Black and Hispanic Students Are Severely Underrepresented in AP Classes
By: Alexandra Bernstein-Naples
Conard High School’s position as an academically and athletically excellent school is undeniable. Conard produces students equipped for a lifetime of hard work and success. But just like almost every public system in our society, Conard’s exceptional program of studies works better for some students than others. Despite an enduring commitment to racial equity, Conard’s Black and Hispanic students are massively underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses. In this article, I will introduce the data demonstrating this disparity, elucidate its significance, and incorporate the perspectives of Conard Principal Julio Duarte, Conard Vice Principal Jamahl Hines, and Conard social studies teacher Abigail Esposito, in order to clarify what is being done to mitigate the problem, and what needs to be done in the future.
In order to understand the magnitude of Conard’s racial disparity in advanced course enrollment, we must first examine the demography of Conard’s student population. The most recent public data regarding Conard’s racial makeup finds the student population to be 53.4% white, 20.2% Hispanic, 13.3% Asian American, 9.7% Black, 4.2% multiracial, and 0.1% Native American. Of these groups, the enrollment of the former four in honors classes is measured by the school. Upon request, the Conard administration, who was extremely forthcoming about this issue, provided me with data on Advanced Placement course enrollment by race. Unfortunately, this data clearly demonstrates the racial disparities in this area. For example, as presented in the table below, while Black students make up 9.7% of the student population, they makeup merely 2.2% of the students enrolled in Advanced Placement Biology and 0% of students enrolled in Advanced Placement Chemistry. The statistics are equally as problematic for hispanic students, who only makeup 5.6% of students enrolled in AP Biology and 0% of students enrolled in AP Chemistry, compared to their 20% representation in the student population. Conversely, white and Asian American students are overrepresented in these courses. The disparity is also pervasive in english courses, with Black students making up only 2.7% and 1.8% of students enrolled in Advanced Placement Language and Composition and Advanced Placement Literature and Composition, respectively. Hispanic students fare slightly better in Advanced english enrollment in comparison to their enrollment in advanced science and math courses. Hispanic students represent 9.8% of students enrolled in AP Lang. and Comp., leaving them still severely underrepresented. Course enrollment data by percentage of enrolled population for some of Conard’s most popular AP courses are presented below:
While the racial disparity in AP course enrollment is apparent, its significance often is not. So why does it matter if Black and Hispanic students are being left out of Advanced Placement courses? The answer is that Advanced Placement class enrollment is a strong predictor of success after graduation. AP Courses not only increase the likelihood of acceptance into most colleges, but they make college more affordable. Students who pass AP courses are able to transfer that credit to most public and some private universities. In essence, students are taking college-level courses at the fraction of what it would cost them at a university. This allows them to forgo repeating these classes in college and makes a degree altogether much more affordable. Additionally, enrollment in advanced courses is important in fostering self-confidence and ambition in students. Students who take AP classes in high school or more likely to often consider themselves worthy of opportunities and are more likely to take academic and career risks in the name of striving for excellence. Overall, AP courses help students gain acceptance and scholarships into college, make college more affordable, and prepare students for excellence in their future, which is why the racial gap in Advanced Placement course enrollment is so detrimental. Especially considering that poverty disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic students, the students who need to increase the affordability of college the most are the ones unable to take advantage of the economic benefits of AP Courses.
In order to mitigate this obvious and problematic issue disparity, we must identify the root causes of the issue. This is often difficult, as a variety of interconnected factors work in tandem to create this detrimental disparity. When I talked to Vice Principal Hines, however, he emphasized one clear factor that impacts Black and Hispanic enrollment in Advanced Placement courses: messaging. Hines stated “Too often there aren’t enough folks collectively pushing Students of Color. They may receive different messaging when compared with what their peers get”. His solution: “We need to nurture Students of Color in a way that gives them the vote of confidence they need to take academic risks”. Hines enumerated a few ways the Conard administration is working to achieve that goal. He told me that himself and Principal Duarte both call high-achieving Students of Color who are not enrolled in Advanced Placement classes down to their offices in order to encourage them to take a risk and enroll in one. When I asked Principal Duarte about this, he told me that their ultimate goal with these conversations is to “make sure Students of Color know that they belong in Advanced Courses. That they can do it.”
Vice Principal Hines also emphasized the importance of helping Students of Color realize they belong in Advanced Courses. For Hines, this means an increase in teachers of color leading AP courses. Hines emphasizes that when students of color see themselves represented by excellent teachers, they have a heightened sense of what they themselves can achieve; “A student of color who can look at the front of the room and see someone who looks like them, they think they can be that.” Additionally, teachers of color have a unique ability to understand both the struggles faced by and the potential possessed by students of color. Of course, in order to increase the number of Teachers of Color teaching advanced courses, Conard must first hire more Teachers of Color. Hines tells me this is already a work in progress. Conard officials travel throughout the country, attempting to recruit Teachers of Color. Additionally, Hines founded a WHPS based organization called the Future Educators of Diversity, a group that serves a double purpose. It both encourages students of color to strive for excellence and take more advanced course loads, provides them the support system to do so, and, hopefully, creates future Teachers of Color who can come back and work at Conard. The cyclical and sustainable nature of the plan is one reminiscent of an impactful long term solution, and according to Hines, they have already seen results.
As presented so far, Conard administrators are working from both a student and a teacher angle in order to increase Advanced course enrollment among students of color. But Esposito, Hines, and Duarte all believe that the problem must be addressed from a family angle as well. Hines emphasized that sometimes Families of Color do not know to push their children to take AP classes; sometimes they do not see the cost effectiveness and are not willing to pay, “that’s where we come in” states Hines, “often it's a mere issue of exposure”. Esposito agrees that it is essential to “advocate the long term impacts of AP and ECE coursework. AP courses not only offer an initial rigorous experience, but can make some of the early coursework far cheaper. A few hundred dollars vs. a few thousand dollars is a big deal, and could have some serious consequences.” Duarte and Hines told me that they are already trying to spread that knowledge. They host community sessions for college planning, in which College Counselors delineate the immense benefits of AP classes. Duarte adds, “a lot of students are very fortunate to have good support at home; parents who understand the college process and for many students of color this isn’t the case”, “that’s why we do Junior Workshops, it’s one way of leveling the playing field. We help students and parents see the benefits of AP courses and work with them to facilitate enrollment in these classes”. Ultimately, Hines, Duarte, and Esposito all agree that while there is lots of work to be done, the Conard community is well on its way to obviating racial disparities in Advanced Course enrollment. They all hope to soon achieve AP enrollment demographics that mirror those of the school.