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Implications for Scaling Up Advanced Course Offerings and Takings: Evidence from Florida


by Patrice Iatarola - 2016

This article summarizes a set of research studies that focus on high school course offerings, takings, and effects. Improving high school experiences and having students graduate from high school ready for college are national priorities under President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. Doing so by expanding access to advanced courses dates back a decade to President George W. Bush and the National Governors Association’s efforts in the No Child Left Behind era. Courses are still seen as the gateway to higher student performance and access to college. From research done in collaboration with Dylan Conger and Mark Long, we found that taking more rigorous math courses increases students’ likelihood of being ready for college math, and that gaps in math course taking explain about one third of the gap between White and Black students and White and Hispanic students’ readiness for college. Advanced courses do matter—even taking just one advanced course improves students’ test scores, likelihood of graduating from high school, and likelihood of attending a four-year university. Schools, however, could do more to overcome the gap. We found that the best predictor of schools’ offering advanced courses was their having a critical mass of students with very high prior achievement. Resources, however, were not a factor.

INTRODUCTION


With more than a decade of experience under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy, we are unable to definitely state its impact on student achievement. Yet there is no doubt that it has left an indelible mark on public education systems across the United States. NCLB spurred the development of statewide standards and accountability systems—a seed that was planted earlier with the prior reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act (ESEA)—Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994. In between the two reauthorizations of ESEA, a number of states, such as New York, Texas, and Florida, implemented statewide standards and testing and accountability systems focused on educational gateways, such as fourth, eighth, and 10th or 12th grades. The reforms in Texas and Florida foreshadowed NCLB and served as models for the development of the federal policy. NCLB effectively institutionalized these efforts and ensured that testing in grades 3–8 and in a high school grade were put in place in all states. The effects of accountability are mixed in general, though there is some evidence of positive effects (Carnoy & Loeb, 2002; Dee & Jacob, 2011; Figlio & Loeb, 2011; Hanushek & Raymond, 2004). Though NCLB has been effectively superseded by the federal Race to the Top initiatives and more recently on Common Core standards, nonetheless accountability is now an embedded feature of the educational landscape.


Arguably, most of the reforms engendered by statewide standards and accountability systems focused on elementary and middle school grades, leaving high schools behind. In New York City, for example, the accountability era marked a shift of resources from high schools to elementary schools. As a result, high schools that once garnered more resources on a per-pupil basis—due in large part to higher labor costs as salary scales rewarded the specialization of high school teachers—lost out as resources were shifted to cover reforms aimed at the lower grades. Given that NCLB required testing in grades 3–8 and only in one grade in high schools, this shift may have been a rational response to the policy.2 However, at the start of his second term in office, President George W. Bush called for expansion of the federal AP incentive program to improve the rigor of students’ high school course experiences, which also coincided with the priorities set by the National Governors Association (NGA).


Around the same time, the NGA shifted its attention to high schools and sponsored an Education Summit led by Governor Mark Warner (National Governors Association, 2005a). Among the top 10 action items resulting from the summit and the subsequent report were: increasing the rigor of both college and work curricula, providing incentives for underrepresented students to take AP courses, and expanding opportunities for high school students to do college-level work (National Governors Association, 2005b). The governors also took issue with how graduation rates were calculated and pledged to use a common standard calculation to measure a four-year cohort graduation rate (National Governors Association, 2005c).


The Race to the Top initiative built on these prior initiatives by turning attention to college readiness. As noted in an Education Sector Report (Adelman, 2010), most of the accountability systems that were put in place under NCLB or pre-NCLB were not particularly attuned to the needs and efforts of high schools, usually rating them on two basic measures—graduation rates and basic skills tests (e.g., ninth- or 10th-grade test). Race to the Top put the spotlight on readying students to successfully transition from one educational level to the next—for example, from middle to high school or from high school to college. As the Education Sector Report (Adelman, 2010) also highlighted, increased accountability for high schools was necessitated by the fact that high school students’ performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress had been stagnant, and a significant number of students who enrolled in college were not ready for postsecondary-level coursework. Thus, college readiness is now a key benchmark that states such as Florida are incorporating into their accountability systems, and the key focus of foundational support, most notably from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (http://www.gatesfoundation.org/college-ready-education/pages/default.aspx).


