- Students attending high-poverty schools, particularly smaller schools, have less access than their peers in low-poverty schools to the advanced courses that colleges tend to expect of their applicants, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Friday.
- While almost all low-poverty schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) math courses, for example, about three-fourths of high-poverty schools provide these opportunities. Among high-poverty schools, 90% of large schools offered calculus, compared to only 54% of schools with 201 to 1,000 students and 11% of schools serving 200 or fewer students. High-poverty schools and those with a high minority population are also less likely to offer a sequence of courses, and similar patterns were seen with science courses.
- The report – which was conducted at the request of Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, ranking member of the House Committee on Education and Workforce – is based on the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) for the 2015-16 school year, or the most recent available data. The researchers also conducted site visits and interviews at 12 high schools in California, Georgia and Wisconsin.
The report confirms earlier analysis of the CRDC data pointing to inequities in educational opportunities for students in low-income schools and students of color. “Not all students are interested in pursuing a 4-year college degree,” the authors write. “However, the low rates of degree attainment for low-income students raises questions about whether the students who wish to pursue higher education have access to courses that support their admission to college.” More recently, a TNTP report released in September showed that low-income students, English learners, students of color and those with disabilities are far less likely to be given “grade-appropriate” assignments that can better prepare them for college-level work.
With the CRDC data now a few years old — and with education and business leaders continuing to stress that a high school diploma is insufficient to enter and advance in most career paths — it’s possible that some schools have expanded course offerings. Some schools, especially those in rural areas, for example, are increasing access to AP and higher-level courses by allowing students to enroll in virtual classes. Some administrators interviewed for the GAO report, however, viewed virtual classes as a last resort because they felt students did better when they had in-person contact with a teacher.
A school profiled in an Education Trust report eliminated a low-level, two-year geometry course, which increased the number of students earning an “advanced” distinction on their diplomas. The nonprofit National Math and Science Initiative also works with districts to increase students access to and success in advanced math and science courses, particularly focusing on students from military families.
Finally, the GAO report points to the obstacles students in low-income families face as they try to succeed and prepare for college, including significant financial strain, family instability, anxiety and even a need to work to support their families. The social-emotional aspects of taking rigorous courses suggests that the increased attention schools are placing on students' mental health is also an important part of increasing access. Paying for college admission tests, aligning high school curriculum with university system entrance requirements and partnering with college-advising organizations were a few of the steps schools visited by GAO were taking to remove obstacles for students.