Journalism in the Public Interest

Some States Still Leave Low-Income Students Behind; Others Make Surprising Gains

A ProPublica analysis shows Florida stands out where many other states, like Kansas, fall short.


(Ted S. Warren/AP Photo)

Florida is a state of stark contrasts. Travel a few miles from the opulent mansions of Miami Beach and you reach desperately poor neighborhoods. There’s the grinding poverty of sugar cane country and the growing middle class of Jacksonville. All told, half the public-school students in Florida qualify for subsidized lunches. Many are the first in their families to speak English or contemplate attending college.

In many states, those economic differences are reflected in the classroom, with students in wealthy schools taking many more advanced courses.

But not in Florida. A ProPublica analysis of previously unreleased federal data shows that Florida leads the nation in the percentage of high-school students enrolled in high-level classes—Advanced Placement and advanced math. That  holds true across rich and poor districts.

Studies repeatedly have shown that students who take advanced classes have greater chances of attending and succeeding in college.

Our analysis identifies several states that, like Florida, have leveled the field and now offer rich and poor students roughly equal access to high-level courses.

In Kansas, Maryland and Oklahoma, by contrast, such opportunities are far less available in districts with poorer families.

That disparity is part of what experts call the “opportunity gap.”

“The opportunity to learn—the necessary resources, the curriculum opportunities, the quality teachers—that affluent students have, is what determines what people can do in life,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University.

Our analysis offers the first nationwide picture of exactly which advanced courses are being taken at which schools and districts across the country. Previous studies and surveys have tracked some of these courses, but never with so many variables and covering so many schools. (More than three-quarters of all public-school children are represented in our analysis. Check out our methodology.)

We have also created an interactive feature so you can search for your school and see how it compares, for example, with poorer and wealthier schools nearby. It also shows the percentage of inexperienced teachers in schools. Here’s Beverly Hills High compared to a much poorer school in Southern California. And here’s a stark example from New Jersey.

The analysis was drawn from a nationwide survey by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which collected school-by-school reports on a range of offerings, including physics, chemistry and Advanced Placement courses in high schools. The department did the survey to assess whether states and other localities are discriminating by race, gender or disability. State and local education administrators, of course, are responsible for most funding and policy decisions.

We compared the survey results to poverty levels. (We measured that by looking at the percentage of students who receive free- or reduced-price lunch—which the government offers to students from low-income families.)

While our analysis found a link between race and lack of access, poverty was the predominant factor in determining the proportion of students in a school or district who were enrolled in higher-level instruction.

The department plans to make public additional data in the coming months on graduation rates and test scores for these schools. When it does so, we will publish additional stories pinpointing the states in which equal access has achieved the desired results and where it has not.

From the data released so far, Florida stands out. Its results follow a decade-long initiative to broaden educational opportunity launched by then-governor Jeb Bush and his Education Commissioner, and now fellow former governor, Charlie Crist.

“The fact that some states have eliminated these disparities proves that if we make this a priority of policy it can be done,” said Pedro A. Noguera, an education professor at New York University.

Other states show just how complex the problem is. While Maryland has been celebrated for the high percentage of students taking advanced classes, our analysis shows enrollment in such classes at high-poverty schools is much lower. Or take Mississippi: Richer and poorer schools there provide roughly equal access, but that masks the reality that very few students are enrolled in the classes overall. A Maryland official said enrollment of low-income students has been increasing recently, while a spokesman from Mississippi’s department of education was not immediately available for comment.

While most experts agree about the value of giving students expanded opportunities, many caution that offering advanced classes is not a solution on its own to deeper-rooted gaps in preparation and achievement. They say students often need additional support.

“We’re making AP a reform strategy in and of itself,” said Kristin Klopfenstein, director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado. “When it comes to a struggling turnaround school, why in the world would you think that somehow plunking down an AP program would improve that school?”

But with the right support, even the most disadvantaged students can thrive, according to Jose Huerta, the principal at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

The school was the basis for the 1980’s classic, Stand and Deliver, the story of a determined high-school math teacher, Jaime Escalante, whose single-minded conviction that kids from poor and minority backgrounds could succeed, led to many of his students passing the demanding Advanced Placement calculus exam.

Garfield still provides many rigorous courses—with extra help for some students. And Huerta said that this year his students are heading to colleges such as Yale, Brown and Harvard.

“This is an extremely poor area. These are kids whose parents can’t speak the language, and they’re going to the top college in the country,” said Huerta. “We raise the bar and our kids are going above it.”


How Did Florida Do It?

