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Racial and Income Gaps Persist in AP and IB Enrollment

Record numbers of high school students are participating in Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate programs in hopes of being better prepared for college. But a new report from the Education Trust finds students of color and those from low-income families are less likely to enroll in these rigorous programs, even if they show the academic promise to succeed.

Finding America's Missing AP and IB Students by Christina Theokas and Reid Saaris from the Washington, D.C.-based organization notes that more students from all backgrounds are signing up for these programs, and efforts have been made to boost minority and low-income student participation, yet gaps exist. Nearly 91 percent of students attend a high school that offers AP. Those without the advanced programs tend to be rural, small, and high-poverty schools, the report says.

Each year, about 640,000 low-income students and students of color are "missing" from AP and IB participation—students who could benefit if they merely enrolled at the same rate as other students in their schools, the report says.

It is not just a matter access. About 1 million students do not attend schools that offer AP, and the authors note that only a small percentage of the gaps by race or family income can be accounted for by which schools do and do not offer the classes.

In many cases, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not enrolling in existing programs.

Overall, about 11.7 percent of high school students attending schools with AP classes participate. Middle- and high-income students at these schools are three times as likely to enroll in an AP course as are low-income students. Black and American Indian students participate at about half the rate of the national average, while about 9 percent of Hispanic students sign up. This translates into about 614,000 students missing out on the opportunity.

The IB program offered in high schools to 11th and 12th graders is smaller than AP, but the Education Trust also identifies areas for growth among disadvantaged students. Looking at about 570 schools in 2010, the researchers found about one in 19 students participate in IB. White and upper-income students were more likely to enroll, leaving about 33,000 students of color and those from low-income families "missing" from the IB rolls.

The Education Trust report highlights schools that have managed to level the playing field, as evidence that these gaps can be closed.

For instance, by reviewing test scores, educators can identify students with the potential to do well in advanced courses and automatically place them in an AP course, flipping it to an "opt-out" program. Other schools have removed barriers to make advanced courses open enrollment for all students and shifted the mindset to raise expectations for all students to take college-prep classes. Sometimes, additional support and tutoring can lead to improved success, particularly among disadvantaged students.

The report also encourages policymakers and educational leaders to look closely at student-performance data, policies, strategies, and funding to make sure all is being done to reach out to high-poverty students and students of color and encourage their participation in these programs.

"There are immediate actions that can be taken right now to change the experiences of many students," the report concludes. "Until we make these changes, many students will continue to be less prepared for higher education or for some challenges found in today's workplaces, and disproportionately, those students will be low-income and students of color."

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