How to promote equity in advanced coursework participation

Three strategies for closing the gaps—and retaining students
By: and | March 6, 2020
(Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash)(Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash)
Teresa Ketelsen, retired deputy superintendent of Gresham-Barlow School District in Oregon, is an adjunct faculty member in the School of Education at the University of Portland in Oregon. Beth Tarasawa is vice president of research at NWEA.

Teresa Ketelsen, retired deputy superintendent of Gresham-Barlow School District in Oregon, is an adjunct at the School of Education at the University of Portland. Beth Tarasawa is vice president of research at NWEA.

Students of color remain underrepresented in advanced high school courses. In recent years, as college admissions have become increasingly competitive, their shortage in college-preparatory courses in particular has gained significance. So how can leaders in education better understand and address opportunity gaps in course-taking?

At Gresham-Barlow School District (GBSD), just outside Portland, Oregon, district administrators took a hard look at their own data to shape programmatic and recruitment changes in an effort to enroll more students of color who demonstrated academic potential in Advanced Placement courses. Like many districts across the nation, GBSD serves a diverse student body. Nearly 60% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; more than 10% are English language learners; and nearly 60 different home languages bring a rich cultural and linguistic diversity to the district.

How can leaders in education better understand and address opportunity gaps in course-taking?

However, the district’s focus on equity fueled leaders’ interest to better understand who the AP program was serving and the associated outcomes of participation.

Data-driven decision-making

GBSD leaders examined participation and achievement gaps within AP courses by ethnic and socioeconomic family backgrounds through multiple studies. The results paralleled national trends, but despite disproportionately low enrollment rates for students of color, course grades were similar across all demographic groups. This suggested that once enrolled, students performed at comparable levels.

District and high school administrators designed an initiative to recruit underrepresented students to the AP program. Specifically, high school leaders identified and recruited students who had been successful in traditional courses but had yet to enroll in AP coursework. District leaders invited students and their families to attend multiple informational sessions that explained the AP program and its benefits in more detail. This pilot yielded positive results, with an additional 156 first-time AP students in the following academic year.

Because increasing first-time enrollment in AP classes is just one step toward more equitable participation in advanced coursework, district leaders also wanted to understand the views of traditionally underrepresented AP students about their experience during their first year. Through student surveys and interviews, they examined the students’ perspectives about supports and challenges, and perceived changes to their academic identities while in AP programming.


Read: How a superintendent aims for excellence and equity


Three strategies for closing gaps

GBSD’s work reveals three important insights for district leaders working to close participation gaps in advanced coursework.

  1. Recruitment efforts must be targeted, and ideally culturally specific. The success at GBSD points to this need and for efforts to meet the local contexts of school systems.
  2. Provide deliberate supports for first-year AP students. This increases retention and success. For example, first-time AP students at GBSD identified multiple challenges—time management, note-taking and study skills—they encountered that could be mitigated in prior coursework, after-school programs, homework clubs or other opportunities.
  3. Engage and welcome students. First-year AP students were particularly vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy and would benefit from learning environments where each student felt supported. Research shows that teachers have a large impact on students’ growth mindset, and the feedback educators give their students can encourage them to seek challenges and increase their achievement.

Read: Universal Design for Learning removes all barriers


Every year, hundreds of thousands of black, Latino and Native American students miss out on the opportunity to enroll in rigorous coursework that better positions them to enter and succeed in college. But with these strategies, administrators can make significant progress in tapping their great potential and enrolling more students of color in AP programming. (For additional resources, visit The Education Trust.)


Teresa Ketelsen, retired deputy superintendent of Gresham-Barlow School District in Oregon, is an adjunct faculty member in the School of Education at the University of Portland in Oregon. Beth Tarasawa is vice president of research at NWEA.