Policy Spotlight: Reducing Barriers to Advanced Course Access for Underrepresented Students
Advocates in Washington, Colorado, and North Carolina led separate, breakthrough campaigns that addressed a single issue: traditionally underserved students are placed in advanced courses less frequently than their peers—even though they are equally prepared. These concurrent campaigns, led independently by each state-based organization, highlight the power and synergy of leaders making smart policies serve their students. And while the policy in each state looks different, their mission is the same—reduce historic barriers to advanced course access for underrepresented students.
Washington is the first state to adopt an automatic enrollment policy for advanced math, English, and science classes in all high schools. Led by Stand for Children Washington, a coalition of advocates built upon six years of work, beginning with the 2013 Academic Acceleration Incentive Program, which encouraged adoption of the policy with grants for school districts. Since then, fifty districts have adopted the policy and the majority have seen gains in enrollment by students from systemically underrepresented populations. A simple switch from “opt-in” to “opt-out” will help identify a far greater number of talented students ready for college level coursework.
Policy makers created a grant program to incentivize districts and schools to create an auto-enrollment policy and provide funding for schools and districts that choose to implement auto-enrollment. This legislation passed 100-0 in the state legislature with over 80 co-sponsors. It focuses on students as early as third grade, and students can be automatically enrolled in any advanced course they have shown proficiency in. The bill has changed the conversation in Colorado to focus on the “participation gap” of students in poverty enrolling in advanced coursework.
In 2018, North Carolina became the first state to pass a statewide automatic enrollment policy for advanced math courses. The policy, which applies to students in grades 3-12, requires school districts to place students earning the highest level on the End-of Grade tests in math to be placed into an advanced math course the following academic year. In the first year of implementation, an estimated 10,000 students were appropriately “placed up” into an advanced math course as a result of this policy.
In 2019, North Carolina passed a second piece of legislation to strengthen the automatic enrollment policy. This new law requires annual reporting on policy implementation including tracking how this policy may impacts the number of economic disadvantaged students and students of color completing advanced math coursework. The 2019 policy also requires school districts that have not traditionally offered high school level math for high-achieving eighth-grade students to begin offering those courses by the year 2020-21. Both the 2018 and 2019 policies passed unanimously with bipartisan sponsorship.
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