The Challenge to Close the Achievement Gap Among High-Performing Students

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We want to think of our public school system as a societal commitment to providing all children and young people with an opportunity to achieve the American dream. We want to believe that every student has the opportunities necessary to learn, grow, and be ready for any life and career path they choose. However, a close look reveals that even though we have a vision for equality of opportunity, reality does not always reflect such a lofty vision.

The U.S. Department of Education released a report in February that gives us cause to reflect. The report notes significant gaps among students who take dual-credit high school courses—courses that carry high school and college credit. According to the report, the level of education of a student’s parents and the student’s race are significant predictors of whether students participate in dual-credit opportunities. For example, barely a quarter of students whose parents did not complete high school participate in dual-credit courses while students whose parents completed an associate’s or bachelor’s degree or higher participated at rates closer to forty percent. An even larger gap was documented between white students and Latino and African American students. White students were twice as likely to participate in dual-credit courses than their Latino and African American counterparts.

Similar gaps have been documented in the Advanced Placement program. White students from well-educated families enroll in Advanced Placement courses at significantly higher rates than Latino and African American students. Even more telling, white students pass Advanced Placement courses at higher rates. In fact, the Advanced Placement passing rates among Latino and African American students have declined by as much as one-third over the past two decades as Advanced Placement course enrollments have grown among all student groups.

This data and associated trends are important in that success with challenging academic content can open a variety of important opportunities for students. The courses students take and in which they succeed can influence college admissions decisions. Doing well on Advanced Placement exams can lead to advanced standing in some college level courses, thus moving students into more advanced learning opportunities during their early college years. Also, some institutions will grant college credit for areas in which students earn high Advanced Placement exam scores, thus reducing the cost of higher education. Of course, doing well can also lead to scholarships and other forms of financial aid for students.

The factors and forces driving this data are complex, but they are not beyond the influence of educators and educational leaders. Unfortunately, what we have done so far is not enough, or is at least not working well enough.

Of course, a first step is to ensure that schools offer dual-enrollment and other advanced courses so that the option to take these courses is available. The emergence of online and blended options makes offering these opportunities for students, regardless of geographic location and community demographics, less of a barrier than in the past.

Some schools and school districts have relaxed prerequisites for enrolling in advanced level courses. While this step makes it possible for more students to enroll, without encouragement and support students do not often realize the significance of the opportunity and fail to take advantage of it. On the other hand, without adult commitment and support enrollment might grow, but student failures also increase, or the level of instruction and learning expectations are lowered so that it appears that more learning and success is occurring than really is.

We need to do more than “open the door” to all students. Closing the telling gaps in access to and success in advanced courses will require more specific and proactive steps.

Efforts to prepare students for advanced coursework needs to start much earlier than high school. Elementary and middle school educators can help students to see the possibilities associated with engaging in challenging learning experiences. They can focus on the value and relevance of learning and growing over just getting good grades. Without a strong academic foundation, most students find success in advanced coursework extremely difficult, and many students will not even try.

We can also engage parents in conversations about the promise and possibilities advanced coursework can offer and how to access them. Many parents who have completed degrees beyond high school better understand how the system works and are better able to guide and support their children as they make decisions about course selection, develop learning habits and strategies, and deal with difficult academic challenges. We need to do what we can to “level the playing field” so that all parents can support their children’s success, not just those parents who are “plugged into the system.”

We need to be sure that everyday instructional practices focus on helping students to develop learning skills, not just complete the work they are assigned. We and our students need to focus on what makes a good learner and how learning skills can empower students rather than limit our expectations to compliance with adult directions.

Further, when students who do not have a strong background and support system enroll in challenging courses, we need to commit to them and do all that we can to help them find success. It is not enough to teach and allow students to succeed or fail. In fact, these situations can offer excellent opportunities to teach strategies typically employed by successful college students, like study groups, peer instruction, and advanced study skills.

These ideas and strategies represent a place to start. Certainly, there are more ways to help all students, especially diverse students, to succeed. What ideas can you add? What has worked for you that might be shared with others?

Sources:
National Center for Education Statistics. (2019, February). Dual enrollment: Participation and characteristics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/datapoints/2019176.asp

Kolluri, S. (2018, July 18). Advanced placement: The dual challenge of equal access and effectiveness. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3102/0034654318787268

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