3 ways to better support underrepresented AP students

GPAs may be more indicative of students' educational environment than their actual knowledge
By: | June 25, 2021

Using more comprehensive methods to identify academic potential is one key for educators working to de-segregate advancement placement and other high-level courses.

Moving more Black, brown and low-income students into these classes is the latest step in the decades-long campaign to fully de-segregate the education system, says Sasha Rabkin, the interim president of Equal Opportunity Schools, which works to diversify Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.

But trying to solve the problem by the time students reach high school may be too late, Rabkin says.

“Opportunities diminish over time,” Rabkin says. “If students aren’t given opportunities with the urgency of now, we are robbing them of the chance be on the rungs of the ladder to college.”

More on representation: 3 solutions for desegregating AP and gifted programs

Equal Opportunity Schools has worked with more than 700 schools to identify students of color and low-income students who qualify for, but are missing from Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual credit programs. Here are some ways to identify and better support these students:

1. Going beyond GPA: Test scores and GPA may be more indicative of students’ educational environment than their actual knowledge or abilities, Rabkin says.

Equal Opportunity Schools provides educators with “Insight Cards” that can be used to collect up to 40 data points on each student. The cards can better reflect a students’ potential to succeed in advanced courses, Rabkin says.

These data points include students’ afterschool and extracurricular activities, their connections with at least one trusted adult in school, and their degrees of growth mindset. Another key is using this data to make real-time, forward-facing decisions, rather than simply tracking how students performed in the past

“Most decisions about young people are made on the binary of GPA and test scores, but they are not the summative total,” he says. “We have to broaden the aperture of how we see potential.”

2. Belonging must follow access: Enrolled more underrepresented students in advanced courses is only the first step. Educators also have to make sure the content is relevant and the environment is inclusive.

This shift includes teaching content that reflects and affirms the cultures of all students. Teachers also must provide high-quality feedback to learners.

Rabkin’s organization has also seen a stronger sense of belonging when teachers are willing to lead explicit conversations about race. “Classrooms must become places where young people see themselves and want to thrive,” he says. “We can’t just say ‘We gave you the chance.'”

3. Shifting the adult mindset: When the first two steps are taken, they can begin to broadly transform the experience of underrepresented students throughout a district.

Desegregating advanced courses can spark action on discipline reform, implicit bias, ensuring 9th-graders are meeting expectations and other key equity indicators.

“It’s a good stress test for a system,” Rabkin says. ‘This has to be about how we transform from a consistent focus on deficits to a fundamental, aggressive and unapologetic focus on talent and genius.”