This chapter summarizes research conducted by Dylan Conger of George Washington University, Mark Long of the University of Washington, and myself. In 2007, we were awarded an Institute of Education Sciences grant (R305B070131) to examine the implications of high school course availability and course-taking for achievement, graduation, and postsecondary enrollment. At that point in time, the more newly developed statewide micro-level student databases had yet to be harnessed to shed light on students’ high school course experiences. National survey data, including student transcript data, are nationally representative with small samples of racial/ethnic minority students and English language learners. Thus, findings from earlier studies might not offer equally robust insights for states such as Florida with large numbers and shares of minority and English language learners. At that time, and it is still true now, Florida was a bellwether state with respect to educational policy and, in particular, educational accountability. Florida is also an excellent landscape in which to examine educational policy, reforms, and practices as it enrolls nearly two million students, representing almost 5% of the nation’s public schools students. Thirteen of its 67 districts are among the nation’s 100 largest school districts. Nearly half of the students enrolled in public schools are racial/ethnic minorities—24% Black and 22% Hispanic. Florida is also known as the leader in the development of the unit-level (student, teacher, principal) statewide longitudinal data system. Its Education Data Warehouse (EDW) tracks students over time across educational levels. Our studies, which are summarized below, use data on several cohorts of students, tracking them from eighth grade through high school and into postsecondary education and/or the labor market.


In this chapter, I first provide an overview of the policy context and touch on the Florida-specific policy context. I then summarize the findings from our research on course offerings, takings, and effects. I conclude with a discussion of the implications of this and other ongoing research on future research, policy, and practice.  It is important to note the somewhat unique approach in this chapter as I incorporate more specific policy contexts and reviews of relevant literature within each of the summaries: (1) impact of high school math courses on college readiness; (2) effects of high school courses on educational outcomes, including test scores, graduation, and enrollment in postsecondary institutions; and (3) effects associated with schools’ advanced course offerings and students’ advanced course taking. Though the topics are interrelated, it is important to capture the dynamism that shaped each of the individual studies. Also, for each summary, in text boxes I encapsulate the empirical approach we pursued for the respective study, including a brief description of the methods, variables, and data. In this chapter, I offer perspectives from my colleagues and my research on course offerings, takings, and effects that speak to curricular reforms more generally. For decades, if not longer, we have turned to curricular reforms, whether it be changing graduation requirements or detracking curriculum to improve high school students’ outcomes.  We continue to pursue curricular reforms, yet again changing graduation requirements, but also pushing for advanced courses, guiding students in their course selection, and providing them early-warning systems to keep them on track for success.


BACKGROUND


Policymakers are pushing for increased college readiness and advanced course taking in a larger context in which the experiences of high school students are changing. According to The Condition of Education Report (2012), published by the U.S. Department of Education, high school enrollment grew by 21% from 1990 to 2010 and is projected to grow by a more modest 4% over the next decade to 15.5 million students. The report also tracks course taking over time and finds that a greater share of high school graduates are completing higher level math and science courses. For example, in 2009, 88% of graduates completed a geometry course and 76% completed an Algebra II/trigonometry course as compared to 64% and 54%, respectively, of graduates in 1990. In science, greater shares of students are taking chemistry, physics, and the combination of biology and chemistry. The Condition of Education Report identifies the 1983 National Commission on Excellence in Education’s Nation at Risk report as a key factor in spurring increased graduate requirements and advanced course taking among high school students.


While the course taking figures are notable, high school students’ educational achievement as measured by their performance on NAEP and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has not been similarly impressive. In fact, high school student performance on the NAEP has been stagnant over nearly four decades (1970 through 2010). The results for 15-year-olds who were tested under PISA are somewhat positive in that they have shown a slight increase over a short period of time (2003/2006 to 2009), but the United States remains at or near the average for OECD countries (U.S. Department of Education, 2012).


Yet, despite this mixed picture of student performance and achievement where graduates are taking more challenging math and science courses and test scores are stagnant, more students than ever aspire to graduate from college. While “definite plans to graduate from a 4-year college” are associated with parental education levels, the gap between 12th-graders whose parents have a graduate or professional degree and those who have a high school diploma or less is shrinking. Aspirations or definite plans, however, do not make one ready for college even though enrollment rates are at all-time highs (U.S. Department of Education, 2012).


In Florida in 2003–2004, 78% of students enrolling in the state’s community colleges and 10% of those enrolling in four-year universities required remediation (OPPAGA, 2006a). This was a clarion call for higher standards—eventually incorporated into the new grading system for high schools—that now hold schools accountable for not only graduation rates and students’ performance on standardized tests, but also for: (1) student participation in accelerated coursework as measured by exams taken (AP, IB, AICE), (2) their performance in accelerated courses as measured by successful completion of the courses, and (3) college readiness as measured by the state’s common placement exam or students’ scores on the ACT or SAT.


