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At Some Schools, Achievement Lags Behind Opportunity

Data show that, in some states, Advanced Placement exam passing rates remain lower in schools with more poor students.

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 opportunities.”

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 programs.

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 rates.

“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. You can look up your school’s results at our Opportunity Gap news application.

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