This month the Education Trust came out with the newest report in its Shattering Expectations series. The report, entitled Finding America’s Missing AP and IB Students, focuses on the under-representation of low-income students and students of color in the most challenging public school classes. Only 5.5% of low-income students take at least one AP course in high school, as compared to 15.6% of non-low-income students. According to the paper, in order to close the enrollment gaps in AP classes, over 600,000 more low-income and minority students would have to participate.

These courses can make a significant difference in a student’s future. Taking rigorous classes in high school not only helps students get accepted into college, but it is also the strongest predictor of whether they will succeed once they get there. By not taking these rigorous courses, students increase their chances of continuing to live in poverty.

Ed Trust’s report dissects some of the reasons why low-income students and students of color are underrepresented in AP and IB classes and it might not be for the reasons you think!

1.        High schools in low-income urban and especially rural areas are less likely to have AP programs.

Over a million of America’s students attend high schools without AP programs. These schools are most likely to be in low-income urban or rural districts. Only 59% of rural schools and 74% of urban schools have AP programs, as compared to 86% of suburban schools.

2.       There are fewer AP & IB courses offered at predominantly low-income and minority schools.

While the vast majority of high school students (91%) attend schools with AP programs, low-income students are twice as likely to go to schools with small, incomplete programs.  Students of color are also far more likely to attend schools with limited AP course options.

3.       Low-income students and students of color are less likely to enroll in higher level courses, even if they are qualified.

By far, the most significant contributor to the enrollment gap is within schools, not between them. According to the study, non-low-income students “who attend schools with AP classes are three times as likely to enroll in an AP course as are low-income students.” In other words, although there is a gap in access to AP and IB courses, an even greater problem lies in inequitable participation rates. In fact, if every school increased the level of enrollment of low-income and minority students to the same level as that of non-low-income and White students in AP and IB courses, the achievement gap would be nearly eliminated.

This can happen now! The College Board found that, in 2012, 75% of American-Indian students, 72% of Black students, and 66% of Hispanic students whose PSAT score suggested that they had the potential to be successful in an AP math course were not currently participating in the program.  Many students do not enroll because they feel as though they do not “fit in” because of their race or income level.

If we are truly serious about closing the opportunity gap, we need to take strides to enroll more students in the most challenging courses. Connecticut has made headway in the last couple of years. A number of programs are in place to help encourage participation in the advanced programs, including a National Mathematics and Science Initiative grant, which helps pay for the extra fees in AP courses, and Project Opening Doors, a program created by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association to help prepare students for the work they will do in AP classes. These efforts are working; between 2009 and 2011, the number of low-income students taking the AP and IB tests has increased from 3,237 to 4,994—a 54% increase!

The work is not done, however. Connecticut needs to continue to make strides in expanding AP & IB programming to include underrepresented groups so that EVERY child can graduate from high school ready to face the challenges of college and the workplace.