Florida’s schools once mirrored the inequalities seen in many other states. In 2003, the NAACP sued the state, arguing that it had an “unequal education system.”

“A decade ago, few minority students were taking PSAT/PLAN tests of AP courses, and even fewer were going to college,” said former Gov. Jeb Bush, via email, referring to testing programs that have been used to predict which students will succeed in AP courses. “Florida schools and teachers were not incentivized to provide or teach AP courses—particularly in low-performing schools,” he said.

Bush introduced a combination of measures to foster AP courses, including a partnership with the College Board, the national nonprofit group that manages AP courses and exams. The partnership kicked off in 2000 and was later written into state law. Its stated goal was to “prepare, inspire, and connect students to postsecondary success and opportunity, with a particular focus on minority students and students who are underrepresented in postsecondary education.”

As part of the program, the College Board is now focusing on schools in rural districts, such as Okeechobee in central Florida, where students are often the first members of their families to seriously contemplate attending college, according to Toni Wiersma, principal of Okeechobee High School.

“We fight against the old perception that some people are just not college material,” said Wiersma. “We want to make sure that every student is prepared to do what they want to do.”

The question remains: Have these changes improved student performance?

While measuring outcomes in education is notoriously difficult, data show that the numbers of high-school seniors from poor families who pass at least one AP exam have surged. In 2006, students from low-income families made up 10 percent of all seniors who passed an exam. By 2010, that percentage had doubled.

Florida students still perform below the national average on standardized tests. Still, other government studies show that Florida has made greater strides in closing the achievement gap between white and minority students than many other states.

Florida, Bush said, is setting an example for other states.

“If Florida ... can do it, every state can.”

Kansas’ Long History of Unequal Access to Education Continues

Kansas has also tried to improve, but it still has some of the largest opportunity gaps in the nation.

Few states have as deep a history with educational inequality as Kansas. The state was the birthplace of the landmark civil rights decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were inherently discriminatory and that states must make education “available to all on equal terms.”

Nearly 60 years later, Kansas still has a deeply unequal educational system, according to the data. High-poverty schools still tend to have fewer students enrolled in AP courses, advanced math, chemistry and physics. Like AP, these courses have been linked to later academic success.

“When people in middle America look at this input data and realize that we’re never giving kids a shot in the first place, that American value of fundamental fairness starts kicking in,” said Russlynn Ali, head of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which conducted the survey.

Officials from the Kansas Department of Education disputed the finding that the state is giving unequal treatment to poorer children. They pointed out that the state has set aside extra funds for schools with high numbers of students from low-income households.

“The funding gives additional weighting to every child that qualifies for free lunches,” said Brad Neuenswander, deputy commissioner at the Kansas State Department of Education. “The poorer your district, the more financial resources you receive.”

College Board data show that these efforts may have had some effect. The percentage of AP test-takers who are from poor families has doubled over the past four years. However, the numbers are still low.

Neuenswander said many districts choose to send students into community colleges, rather than enrolling them in advanced placement courses, particularly those students who were more interested in pursuing a trade.

“We’re a rural state, but more than that, we are heavy agriculture as well as air manufacturing and technology,” he said. Several major companies, such as Boeing and Sprint, have locations in Kansas, which offer employment opportunities to local students, Neuenswander said. “A lot of our students don’t go on to a regent university. They go on to vocational and technical colleges, because of the good jobs here that require skills and trades.”

But nearly 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, another lawsuit is winding its way through the Kansas court system, claiming that inadequate funding is having a disproportionate effect on the state’s neediest students.

It follows at least six previous cases in the state that have made similar claims.

The plaintiffs in the new case include children across the state who need extra support, said Alan L. Rupe, the lead attorney in the class action suit and an expert in education funding litigation.

“Kids with special needs—whether they’re English-second-language, disabled kids, immigrants or minorities—those kids cost more to educate,” Rupe said. “When funding is reduced, those kids are hurt the most.”

Rupe said one of the most glaring inequalities between rich and poor districts was the ability to attract and retain talented and experienced teachers.

“If you’re a teacher making $35,000 in Kansas City, in a classroom that’s got 90 percent free and reduced-price lunch, and you have the opportunity to drive 10 miles to teach at a brand new school in a neighboring county, to teach in a smaller class, to earn more money, you’re going to do it every time,” said Rupe. “And they do it every time.”

ProPublica intern Sergio Hernandez contributed reporting to this story. 

