Low-Hanging Fruit: How Automatic Enrollment in Advanced Coursework is Leveling the Playing Field
May 31, 2019

Advocates in 3 States Provide Insights into Automatic Enrollment Policies

Advocating for policy changes to improve education is challenging work. Whether it’s due to political whims, funding barriers, or implementation roadblocks, many policy ideas—even those borne of the very best intentions— could never translate into meaningful change for students. And even those that do cross the finish line at the legislature might take years to show up in classrooms—much too late to make a difference for the kids sitting in classrooms right now.

But occasionally, Network advocates discover a true needle in the haystack:

legislation that garners bipartisan support, can quickly take effect, and most importantly, truly improves educational outcomes.

Across the Network, many leaders are eager to share their insights into these “low-hanging fruit,” with the hope that their work can be replicated in more states across the country.

Network members in Colorado, North Carolina, and Washington State recently shared details about one such example: automatic enrollment policies (also known as academic acceleration), which ensure that students with qualifying test scores in a particular subject are automatically enrolled in advanced coursework in the same subject area. As a result, more students who have proven they’re ready are getting access to rigorous academics. And, states are reducing disparities in access to advanced coursework for traditionally underserved students.

Read on for more details from three states, and check out first person insights from advocates who worked to make these policies a reality:

A Nudge Toward Equity in Colorado

Though each state’s policy has different specifics, all three are built on the same premise. According to Prateek Dutta, Colorado policy director at Democrats for Education Reform Colorado, the policy is based in part from economic nudge theory, which has shown significant increases in voter registration or organ donation when participation becomes the default option.

“This won’t solve everything regarding tracking in schools, but it’s one of those nudges,” Dutta said. “It’s one small way to move the needle for equity.”

Dutta said the idea for Colorado’s bill came from a deep dive into the disaggregated data for AP, IB, dual enrollment, honors and gifted & talented courses as early as third grade. Advocates found a huge disproportionality in enrollment among students of color and other traditionally underserved students—even when their test scores showed they were equally prepared.

“Data was the driving force behind this.”

Senate Bill 059, also supported by Network member Colorado Succeeds, passed unanimously in both the Colorado House and Senate. (Click here to learn more about how DFER Colorado helped build broad support for the bill.)

Zeroing in on Math in North Carolina

Advocates at BEST NC have a personal connection to the origin of North Carolina’s House Bill 986, which requires all districts to automatically enroll qualified students in advanced math classes. When Wake County Schools first instituted an automatic enrollment policy for eighth grade math in 2010, BEST NC President & CEO Brenda Berg was part of a local parent group, and Director of Policy & Advocacy Leah Sutton was a local eighth grade teacher.

That local policy was overturned after just one year, but after a 2017 newspaper investigative series and additional advocacy from BEST NC, the policy found a statewide platform in HB 986 with unanimous support in the House and Senate. In 2019, advocates worked on related legislation to strengthen the policy, including requiring annual reporting from districts and clarifying technical assistance provided by the Department of Public Instruction.

Sutton described automatic enrollment policy as a “no-brainer” for states.

“We have the research, especially in math, how important this is for long-term outcomes,” she said. “It’s good for business, good for the economy, and good for students.” (Click here to learn more about how automatic enrollment policy meshes with BEST NC’s long-term strategy to transform the educator pipeline.)

From District to Statewide Policy in Washington State

Washington advocates recently celebrated the passage of House Bill 1599, making Washington the first state in the country to adopt an automatic enrollment policy for advanced math, English, and science classes in all high schools.

The path to this historic legislation started in 2010, when Washington’s Federal Way Public Schools first implemented an academic acceleration policy. A dramatic rise in enrollment in advanced classes—especially for students of color—inspired the 2013 creation of an Academic Acceleration Incentive Program in 2013, championed by Stand for Children Washington. While building the case to bring the policy statewide in 2019, Stand Washington identified 50 school districts that implemented their own policies in the years since. In the state’s fourth largest school district, Tacoma Public Schools, enrollment in advanced classes has doubled for all students since 2013 and tripled for historically underserved students of color, from 19.5 percent to 69 percent.

According to Dave Powell, former government affairs director at Stand Washington, the ability to quickly see drastic changes in enrollment in each district was very helpful for casemaking with legislators.

“One thing that’s always attracted me to this policy is that it changes the conversation of what’s possible,” Powell said.

“If you put a lot more kids into AP classes and they do just as well, it starts to create conversations about, ‘what else aren’t we doing that we should be?’”

The 2019 policy was also supported by Stand Washington’s partners in the High School Success Coalition, including the Black Education Strategy Roundtable and Washington Roundtable. As Washington districts work to implement the policy by the 2021-22 school year deadline, advocates are already thinking about future improvements, including expanding the variety of course offerings for all students, especially in rural areas. (Click here to learn more about how Stand Washington helped build political will to bring this policy statewide.)

A Closer Look: Policy Specifics in 3 States

Interested in connecting with other advocates who are working on automatic enrollment policies? Reach out.

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    Christina Dobratz

    Christina is PIE Network's Manager, Communications & Policy  

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