By Virginia Barry, Policy and Government Affairs Manager, Stand for Children Washington
Of all my high school classes, I most clearly remember AP US History. It was the class where everything clicked, I learned how to study, craft an argument, and write with precision. I finished the year with a few postsecondary credits in my pocket, but more importantly, the confidence that I could succeed in a competitive college environment.
In the education advocacy community, we know about the positive link between dual credit opportunities and high school graduation, as well as the likelihood that a student who succeeds in dual credit courses will go on to achieve a college degree. But we also know that far too few students of color are given the opportunity to enroll in advanced courses. This negatively affects the likelihood that they’ll persist and complete a postsecondary credential, which is an increasingly necessary qualification in today’s economy.
In Washington, we’ve found one way to help schools identify students who have the potential to succeed in advanced classes but might be overlooked.
It’s a policy called Academic Acceleration, which just passed the state legislature to become the first-in-the-nation statewide law of its kind.
All students in Washington can benefit from Academic Acceleration, but its purpose is to reduce historic barriers to dual credit and advanced class enrollment that have primarily affected students of color and students living in poverty.
The idea for Academic Acceleration began at the district level in Federal Way, WA, where educators noticed that the percentage of historically underserved students of color enrolled in advanced classes was far below the number of those students in the rest of the high school—a persistent problem in many advanced classrooms around the country. They instituted a straightforward policy: any student who met proficiency on the state exam would be automatically enrolled in advanced coursework in that subject area. A student or their family could opt out, but there would be no barrier to entry if they did meet that benchmark.
As a result, the number of students of color enrolled in advanced classes skyrocketed, while the passing rate for AP classes stayed exactly the same, underscoring the fact that these students had been ready for advanced coursework all along—they just needed the opportunity.
Stand for Children Washington began advocating to take the policy statewide in 2013, which resulted in the legislature passing a law creating a grant program to incentivize districts to adopt their own Academic Acceleration policies. Fifty districts adopted the policy over the next five years, and the majority improved the equitable representation in advanced classes by enrolling more students from historically underserved groups.
During the 2019 legislative session, we worked with the High School Success Coalition, made up of other advocacy organizations focused on education (including the Black Education Strategy Roundtable and Washington Roundtable), to get the message out that this policy works. While lawmakers were relatively familiar with Academic Acceleration, the coalition amplified the stories of parents, educators, and students through op-eds, earned media, social media, a lunch and learn at the state capitol, and individual testimony from community advocates.
After being unanimously voted through the Senate Education Committee, Academic Acceleration was amended onto HB 1599, which also creates new graduation pathways, and signed by the governor this spring. School districts have until the 2021-22 school year to enact the policy, so we at Stand are shifting our focus toward implementation to ensure districts have the support they need to set students up for success.
My teammates at Stand and our High School Success Coalition partners never wavered from the belief that this policy could change students’ lives. By continuing to find ways to scale across the state—and herald its successes—we built the will to pass it statewide this year. We’re thrilled to see this policy come to fruition and to continue partnering with school districts to ensure all students have equitable access to pathways that lead to bright futures.
Interested in learning more about automatic enrollment policies? Click here to read an overview of work in Colorado, North Carolina, and Washington, and check out additional first person insights from advocates who worked to make these policies a reality: