By: Martin G. Brooks

Martin G. Brooks is co-author of Schools Reimagined: Unifying the Science of Learning With the Art of Teaching and Executive Director of the Tri-State Consortium, an alliance of public school districts in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Recently I’ve had discussions about student access to higher level middle school and high school courses with the leadership teams in two very different school districts, one quite large serving mostly middle-class students and the other smaller serving wealthier students. Both districts are grappling with whether to permit students to self-select into upper-level courses, such as honors and Advanced Placement, or to maintain the prerequisites that have been in place for decades.

It is a consequential question on several levels. When visiting colleges with our children, every admissions officer with whom we met told the assembled parents that taking their high schools’ most challenging courses enhanced their children’s prospects of being accepted. One admissions officer, in response to a parent’s question, said that taking 6 APs is better taking 5, taking 5 is better than taking 4, and so on. Clearly, taking higher level courses in high school matters to colleges.

Many high school faculties are largely resistant to student self-selection. On one hand their arguments make some sense – higher level classes are intended for smaller, highly motivated groups of students; some students who self-select into these classes may require additional support in order to succeed; including self-selecting students might require some classes to proceed at a slower pace and the curricula might need to be altered, or, as some say, “watered down;” and students not meeting success would need to drop out, causing them emotional stress and generating feelings of academic inadequacy.

But isn’t student placement an inexact process, and isn’t all of this also true for students who “qualify” for access to higher level courses by meeting the prerequisites? Aren’t some classes always larger than desirable? Aren’t some students are always more highly motivated than others? Don’t some students always require additional support? Doesn’t the pace always depend on the composition of the class? And, don’t some students always feel discouraged and drop out? If so, why are we prohibiting broader access?

And there is, of course, one more critical factor to consider. In schools that educate students of color, it is common to find that higher level courses are populated disproportionately by white students. When questions arise about this inequity, prerequisites are always proffered as the justification – the white students meet them and the students of color don’t. It’s that simple … except it’s not. Student placement is an unmistakable manifestation of institutional racism. Using prerequisites as gates to schools’ higher level courses perpetuates the opportunity gap, denying students who were placed in lower tracks earlier in their academic careers the chance to challenge themselves as they mature – often resulting in segregated classes within the same school.

Whether Honors and Advanced Placement curricula are worthy of distinction is a discussion for another day, but as college admissions officers readily admit taking these courses opens doors for students – doors to college, the types of college a student can be admitted to, and often the amount of money a student can earn in his/her/their lifetime. The stakes are high: it is hard to overstate the importance of student access to higher level courses in high school when college admissions committees weigh them so heavily. These issues are discussed in Chapter 9 of Reimagining Schools: Unifying the Science of Learning with the Art of Teaching.

Before closing I want to comment on three aspects of this issue that need further illumination. First, the academic path for many students is set when they are in elementary schools and are regrouped, usually for math, into low, middle and high achieving cohorts. This decision, made when they are 8, 9 or 10 years old, fails to account for developmental readiness … and becomes many students’ destiny. By 14 or 15 years of age, when later developing students are “ready” for more challenging work, the opportunity has passed them by.

Second, the prerequisites for access to higher level classes are arbitrary, usually including some combination of standardized test scores (which are correlated closely with family wealth) and grades in previous courses (which are subjective assessments of students’ performance). Neither criterion speaks to a student’s intelligence or emerging readiness and willingness to take on more challenging work.

And third, many districts have opened all or certain courses to student self-selection, and I applaud their efforts. In some communities with deeply rooted traditions, this hasn’t been an easy change to make. But does it go far enough?  It is important to consider the differences between simply opening doors and permitting students to walk through them, and actively encouraging students – even recruiting students – to walk through those doors. Historically disenfranchised students and students who have been acculturated to believe that they are not well suited for higher level work may not be looking for those doors, and if they see them may not feel invited and may not walk through them without encouragement and coaxing.

I’m not encouraging a proliferation of honors or Advanced Placement courses. They are often content-heavy, memorization driven courses that gauge learning through scores attained on tests. But, if they are gatekeepers to equitable access to college (and beyond) opportunities, all students deserve access to them.

Photo credit: Pixabay via Pexels