The New York Times Magazine has its eye on education in America with its latest issue, but it has blinders on.
Alina Tugend’s piece on the proliferation of Advanced Placement (AP) courses in the nation’s high schools touches on the difficulties of closing the achievement gap between high-income (usually White) students and low-income students of color regarding access to—and success in—college-level courses.
Since the 1990s, access to AP courses for students at typically underserved school districts has grown exponentially, but as we find in all things related to the achievement gap, they don’t always have the same level of success as their more affluent peers.
Tugend interviews educators who have seen their students, many of whom are “significantly below grade level” in reading, struggle when presented with learning materials designed specifically to be above grade level.
This has led to, as Tugend writes, “over 70 percent of African-Americans and 57 percent of Hispanics who took an AP test in 2016 [to] not pass,” while the failure rate of all AP students was 42 percent.
The piece notes that data from the College Board, which runs the AP program, shows that students who struggle initially in AP courses tend not to be deterred. “In fact, students who received a 1 or a 2 on an AP exam in 10th grade were significantly more likely to take an AP exam later in high school than those who had not taken an AP test in 10th grade,” Tugend writes.
But the cost of the test—it’s up to $94 in 2017—can be an extra barrier to entry for the low-income kids who wish to show their improvement later in high school after an initial failure to obtain college credit. There are fee-reduction or fee-elimination programs but not all students may be aware of them.
Some of the Country’s Best Schools Are Making a Go of It, But More Needs To Be Done
The story of Black and Latino students in AP classes is more nuanced than what Tugend and The New York Times make it out to be. As a matter of fact, there are numerous schools around the country where students of color are excelling with college-level classes.
BASIS Charter Schools are taking baby steps towards increasing equity for low-income students of color, particularly in the way they conduct their AP program.
According to RALLY in an email to Education Post, BASIS doesn’t mess around with the “advanced” part of AP—they enroll all of their students in at least eight AP classes. This leads to students at BASIS schools in three states and Washington D.C. to take as many as 20 AP exams in their high school careers.
In three of BASIS’ 18 Arizona schools, these students are not just among the best in the nation—they’re the best, per U.S. New & World Report’s national ranking. With graduation rates of 100 percent, 98 percent and 97 percent, respectively, BASIS Scottsdale, Tucson North and Oro Valley send 100 percent of their graduating seniors into the world ready for college. Nearby BASIS Peoria is not far behind them, ranked fifth in the nation.
That’s all great news, although there is a really big caveat.
According to The Arizona Republic, a little less than 5 percent of BASIS Scottsdale’s student population is of Latino descent, while more than 80 percent of the school is made up of White or Asian students.
Business Insider reports that only 10 percent of all Arizona BASIS schools in the 2015-2016 school year were Latino despite the state being about 45 percent Latino. But the Latino kids who do attend BASIS schools are thriving, including two BASIS Oro Valley students who were named National Hispanic Scholars this year.
While there remains a lot of work to do to give students of color access to great schools like BASIS, the results at their schools are impressive. If BASIS does a better job of bringing in students from non-White backgrounds, they can show that, in the right academic environment, with the right level of support, these students of color will thrive the same way their peers did.
Thriving in the Heart of Texas
One Texas charter school system is succeeding in bringing AP success to traditionally underserved students. IDEA Public Schools, which operates schools in San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley and Austin, has instituted what it calls “AP for All.”
The program enrolls IDEA students in at least 11 AP courses during their high school careers. The students start early, too—they begin pre-AP courses in sixth grade.
More importantly, IDEA is specially dedicated to teaching low-income students of color. According to the Broad Foundation, IDEA schools are made up of nearly 90 percent low-income kids and 95 percent of its students are of Hispanic descent. Of those kids, 99 percent graduate on time.
These statistics have led IDEA to receive $250,000 from the Texas charter management organization to build on the network’s successes.
IDEA’s high expectations and high results for its kids in AP, and other courses, led to six of its schools ranking in the top 50 of The Washington Post’s 2016 list of the nation’s most challenging high schools. Another IDEA school was ranked No. 106.
“Last year [IDEA] had AP test participation rates twice as high as those of affluent public schools such as McLean and Whitman high schools, or private schools such as National Cathedral and Holton-Arms,” The Post’s Jay Mathews wrote about IDEA’s place on the list.
And IDEA’s impact on low-income kids of color will only get bigger in the next few years. They have committed to building 20 more schools in the Austin, Texas, area alone by 2022 to accommodate about 3,000 students in the area who have been turned away from IDEA classrooms because demand is so high.
These are only examples, but things can get (and are getting) better. If you were of a pessimistic mindset, you could look at the work done by these schools and say, “They’re only a drop in the bucket of the overall U.S. education system.”
But they don’t have to be a drop in the bucket. Thanks to charter networks like IDEA, we now have a template for how to move forward to prepare students of color for college.