Laddering Up: Academic Acceleration

College & Career Readiness, Dual Credit Equity, High School Success | 01/05/2018

Katie Gustainis
Marketing & Communications Manager, Stand for Children Washington

UPDATE: During the 2019 legislative session, Stand for Children Washington and the High School Success Coalition successfully advocated for Washington to pass legislation requiring Academic Acceleration for every school in Washington, making our state the first in the country to do so. Read more about the new law here.

Students should advance on merit, not on circumstances

When choosing their classes for junior and senior years of high school, most Washington students are considering whether or not they should enroll in advanced courses (in 2015, 57% did). Depending on where they live, the program might be known as dual-credit, Advanced Placement (AP), Cambridge International, International Baccalaureate, Running Start, College in the High School, or Tech Prep.

The benefits of a rigorous course load are well-studied. Students who take advanced courses are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and earn an associates or bachelors degree in less time (saving more money). For students moving directly into careers or technical degrees, the skills learned in advanced classes (critical thinking, writing, problem solving, project-based work) are just as applicable and useful in the workplace.

However, there’s a problem in Washington. The proportion of students in these classes who are black, Latino, Pacific Islander, and American Indian is significantly less than the proportion of these students in the school system (and the proportion of white and Asian students is significantly higher). It’s not that these kids can’t handle the course load – they can – it’s that they’re not entering the programs in the first place. In fact, the College Board has identified that “only half of all black, Latino or Native-American high-school students with the ability to do advanced work are enrolled in Advanced Placement courses.”

So, why aren’t more qualified students of color enrolled in advanced classes?

Qualified, but not identified

The process for identifying “gifted” students who take advanced courses varies from district to district (and often from school to school). Sometimes test scores in the 3rd grade determine the next 10 years of a child’s public school experience. Often it is engaged parents who have the time, experience, and energy that know what to ask or what tests their child should take that are able to advocate for their kid’s placement.

While engaged parents are an asset to their children, many parents don’t have the time or the exposure to identify and pursue advanced classes for their kids. The kids who struggle to advocate for themselves will likely not find their way into classes they are qualified for, simply because they were never identified.

If you ask these students why they aren’t in advanced classes, you might get one (or several) of these responses:

  • “I didn’t think those classes were meant for me.”
  • “I didn’t know they existed.”
  • “I don’t know how to sign up.”
  • “I heard that it cost money to take them.”
  • “I didn’t think I could handle the work.”
  • “None of my friends were taking them.”

These students are smart, and their parents want them to succeed. But the current systems are not able to provide the individual attention that makes sure everyone’s questions are answered and fears are assuaged. If the quality of a child’s public education depends primarily on the ability of their parent to engage, then the system isn’t working.

Removing barriers and making it work

In 2013, Stand for Children helped pass a law establishing a grant program incentivizing school districts to adopt an Academic Acceleration policy. Since then, over 50 districts have initiated a program.

An Academic Acceleration program automatically enrolls all qualified students in advanced coursework. No sign-up required. It removes one of the most significant barriers keeping underrepresented students from advanced classrooms: the identification process.

It seems simple, but Academic Acceleration impact has had enormous impact in places like Spokane and Federal Way.

Rogers High School in Spokane has improved graduation rates 30 points over the last 7 years since Principal Lori Wyborney took over in 2010. The school’s work on improving the number of underrepresented students taking advanced classes earned them national recognition in the New York Times last year:

In the class of 2016, 87 percent of graduates had taken four years of lab science, and nearly 90 percent had taken four years of math, Wyborney said. In the fall, 437 Rogers students were enrolled in A.P. courses, up from 372 the previous spring. The makeup of those classes nearly matched the socioeconomic and racial demographics of the school.

In the Federal Way School District, only 41% of upperclassmen were signing up for advanced classes (and only 35% of students of color) as of the 2009-10 school year. Then the district implemented an Academic Acceleration policy that auto-enrolled every qualified student in advanced classes. And the result? One year after beginning of the program, the number of students enrolled in advanced course work doubled:

Although any student may opt-out of an advanced class, but the expectation and opportunities are clear. If you are qualified, no matter who you are or where you are from, you will have the chance to meet and exceed high standards and earn college credit. Academic Acceleration means every qualified kids can ladder up and pursue their dreams.

At Stand for Children, we believe this type of program works and helps to solve an immediate problem that could impact hundreds of students as soon as it’s implemented. We’d like to see it in every school, in every district. Stay tuned to see if our dream becomes reality and the benefits of Academic Acceleration in and beyond high school can extend to every kid.

If you’d like get updates on how you can help, sign up to be an advocate for your district and we’ll help you find ways to get involved.


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