At Some Schools, Achievement Lags Behind Opportunity

by Jennifer LaFleur


Some education experts say the opportunity to take advanced classes is critical to helping low-income students succeed later in life.

But opportunity
doesn’t always equal achievement. Our new analysis of data from the U.S.
Department of Education shows that, in some states, Advanced Placement exam
passing rates remain lower in schools with more poor students.

“You can’t
snap your fingers and change that overnight,” said Kevin Welner,
director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.  “Wealthy kids have much richer

In our 2011 project,
“The Opportunity Gap,” we looked at differences in access to advanced classes
between schools with wealthy students and schools with poor students. Some
states, such as Florida, have worked to get more students into advanced

Now we’ve updated
our Opportunity Gap interactive news application, adding new information — including Advanced
Placement exam passing rates and sports participation — to   examine the achievement gap between
schools. We also added new features, such as the ability to see data from our
project in Foursquare and narratives about each school. Adding outcomes
– measured by passing rates for AP tests – showed that in some of
the states that saw similar AP participation across all income levels, AP
passing rates were higher at wealthier schools.

To improve results for all students, experts
say that schools need to provide supports, such as smaller classes and extra
time with class materials, to help low-income students succeed.

“If we close
the opportunity gaps, we are going to close the achievement gaps,” Welner said.

Our analysis
found that in Florida and Pennsylvania, for example, there is little variation
in AP course participation between low- and high-poverty schools, but the data
showed a gap between rich and poor schools when it comes to AP exam passing

“Every student should have an opportunity to
enroll in those courses, said Mary Jane Tappen,
Deputy Chancellor for Curriculum, Instruction, and Student Services with the
Florida Department of Education. 
“Performance may not be where we would like it to be yet, but we feel
confident it will increase.”

Our analysis
was drawn from a nationwide survey by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which tracks school and district
information on a range of offerings, including physics, chemistry and Advanced
Placement courses in high schools. The survey covered the 2009-2010 school year. The department did
the survey to assess whether states and other localities are discriminating by
race, gender or disability.

We also compared the survey results to
poverty levels, which we measured as using the percentage of students at a
school who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

While our analysis found a link between race
and lack of access to advanced courses, poverty was the strongest factor in
determining the proportion of students in a school who were enrolled in higher-level
instruction and test-passing rates.

For the more details about how we analyzed
this data, please see our methodology [link to NEW methodology]. You can look up your
school’s results at our Opportunity Gap news application.

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