Nearly 60 years later, Kansas still has a deeply unequal educational system, according to the data. High-poverty schools still tend to have fewer students enrolled in AP courses, advanced math, chemistry and physics. Like AP, these courses have been linked to later academic success

Is this a case of “unequal access” or just a case where the students don’t use the resources made available to them? The way this is structured, you are strongly implying that the state of Kansas is denying these to low income students. rather than the students not taking what is there.

“Kids with special needs—whether they’re English-second-language, disabled kids, immigrants or minorities—those kids cost more to educate,” Rupe said. “When funding is reduced, those kids are hurt the most.”

Alan Rupe classifies minority students with retarded kids in so far as the difficulty to educate them … classy! Talk about the bigotry of low expectations.

Ginny Vanderlinde

June 30, 2011, 10:41 a.m.

Actually, studies do not show that kids have a greater “chance” at succeeding in college by taking advanced placement courses. Student enrollment in AP courses is correlated with “success” in college, measured primarily by graduation rates and sometimes with grade point average. Multivariate analyses show that many other factors are also likewise correlated with these outcomes, such as family income, GPA, and overall quality of high school curriculum.AP enrollment cannot be shown to cause better performance in college, despite what the College Board would like you to believe. And studies cannot measure student motivation, which is probably the greatest predictor of success in both high school and college. Kids who are highly motivated to succeed take AP courses, and kids who are highly motivated to succeed also study hard in college and get a degree. The causal factor is motivation, not AP enrollment. The thing that AP courses can accomplish is make kids more competitive in the college admission lottery… but only if they pass the course and the AP test. A student who passes the course but fails the test indicates that the quality of their school’s AP program (and probably curriculum in general) is poor. It makes me crazy that everybody seems to buy off on the College Board’s program as though it were Gospel. A more appropriate measure of school or district quality is to measure the proportion of students scoring above a 3 or 4 on the AP exams. Districts across the whole country are expanding their AP programs thinking that this is the way to improve their educational outcomes, and more students are taking the courses only to fail the exams. There is little research indicating that students who take an AP course and fail their AP exam do significantly better in college than students who never took an AP course.  Evaluations as this one by Pro Publica, using AP as a measure of high school quality, encourage this erroneous thinking.

Monica Druckman

June 30, 2011, 11:52 a.m.

The voters of this state have voted twice to limit class size and finally are having some success in having our wishes honored.  Of course, AP classes are exempted from this requirement and so are video courses.

Barbara Brooks

June 30, 2011, 11:55 a.m.

It does no good for a school to offer Advanced Placement courses if the students cannot pass.  Today students can take AP classes and take the test for free even if they have no chance whatsoever of passing!

The scores on AP tests are a better measure of educational opportunity than just offering a class that very few pass.  And the tests are not cheap.

If a student is not likely to pass the test, then why should he/she have the cost of the test paid for him?  If a person really wants to take AP, but is behind, then they should be offered special study skill and writing seminars to prepare instead of hindering the learning of prepared students and wasting taxpayer dollars on failed tests.

In the beginning was the word , and the word was god.  Right ?
In the beginning was the word , and the word was G$D Right ?
Q.E.D.!  What Politcial or Religious Mafia could survive against an EDUCATED Enlightened public? The answer is None, As long as you have these two dominating the treasure of youth: What Future?

“Education And Training”    By Intellegently formatted and practical forward planning.  ( You were not the same person five years back)

It doesn’t appear the research includes dual enrolment—high school students taking college courses. Since many districts emphasize dual enrolment over AP the data and the conclusions can be wrong.

At each school I’ve taught at any dual enrollment courses were of considerably lower quality than a competing AP course of the same subject. Students KNEW that if they took College English or College Government dual enrollment with the local community college they were guaranteed a credit for showing up. However, the motivated students who wanted to learn took AP English or AP Government. Their was no guarantee they’d pass the AP exam at the end of the year, but the AP courses all had a deservedly higher reputation.  Perhaps because there IS no external measure like an AP test for dual credit courses, ProPublica chose to exclude those because of the highly variable nature of the value they represent.

Apparently you are not aware of the considerable amount of research that supports dual enrollment. For starters take a look at Swanson’s award winning Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Iowa.

Stuart Tulloss

June 30, 2011, 10:40 p.m.

There is a lesson to be learned here:  You wont get results by throwing money at poor performing schools, esp. if the community as a whole has a “we can not do it - no one around here ever has” attitude.  If the school system concentrates its efforts on the kids who most want to learn (via AP or dual enrollment), and those kids just get into college, you change the cycle.  Once the community sees some of their own go to college, more parents will push their kids harder and demand more from the schools.  “We cant” becomes “some can” becomes ‘we all can”.

I know it sounds unfair to not give everyone a chance all at once, but communities don’t fall all at once, it will take time to bring them back.

Assistant Village Idiot

June 30, 2011, 11:36 p.m.

Ginny and Barbara have it - everyone else must repeat this course.

Attendance in AP classes means nothing - passing them does.  It’s like discovering that taller kids are better at basketball, so you buy bigger sneakers for everyone.  Cargo cult for education - put lots of kids into chairs where AP math is being taught and they’ll just be smarter. 

Instapundit linked to this.  Glenn should have thought this out.

Reality strikes

July 1, 2011, 4:46 a.m.

Florida’s grade 12 students scored below the national average in Reading and Math on the NAEP. The state faces a lawsuit about failing to provide a high quality education and faced an ACLU lawsuit about failure to graduate minority students. The National Education Policy Center issued a report yesterday I believe as to the hype given to Florda and rtaised questions as to that being appropriate.

Bruce William Smith

July 1, 2011, 11:57 a.m.

Local education administrators in Los Angeles and Long Beach discriminated against poor students in their districts by deciding against allowing them access to advanced courses via our school’s charter. In Los Angeles Unified, the board publicly testified that attempting to open an IB world school to serve the college-preparatory needs of underserved communities in the South Bay of Los Angeles was an unsound educational program, manifestly unlikely to succeed, in spite of the fact that the state legislature had already found IB so worthwhile as to refund the testing fees for poorer students and the University of California was prepared to offer a year’s worth of college credit for IB diploma holders! Isn’t that a civil rights violation?

I am disgusted by the low overall level of gifted and talented programs offered to the children across the country, but particularly Rhode Island, where there are none of those programs in any school in our town, and extremely few in the state overall.  Meaning my son is marginalized, because I have not chosen the route several people I know did—-using the “special education” system and the IEP programs to force the schools to respond to their children’s needs.  The loophole backfires, however, when the kids get older and are kept out of the AP classes and many activities because they are/were “special ed” students. 
  That said, the poorest districts/schools in RI tend to be the ones with the best gifted/talented programs, the best AP classes, the most experienced and dedicated teachers.  They seem to be the ones actually striving to help the students engage and learn.  It’s sad that the rest of the state can’t follow that example.


July 2, 2011, 2:35 p.m.

You can lede a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Pro Publica is a righteous news org with high standards, but anytime someone or something touts itself as ‘independent and non-partisan’, I read, “by default, we slant Left.”

Such is the case with this article.

The problem with trumpeting a “Long History of Unequal Access to Education Continues”, is it’s a tacit admission that the union controlled, gub’mint school monopoly is an inherently flawed system.

To me, that calls for a renaissance in the structure of education along the lines of vouchers or tax credits for private school tuition.

But the article does not address that issue. It simply complains that AP course are not aggressively offered in the union controlled, gub’mint school monopolies.

Yet, some parents in minority and poor communities yearn for better educational opportunities for their children and fight tooth & nail against the union controlled, gub’mint school monopolies for more choices for their kids educational opportunities, only to be told the law forces them to keep their children in these inferior, gang infested, local warehouses called public schools.

I guess ‘choice’ is only allowed if you want an abortion.

Exacerbating this problem is the pernicious attitude of a ‘don’t act White’, anti-education culture in many minority communities, coupled with bad parenting decisions, and the fact that many poor kids do not aggressively pursue enrollment in those AP courses, even when they are offered.

In other words, you can lede a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Unless the NAACP sues a school district. Or something… which causes enormous financial burdens on already strapped tax payers.

Bottom line: the union controlled, gub’mint school monopoly has a ‘long history’ as being an inherently flawed system.

A renaissance in the structure of education along the lines of vouchers or tax credits for private school tuition is desperately needed.

The evidence is overwhelming.

This story hits on the edges of an issue just as important that the public doesn’t what the hear and the press doesn’t want to touch. You’ve just read how education resources are not evenly distributed, but the perception is that its simple, we need more education resources in these poor districts and to find money to do that. What’s not reported is that we are overspending in the majority of suburban schools. Almost all the issues with American education are really just issues of disadvantaged districts; however, the political forces that focus on the issue (e..g the soccer moms and their political panderers) are not part of the these disadvantaged commmunities so what happens is more and more money goes where it is not needed. This farce applies to almost every specific education “issue”. For example, you all “know” teachers are underpaid. Yes teachers in disadvantaged communities are underpaid. They have to work harder, deal of troubled families,  bad behavior, violence but are paid less than a suburban teacher. Are suburban teacher’s underpaid too. No way, ask you local superintendent how many applicants they had for the last job opening. more than 50 is not unusual (all licensed teachers)?
Teachers in any state migrate(flee) the disadvantage districts moving up to the nicer suburbs if at all possible leaving new/inexperienced or teachers who have some issues which would bar them from finding a surburban job, so the areas which need the best teachers get the worst.

