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February 1, 2022

Opening the Door to Advanced Courses

How one teacher pried open AP course options for her English learners—and taught her school the value of inclusive thinking.
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Opening the Door to Advanced Courses
Education is often touted as providing doors to students' futures. With education comes knowledge, skills, careers, and stability. But all doors are not always open to everyone. Some are locked. Some are stuck. Some are reserved for certain people. Some doors are hidden, and some are guarded.
Advanced curriculum in high school is one of those guarded doors. With honors courses, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate courses, students can earn weighted GPAs, scholarly recognition, and college credits that open pathways to higher education. Some students hold the key to this door. They have the access, opportunity, and ability to enroll in advanced courses and complete high-stakes exams. Other students do not know—or don't believe — that an advanced course might be an option for them. And, unfortunately, some school systems are designed to keep the door hidden or closed.
Advanced Placement programs are a particular area of unequal access. A disproportionate number of low-income students and students of color do not enroll in advanced courses, partly due to institutional barriers (Jaschik, 2019). College Board, the organization that administers AP exams, has acknowledged that significant numbers of Black and Latino students who have the potential to succeed in AP classes never take them, either because their schools do not offer the courses or because these students are not placed in them (Mavrogordato & Harris, 2017; Starr, 2017). If a primary responsibility of educators and school administrators is to ensure that all students have equal access and opportunity to meet state educational goals, then analyzing existing AP programs and identifying opportunity gaps related to access and inclusion should be a priority. Inclusion requires understanding the incentives and barriers students face to enroll in advanced courses and the micropolitical forces that inhibit change.

Breaking Down Barriers

When educators make access and inclusion a priority, amazing things can happen. As an example I'd like to highlight the work of a former colleague from my years as a teacher and administrator, Ms. Cruz (a pseudonym), who is a veteran Spanish teacher at a high school in southern California, teaching courses spanning all levels of language proficiency. She works with students in the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs (AP/IB Spanish Literature) and with students classified as "native speakers," the label given to students whom school counselors have identified as predominantly Spanish speakers or English learners based on several, often subjective, criteria. Interestingly, the native speaker designation at this school only applies to Spanish-speaking students and not other English learners represented in the study body.

For some students, this was the first time they thought about the possiblity of attending college.

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Nancy Watkins

Students designated as native speakers are often enrolled in classes that do not meet the minimum eligibility requirements to apply to four-year higher education institutions. In California, for example, students must meet a series of course requirements, certified through an approval process, to be eligible to enter a four-year public college in the state. Additional weight is given to honors and advanced classes in this system.
Beginning in 2016, there was a concerted effort by the school to increase the number of certified courses that met these college-ready requirements. Teachers and administrators rewrote and submitted updated curriculum. Through this effort, three Spanish language courses for native speakers were approved as courses satisfying these requirements for language other than English, including one course designated as honors level. The updates and approval of the Native Speakers 3-Honors course provided an opportunity for students designated as native speakers to earn an additional weighted GPA point, thus improving student opportunities to attend a college or university.
While working on the curriculum updates, Cruz realized that she had an opportunity to make another change. She believed the Native Speakers 3-Honors (NS3-Honors) course curriculum could align with the Advanced Placement Spanish Language standards. This would increase students' opportunity to take an AP exam, an option that students designated as native speakers often did not have.
"Not only was there a door that was closed for native Spanish speakers, but I had a key that could open the door," she said. "I did not doubt that my students could successfully take the AP Spanish Language test and achieve passing scores, and I was ready to make this happen."
To enroll in the NS3-Honors course, students had to complete two lower levels of Spanish and be recommended by either the academic counselor or their previous teacher to take the honors course. Cruz asked school site administrators if she could teach the AP Spanish Language curriculum to students enrolled in NS3-Honors. She was initially met with resistance from her department chair and the principal over concerns about "maintaining the integrity of the World Languages program" and current written policy about AP courses and prerequisites. Cruz's department chair also noted that the change might need to wait another year to evaluate if she could be trained in the AP curriculum and if the school had resources to support the initiative.
But these conversations did not deter Cruz from advocating for her students. She met with administrators and discussed the importance of advocacy, intelligent risk, and trust. After presenting a strong argument about access and equity for English Learners, she was permitted to teach the AP Spanish curriculum. Unfortunately, the timing of the decision left Cruz without formal AP training and no time to order AP textbooks, and so the course remained labeled in the school system as NS3-Honors.
The lack of resources did not discourage Cruz, who curated materials on her own to prepare her students. She observed the other AP Spanish Language courses in the school. She collaborated with AP teachers to ensure her students received instruction to prepare them for the College Board AP Spanish Language exam. She presented to parents about the process during an English Learner Advisory Council meeting. She pep-talked her students, reminding them that she expected them all to take the AP exam.
There was extra work, extra time, and some frustration and victories for both Cruz and her students. But each of her NS3-Honors students signed up for the exam in 2018, all of them with fee waivers. For most of these students, this was the first time they had taken a high-stakes exam, let alone an exam that demonstrated college-level academic readiness. For some students, this was also the first time they thought about the possibility of attending college. "This challenge really did make me feel proud of being bilingual," one student said. Another commented, "I would like to take more of these classes to be successful in my life."

