These students love STEM. Why aren’t we letting them be more ambitious?

Nearly 225,000 Black and Latino students don't have access to the high school AP courses they should be taking. Here are 5 ways to fix that.
By: | April 21, 2022

Here’s an alarming statistic: Less than 2% of the Black, Latino and low-income students who are interested in STEM and in college are enrolled in AP Biology. That vast exclusion exists despite many of those students saying STEM includes their favorite subjects, according to “Shut Out: Why Black and Latino Students are Under-Enrolled in AP STEM Courses,” a new analysis from the nonprofits, Education Trust and Equal Opportunity Schools.

Nearly 225,000 Black and Latino students don’t have access to the high school AP courses they should be taking, The Education Trust has estimated. That could be the key reason behind another set of disparities: Black people account for 11% of the workforce but only 9% of STEM jobs while Latino people make up 17% of the workforce but only 8% of STEM jobs, according to the Pew Research Center.

“In order for Black and Latino students who aspire to be future scientists, engineers and physicists to solve problems we can’t even dream up, we need to be doing the work now,” says Allison Socol, the Education Trust’s assistant director of K-12 policy. “We need to give them access to courses that foster their passions, develop their knowledge and skills, and put them on the path to pursue their dreams.”

AP courses are critical because they are closely tied to college-going, says the report, which was based on surveys of 200,000 students across 184 schools, 80 districts and 24 states. Students who aspire to higher ed are a whopping 105% more likely to take an AP class, the study found. These ambitious students are also 11% more likely to enroll in an AP class when they feel a sense of belonging in advanced courses. But students in too many districts and schools face formidable barriers, including a lack of “school climates that make underserved students feel welcomed in these courses,” says the study.

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Other factors for these disparities include lower funding for predominantly Black and Latino districts and “racialized tracking” that leaves younger Black and Latino students out of gifted programs that can be pathways to AP courses. “The underrepresentation of Black and Latino students in advanced courses is not about a lack of desire or preparedness,” Socol says. “This is about systemic barriers that can absolutely be changed if we are truly committed to creating an equitable and just education system.”

Achieving AP equity

A handful of states, including North Carolina and Washington, have diversified participation in advanced courses by completely revamping how students are chosen. Instead of putting the onus on learners and their families to find the courses and advocate for enrollment, students in these states are automatically approved for AP and other classes when they meet or exceed grade-level standards, Socol says.

Here’s how K-12 leaders and their teams can increase access to AP STEM courses:

1. Provide better guidance. An adequate college counseling staff, along with help from other trusted adults, can better steer students toward rigorous courses that match their interests and college-going aspirations.

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2.  What kind of climate do we want? Regular surveys will better help district leaders understand the interests and aspirations of students, families and educators. This can be a key first step to improving the school climate.

3. Diverse educators do wonders. Recruiting and retaining more educators of color is another key to giving underrepresented students a greater sense of belonging. District and school leaders should also press their states to fund programs that will further diversify the teacher workforce.

4. PD plays a big role. Provide professional development to teachers—and administrators—about how to identify more Black and Latino students for advanced classes. Educators will also need training in using culturally relevant curricula and instructional practices in these courses.

5. Funding fixes. With help from state agencies, schools can work to cover the costs of exams, transportation, and other materials required for students to enroll in advanced courses. Districts should also share enrollment information with families in their home languages.

The report also calls on states to provide technical support to schools and districts that are not closing the AP STEM enrollment gap for Black and Latino students, and students from low-income families. “It’s time to think differently about how to identify, engage and resource Black and Latinx students,” says Dr. Sasha Rabkin, president of Equal Opportunity Schools. “Thousands of students are ready to succeed in AP STEM right now but are being denied access through outdated metrics, unnecessary prerequisites and myopic student selection criteria.”