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Despite high scores, many minority students passed over for AP classes

Black and Hispanic students with promising test scores are far less likely than similarly skilled white students to be enrolled in college-level classes in Palm Beach County’s public high schools, a disparity that school district leaders blame in part on “implicit bias” in the schools.

Black male juniors and seniors whose test scores indicate they could do well in college-level courses are excluded from those courses at twice the rate as white males, a school district analysis of PSAT scores shows.

And while 82 percent of white females with promising test scores were enrolled in college-level high school classes this year, just 64 percent of similarly performing black females were enrolled.

Similar but smaller gaps exist between the enrollments of high-achieving white and Hispanic students, and there is a substantial disparity between male and female students, with high-achieving girls more likely than boys to be enrolled in college-level classes.

The so-called “opportunity gap” has existed for decades in the county’s high schools and nationwide, educators say. But it has received new attention locally under Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa, whose administration flagged the issue last year and is pushing principals to address the disparities.

“Students who have potential, why are they not in the courses?” Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen said. “There’s a significant gap there that we want to start to close.”

‘Turn a blind eye’

Administrators now track the gap throughout the year and push school-level information about it to principals. They say that although the disparity remains, the new focus has contributed to increases this year in participation in college-level classes, including Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual-enrollment classes.

The efforts also have cast new attention on the sometimes-murky methods that schools use to select students for college-level classes.

The process for inviting students to take such classes, in which students can receive college credit, varies from school to school. But educators say it generally includes a review of students’ test scores, grades and recommendations from teachers. For some programs, it can also include a formal application process.

Using multiple sources of information is intended to give administrators and guidance counselors a holistic view of each student’s potential. But educators say it makes the process more subjective, leaving it susceptible to differing ideas of what qualifies a student to be in an Advanced Placement class.

“People have a lot of different profiles of what an AP student looks like,” said Geoff McKee, an assistant regional superintendent who until recently was Boca Raton High School’s longtime principal.

In some cases, he said, teachers’ perceptions of student qualifications can be affected by their demeanor, the way they speak, their behavior in class — even their physical appearance.

“You kind of need to turn a blind eye to those appearances,” he said. “They need to take a backseat to what the numbers are saying.”

For a more neutral look, administrators are leaning more heavily on a tool called “AP Potential,” which tracks students’ performance on the PSAT exam, which students now take in 8th, 9th and 10th grades.

The “AP Potential” tool, created by College Board — which develops and administers the PSAT, SAT and AP exams — uses students’ performances on the PSAT to predict how well they would perform on particular AP exams. Students take the PSAT, or Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test, as preparation for the SAT college entrance exam, and the scores are used to identify students for scholarships.

The school district is now using the tool to measure how individual schools are assigning students to college-level classes. The data, they say, revealed massive disparities.

“What we’re trying to do is put it in front of everyone so they can’t ignore it,” Christiansen said. “It shouldn’t be teacher-pleasing behavior that ought to determine this.”

‘Implicit bias’

This school year, for example, 81 percent of white female juniors and seniors deemed to have potential for success in AP classes were enrolled in some sort of college-level class. But only 51 percent of black males deemed to have potential were enrolled. Just 64 percent of similarly situated Hispanic males were enrolled.

The disparities do not always cut neatly across racial lines, and the picture is complicated by the consistent gaps between females and males. Hispanic females, for instance, are more likely than white males to be enrolled.

Christiansen said many factors are likely at play in the disparities, including some students’ aversion to taking the classes, reliance on non-academic indicators like student behavior, and “implicit bias.”

At some schools, he said. “there are some hidden rules” about who is deemed eligible for these classes, so the school district’s focus is on efforts to “make it more of an objective process.”

“These are students who can do it, they’ve shown that,” he added. “We just want to give them a shot.”

But he said addressing the disparity is not as simple as using a single test score. Soft factors like students’ engagement and behavior still matter, he said.

Even College Board, which created the “AP Potential” tool, warns users that “it should never be used as the sole criterion for placement in AP courses.”

“Sometimes you do have to look at skill and will,” Christiansen said.

Palm Beach County is hardly alone in confronting the disparity. Education scholars say awareness about inequities in access to college-level classes is on the rise.

Last year, after a federal report revealed a lack of availability of calculus courses in high schools predominately attended by minority students, then-U.S. Education Secretary John King said that children of color are “not getting the same opportunity to learn” as white students, The Atlantic magazine reported.

Misjudging kids

The key to fixing the disparity is examining assumptions about “who is ‘AP material,’ and dispelling that myth,” said Ashley Griffin, director of K-12 research at the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., non-profit that studies efforts to raise student achievement.

“There are a lots of students who are falling in the gap between who is perceived to have potential and who actually can handle these courses,” Griffin said.

One frequently cited barrier is the students themselves and their families. Students from low-income families or immigrant communities may often be less attentive to the advantages of college-level classes and more wary of the extra rigor, educators say.

Christiansen and McKee, both former high school principals, recalled working frequently to persuade reluctant students and parents to switch from regular classes to the college-level versions.

“You think, who’s blocking these kids?” McKee said. “And one of the surprising blocks is the kids themselves.”

Griffin said that efforts to include more students of color need to start well before the students even take the PSAT. Classes in earlier grades should prepare them to begin thinking about their academic interests and dispelling myths that the students themselves may believe about who belongs in such classes.

“Do we have students who maybe aren’t participating because of their misperceptions?” Griffin asked rhetorically. “How do we think about those who may or may not be prepared?”

Christiansen said putting the issue at the forefront is showing signs of working. Enrollment of promising black males in college-level classes is up four percentage points from last year, and the rate for Hispanic males is up by six points. But he said closing the gap will take years.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re certainly not going to go out and throw a parade or anything, because we still have work to do.”

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