Measuring Success

One measurement of the success of Cruz's foray into preparing her English-learner students for a high-stakes exam came after the first year of test scores. Of the 76 Native Speaker 3-Honors students who took the AP Spanish Language Exam in 2018, 72 of them passed—a 94 percent pass rate. Emboldened by their success, 35 students from NS3-Honors chose to enroll in advanced level AP Spanish Literature the following academic year, effectively creating an additional section of that course.
Meanwhile, Cruz started the next academic year preparing a new cohort of NS3-Honors students to take the AP Spanish Language exam. The success rate continued into the second year when 69 out of 72 students passed the AP Exam in 2019 for a pass rate of 96 percent. However, there were still some barriers to overcome.
By that second school year, the success of Cruz's efforts was undeniable. Students in the Native Speakers 3-Honors course were officially considered AP students by the school and had access to AP textbooks. Yet they were still segregated from other AP Spanish Language classes. The ELs designated as "native speakers" by the school enrolled in AP Spanish were learning the same AP curriculum, having the same exam success as their English-only peers, but were not integrated into the designated AP Spanish classrooms. Cruz continued to advocate for her students by requesting that the course NS3-Honors be eliminated. She used her pass rate data and student success stories to lobby the school administration to make this change. She continued to speak about access, opportunity, and equity for English Learners and encouraged students to challenge themselves and enroll in advanced courses.
The change finally occurred in the 2019–2020 school year, when students who would have been placed in NS3-Honors were directly enrolled into Spanish 4 (AP) as advanced students heterogeneously grouped with all AP students. Cruz's actions demonstrate the values of advocacy and determination and also tell a compelling story about access and opportunity. It was not just about opening a door, but about consistently showing up to make sure that door stayed open—and was pushed even more wide open.

Persistence Pays Off

Cruz's success in advocating for students and pushing through barriers demonstrates that schools may need to be more open to looking for opportunities for marginalized students. Here are some recommendations for education leaders and advocates who want to provide their students with additional, equitable opportunities to take advanced courses.
Reduce barriers for innovation and transformation by evaluating the micropolitical forces that inhibit change. Listen to teachers and students! Often decisions are made by site or district administrators about who gets what, when, and how, and these choices exclude the voices of people on the margins. Create forums for gathering non-traditional data and listening to stakeholders who have innovative ideas about addressing inequities.
Provide resources and train teachers to teach advanced curriculum. As schools continue to do more with fewer resources, leaders can consider new ways to optimize advanced course resources. Seek ways to support teacher training with online courses and in-house collaboration. Evaluate expenditures to ensure there is an equitable distribution of resources to meet student needs.

Cultivating equitable education systems requires disrupting convention and transforming opportunities for students.

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Nancy Watkins

Support students with tutors and fee waivers in preparation for college exams. Some students receive waivers based on socioeconomic standards. But others may be close to qualifying but miss the cut-offs. Communicate information about financial assistance for students. Connect students with on-campus tutors and consider creating scholarship funds for testing fees.
Evaluate student classification related to language fluency and tracked courses to avoid arbitrary course enrollment. Review policy and practice about student classification at both the site and district level. Are there policies that result in the segregation of English learners based on an early assessment? Which opportunities for students are removed or reduced due to classification? How do you determine if a student is misclassified?
Intentionally develop the master schedule to reflect opportunities for all students. Evaluate how master schedules are created, including the priorities and values reflected in planning, course selection, and schedule building. Beyond putting the puzzle pieces together, incorporate analysis and reflection on the equity gaps evident in the master schedule. Varying the design of the schedule can have a positive effect on student access and opportunity if more classes are offered throughout the day and classes are integrated instead of tracked and homogenous.
Remove prerequisites for enrolling in honors or advanced level courses. Advanced coursework not only improves students' college and career readiness but may also positively impact overall outcomes for underrepresented students. Prerequisites based on previous coursework or grades restrict students' ability to choose courses that may interest or challenge them. Allow students to select classes with their counselors, teachers, and families to ensure better access to advanced courses, without artificial barriers.
Help families develop an understanding and knowledge about the value of the advanced courses, specifically with respect to college and career readiness. Knowledge is power. Community outreach to families of English Learners and access to information allows families to be partners in students' education. Hold information sessions about course offerings and opportunities in multiple languages to engage families.

A Portal to the Future

Cultivating equitable education systems requires disrupting convention and transforming opportunities for students. It requires innovation and change to reduce barriers to advanced courses, leading to additional opportunities for students beyond high school. Ms. Cruz advocated for change, disrupted the current system, and experienced success that led to real change and opportunity for her students. Instead of knocking on a door, Cruz and her students created a portal to their future.

Jaschik, S. (2019, February 11). More AP success; Racial gaps remain. Inside Higher Education.

Mavrogordato, M., & Harris, J. (2017). Eligiendo escuelas: English learners and access to school choice. Educational Policy31(6), 801–829.

Starr, J. P. (2017). Using Advanced Placement as a lever for social justice. Phi Delta Kappan99(2), 72–73.

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