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Natica Brown is the principal of College Achieve Central Charter School in Plainfield. This first appeared in NJ Spotlight.
The recent Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action is an attack on Black and Latino students in New Jersey and across the country. Going forward, it will be even harder for them to be accepted into a college of their choice
But merely getting accepted into college shouldn’t be the goal. We should be setting up students to thrive in and graduate from college so that they can break the cycle of poverty and live a life filled with choices. And even with affirmative action in place, that wasn’t happening for far too many Black and Latino students. According to the Hechinger Report, white students at public colleges are 2.5 times more likely to graduate than Black students, and 60% more likely to graduate than Latino students.
There’s no question that colleges can and should do more to address that. But as the principal of College Achieve Central Charter School in Plainfield, I am focused on what the K-12 system can do to help our students excel in higher education. And part of the solution is one that most of us are familiar with: advanced placement (AP) coursework. If we want students of color to thrive in college — especially in a post-affirmative-action world — school and district leaders should commit to both expanding access to AP courses and supporting students to pass.
AP courses pay off
There is a wealth of research showing the benefits of AP courses for students, both in high school and once they enroll in college. Participation in AP coursework is linked to higher standardized test scores, higher college attendance rates, higher college grades, reduction in college dropout rates, higher likelihood of majoring in a field related to their AP coursework and higher college graduation rates. Further, research has shown that AP courses can improve student self-esteem and that students enrolled in advanced courses tend to be more engaged in their studies and have fewer absences and suspensions. And of course, if students do well enough on the exam, they can earn college credit, which can help defray the skyrocketing cost of college.
However, far too few students in New Jersey have the opportunity to reap those benefits. According to the most recent state data, just 34.5% of 11th- and 12th-grade students in New Jersey are enrolled in one or more AP courses. Yet even that number belies a deep racial inequity: Just 18% of Black students and 22.1% of Latino students are enrolled. This gap is wider than the national average.
When it comes to actually passing the AP exams, the numbers are even worse. A mere 19.9% of New Jersey students passed at least one AP exam. And while the state doesn’t release AP passing rates by race, the Center for American Progress estimates that just 2.3% of Black students and 3.9% of Hispanic students in New Jersey will earn a passing score on an AP exam.
This inequity also extends to AP course offerings. According to that same Center for American Progress analysis, Black students in New Jersey are more than four times as likely and Latino students are more than 2.5 times as likely as white students to attend a high school with fewer than three AP classes. At the same time, white students are twice as likely as Black and Latino students to attend a school with at least 18 AP courses.
At College Achieve, we’ve been working to buck that trend, and while we have a long way to go, we’re proud of our progress. For example, at our school, nearly all our students are Black or Latino, and the vast majority are experiencing poverty. This year, 97% of our graduates took an AP course — the average student took more than five — and 48.5% earned a passing score on at least one. We offer 16 AP courses. It’s no coincidence that 100% of our graduates were admitted to college.
No secret sauce
I get asked all the time to “reveal our secret.” But honestly, there isn’t one. It’s just a matter of committing to giving our students the rigorous academic opportunities they need to succeed in college and truly believing that they can get there. Our curriculum is backward-mapped from college entrance to kindergarten, and we emphasize the critical thinking and high-level writing skills — including the Toulmin model for writing — that students will need in college. In other words, for a transformational improvement in AP access and success, schools should commit to a transformational focus on AP access and success.
With the affirmative action decision, the challenging road to college success for Black and Latino students has become even more treacherous. By prioritizing access to AP coursework, New Jersey education leaders can make things easier.