula and provide technical assistance and funding for professional development
    • Supporting engagement with families and members of underserved communities by requiring districts to survey students and families to understand their interests, aspirations, and experiences with school, especially related to STEM
    • Creating guidance for schools about identifying and partnering with community-based organizations that provide rigorous after-school and/or summer enrichment opportunities that expose underserved students to STEM and STEM careers

District/School

District and school leaders should:

  • Enact more equitable enrollment policies and practices, such as:
    • Removing unnecessary prerequisites that use multiple measures to identify students for advanced coursework opportunities (e.g., expressed desire to enroll, exam scores, grades in relevant prerequisite courses, PSAT/SAT scores, and recommendations from trusted school staff)
    • Passing policies so K-12 students who are identified through any of those measures are automatically enrolled in advanced coursework, with the option to opt out after consulting a school counselor
      • This could include utilizing tools, like the EOS Student Insight Card, to ensure that multi-dimensional, equity-centered data that includes student voice is used to make decisions about academic opportunity and enrollment
  • Make it as easy as possible for students to enroll in advanced courses by:
    • Sharing information with families in their home language about advanced coursework opportunities, the benefits of enrolling in these courses, and the process to enroll
    • Covering the cost of exams, transportation, books, and other required materials for advanced coursework
    • Creating a schedule that allows as many students as possible to enroll and ensuring high school students can review their schedule with a school counselor
  • Set clear, ambitious goals for improving access to and success in advanced coursework and measure and publicly report district and school progress toward those goals, including by requiring school leaders to complete bi-annual reviews of advanced coursework enrollment data to ensure each course (e.g., AP Biology) is representative of the overall student body. Surveying students, families, and school staff can also be helpful for identifying promising practices and areas for improvement
  • Create safe, equitable, and positive learning environments in advanced courses by:
    • Ensuring schools have an adequate number of school counselors who can identify courses that are rigorous and challenging to meet the interests and aspirations of all students, and enlist other staff as “trusted adults” who can also encourage students to take advanced courses
    • Providing professional development to educators and administrators about proactively identifying Black and Latino students for advanced courses, connecting the coursework to their career interests and aspirations, and helping them succeed in advanced courses
    • Providing professional development to educators and administrators about culturally relevant instructional practices, such as creating opportunities to draw on and incorporate students’ cultural backgrounds and lived experiences in STEM classes, and a culturally relevant curriculum that represents people of color in STEM careers and shows communities of color using STEM as a tool for dismantling white supremacy
    • Investing in preparing, recruiting, and supporting teachers and counselors of color, given the research that shows educators of color are more likely to refer students of color for advanced courses
    • Using reliable climate and voice surveys, such as these free surveys available from the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments to determine areas of improvement
  • Provide support for students who may need additional time to build skills for advanced placement courses, such as expanded learning time programs (summer school, after-school, winter session or targeted intensive tutoring)