Perspectives: The state of Washington’s dual credit courses today

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By Aseela Galeeb 

If you’ve talked to a high school student recently, you may have heard them talk about their IB course, or an upcoming AP test. These programs, as well as Running Start, Career and Technical Education (CTE), Cambridge International (CI), and College in the High School, make up dual credit courses in Washington State. These programs allow students to earn credit for college during high school, which gives them a chance to experience the expectations of college-level coursework. 

For about a decade, these courses have been growing in the state, supported by legislation such as HB 1642, a 2013 bill establishing encouraging districts to adopt an academic acceleration policy that automatically enrolls in the next most rigorous level of advanced courses offered by the high school if they’ve met the state standard on the statewide exam.As well as HB 1599, a 2019 bill modifying high school graduation requirements to promote college readiness. 

However, for all the advances that have been made, there are still disparities among student demographics. To learn more about this, we interviewed several high school students and professionals working in the education field. The interviewees shed light on experiences within dual credit classes, as well as the inequities they have noticed. 

We began with the basics: Why do students take dual credit classes? On one hand, they offer many more opportunities than may exist within one school. Lilli Mccauley, a rising junior beginning full time Running Start this school year, wanted to join the program since middle school, and is hoping it will help her focus on a career she loves. Running Start is a program that allows high schoolers to enroll in college courses in community colleges and earn credit there. 

 “I think getting my prerequisites done in high school means I can just focus on what I want to do.”  At Lilli’s school, students must wait until junior year to take AP classes. “Since we have such a limited staff, they’re very high enrollment classes, and there aren’t enough opportunities. And the opportunities that come with Running Start are better.”

Other students take dual credit classes in order to prepare for their post-secondary plans. Airah Virani, a rising senior, takes AP and IB classes at her school. She says, “the way people advertised IB as good college prep made it seem more favorable.” Dual credit courses are one of the main ways that high school students can prepare for college. In fact, according to the U.S Department of Education’s WWC Intervention Report, students who take dual credit courses are more likely to graduate on time, and enroll in a post-secondary program. 

But, for all the proven benefits of dual credit courses, there are significant patterns of inequity within them. We talked to two professionals in the education field to gain more insight. 

Kristen Hengtgen, a senior policy analyst with The Education Trust, notes that “Dual credit is really unequal just across high schools, so depending on what district you’re in, you may have dozens of opportunities or four classes total.” Besides geographical inequalities, there are also financial barriers. Jeff Charbonneau, the principal of Zillah High School, says, “Last school year, we had U.S History offered as a College in the High School course for all of our sophomores. Even though we have about 120 sophomores, only 35 of them took the course for college credit, and it was directly because of the associated fees that went with it.” 

There are also concerning disparities within the demographics of students enrolled in dual credit. Kristen explained, “We certainly see a large inequity in access for students of color involved in dual credit classes. Whether the information isn’t being conveyed to these students, they’re getting a message that this class is not for them, they’re not being identified for these courses, or there’s some sort of financial barrer, we definitely see fewer students of color enrolling in and completing dual credit courses in multiple states.”  Airah pointed out the gender inequity in dual credit at her school. “We all have to take STEM courses, but not a lot of girls double in sciences or take higher level science courses like I did.” As Kristen puts it, “All of these benefits mean the inequities are so much worse, because [dual credit] can be a mechanism for helping increase access for our students.” 

But there’s good news: some of the barriers are being broken and allowing more students to access dual credit courses. For example, Zillah High School recently announced that students can earn an Associates of Arts, or A.A, degree during high school. When we asked Jeff about the changes at his school, he said, “The bills that were passed this last legislative session- the changes to College in the High School and the changes to Running Start- those are going to have a tremendous benefit.”

As a final statement, we asked the interviewees to give some parting remarks to students and professionals. “I would encourage students to look into what opportunities your school has,” says Kristen. “I want students to know they do belong, and even if there’s resistance and the class seems difficult, this class is for you.” Jeff added, “The work that needs to come next is the work on perception, and helping students to envision their futures.”

As our interviewees mentioned, dual credit courses provide opportunities for students across the nation. In WA, school districts, advocacy organizations, and state legislatures all have a duty to push for more equitable access.  Stand WA is continuing our focus removing barriers to dual credit – including student fees. Guided by research and students in our communities, we can ensure that young people can access and thrive in advanced courses.

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