. A student who passes the course but fails the test indicates that the quality of their school’s AP program (and probably curriculum in general) is poor.. What’s not reported is that we are overspending in the majority of suburban schools. Almost all the issues with American education are really just issues of disadvantaged districts; however, the political forces that focus on the issue (e..g the soccer moms and their political panderers) are not part of the these disadvantaged commmunities so what happens is more and more money goes where it is not needed.

James B Storer

July 4, 2011, 5:22 a.m.

I am not a college graduate and my 20 some direct descendants plus assorted nieces and nephews are mostly through school or have not yet entered.  Criticism is always ongoing, and invariably involves suspect statistics, charts, and little programs with abbreviated names as indicators of improvement or deterioration of the system.  No Child Left Behind, AP, Voucher, and Tax Credits, etc always disrupt the system as a whole.  They are all of isolated value and do not fit the system at large, though some try (like the ridiculous NCLB fiasco).  They also are the brainchild of somebody or some entity, which include self-fulfilling prophecies resulting in partial failure.  I believe it was President Truman who stated that it is amazing what can be accomplished if nobody demands the credit.  The system is enormously massive, and must be considered as a whole.  All of my aforementioned examples seem detrimental to some group, while providing very limited success for others.  The perpetual attempt of the Republican and corporate cry to tear down the system and start over is a great impediment to education along with wasteful implementation and subsequent investigations of these hamburger helper programs.
  I simply agree with Kristin Klopfenstein in this Pro Publica report, loosely quoted:  “Why in the world would you think that plunking down an AP program would improve that (…struggling…) school?”  Al Parker’s comment (fascistic distribution of funding) is exactly on the money, and I am guessing that the rest of my comment relates in a roundabout way to his and to Kristin’s fundamental thinking.
  I see several basic flaws in the system, one of which I will mention here.  Basic philosophy in urban school planning seems to be to build new high schools as large as possible, both physically and enrollment-wise.  I believe it is better to have schools graduating no more than five hundred students per year.  Economically, this would provide a more efficient overall system, and will be especially advantageous when population shifts demand a need to close down or add schools.  Socially, this would allow teachers in a school to be acquainted with each other, and would allow the staff to be alerted early on to break up or monitor the formation of little gangs and cliques among the student body.  Besides, it is boring as hell to sit in the stands for hours while diplomas are passed out to thousand of seniors.  Smaller schools also allow a greater percentage of students to actively partake in various activities, and can go a long way toward involving the whole neighborhood in the education process again.  I would like to see an exhaustive nation wide investigation concerning effects of school size by Pro Publica, as opposed to concentrating on such things as NCLB, AP, etc.
  Skartishu, Granby MO

John Richard Schrock

July 9, 2011, 9:53 a.m.

The use of AP rates to evaluate a state’s education quality and opportunity is based on many fallacies.

One assumption is that those with high enough AP scores to gain college credit will then move ahead in those disciplines when they reach college. However, it is obvious from both the way private college prep schools advertise and the resulting performance of students that AP may actually allow students to “get it over with” and divert them out of that discipline in college.  AP is also notorious for teach-to-the-test lecturing in science and shortchanging of lab and fieldwork, the later critical to sparking longterm science interest.

Take a “Who’s Who in Science.” Tally the state where each scientist grew up and was educated K-12.  Then divide the sums by the population of the state.  Guess who comes out in the top five: Kansas…but not Florida. 

The last decade’s surge in AP coursework sadly has been an artifact of the NCLB focus on getting students up to proficiency, an effort that has led schools to abandon advanced courses for average and gifted students. AP filled that gap, but most students are not Doogie Howsers nor do most have the maturity to fully internalize college coursework at high school level. 

It is the South and the Coastal states that have high numbers of out-of-field and general one-size-fits-all science teachers, and high stakes graduation exams. It is the northern Great Plains beginning from Kansas up that has higher percentages of qualified more-specialized teachers and does not resort to high stakes high school graduation exams…and this factor (along with real farm experiences versus handheld electronics) is much more critical in generating good students regardless of socio-economic levels. 

AP is not an academic indicator.

John Richard Schrock

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