Florida has been a leader with respect to increasing the number of advanced courses and access to those courses. In collaboration with the College Board, summer professional development programs have been offered to teachers in high-needs schools that introduce them to the AP curriculum, structure, and content. Moreover, Florida is only one of a handful of states that provide financial incentives to schools and teachers for success on AP and IB exams, and it is only one of three states to pay the full cost of AP exams for students (OPPAGA, 2006b). Florida has also seen tremendous growth in the number of schools offering AP courses and in students taking the courses, outpacing the national rate of growth. From 2000 to 2010, Florida nearly tripled the number of students taking AP courses with a 63% increase (College Board, n.d.a.). Nationally, the rates were still high with a 140% increase in the number of students and a 35% increase in the number of schools participating in the AP program (College Board, n.d.b.). Florida is fifth in the nation in terms of the percentage of students scoring at least a 3 on the exam with a pass rate of 27% (College Board, 2014a). The state is also quite successful, relatively, in terms of minority student performance on AP exams where Hispanic students are achieving at the same level as their representation in the graduating class (ratio of the percent of successful exam takers to the percent of students in the graduating class who are of the same race/ethnicity). The ratio for Black students is much smaller, 35% (College Board, 2014b). Florida is also among the leaders in the number of IB diplomas awarded. So, it is clear that Florida is a rich environment in which to explore issues related to high school courses, particularly advanced courses.


COLLEGE READINESS


In our study of college readiness in Florida, we examined how much of the gaps in readiness for college-level math are determined by the courses that students take (Long, Iatarola, & Conger, 2009). In particular, we explored the gaps between White and racial/ethnic minority students, higher- and lower-income students, and male and female students. Prior research suggests that math courses are key to student success and that one needs at least Algebra II to be prepared for college (Adelman, 2006; ACT, 2007). In our review of the literature we note that:


[T]hough causality has not been entirely established, several studies suggest that taking more credits in math and more advanced math courses increases: (1) proficiency on high school standardized mathematics exams (Gamoran 1987; Byrk, Lee, and Smith 1990; Cool and Keith 1991; Stevenson, Schiller, and Schneider 1994; Rock and Pollack 1995; US DOE 1997; Shettle et al. 2007); (2) the likelihood of high school graduation (e.g. Schneider, Swanson, and Riegle-Crumb 1998); (3) entry into and performance while in college (Schneider et al. 1998; Adelman 2006); and (4) choice of college major. (Federman, 2007)


It is not that remediation necessarily lowers postsecondary success, but rather that there are costs associated with remediation or lack of preparedness for college (Bettinger & Long, 2007). Somewhat dated estimates of the cost of providing remediation in Florida estimate that the additional cost that accrues to both the state and the student is over $100 million (OPPAGA, 2006a).


As seen in Figure 1, 64% of students in our study who attended college in the year after they graduated high school3 were ready for college-level math. There were striking differences by racial/ethnic group with just over 40% of Black students and 56% of Hispanic students ready for college-level math as compared to 72% of White and 81% of Asian students being ready for college math. The gap between students who were eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch (FRPL)4 and those who were not was quite wide as well—a 23 percentage point difference (48% and 71%, respectively).


Figure 1. College readiness by socio-demographic group


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Sample: Progressive cohort of Florida public school students who started eighth grade in 1998–1999, restricted to those students (1) who were observed in at least three of the four high school grades (ninth through 12th), (2) whose highest math course was categorizable, (3) who entered a Florida public postsecondary institution by 2003–2004, and (4) who had data on their college math readiness. Source: Long, M. C., Iatarola, P., & Conger, D. (2009). Explaining gaps in readiness for college-level math: The role of high school courses. Education Finance and Policy, 4(Winter), 1–33.


With respect to students’ math course taking as represented by the highest level of math course taken, there were striking differences as well. As seen in Figure 2, a majority of White and Asian students reached advanced algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus, or calculus. For Black students, just over 35% were reaching the same levels. Hispanic students’ math course taking, while not quite at the level of White and Asian students, was at a higher level than that of Black students. There were noticeable differences between FRPL and non-FRPL students with nearly a 20 percentage point gap between the two in terms of the highest levels of math courses.


Figure 2. Highest math course taken by socio-demographic group

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Sample: Progressive cohort of Florida public school students who started eighth grade in 1998–1999, restricted to those students (1) who were observed in at least three of the four high school grades (ninth through 12th), (2) whose highest math course was categorizable, (3) who entered a Florida public postsecondary institution by 2003–2004, and (4) who had data on their college math readiness. Source: Long, M. C., Iatarola, P., & Conger, D. (2009). Explaining gaps in readiness for college-level math: The role of high school courses. Education Finance and Policy, 4(Winter), 1–33.


Empirically, my colleagues and I decomposed the raw gap in readiness for college math into explained and unexplained portions, and then we estimated the portion of the explained gap that was attributable to the highest math course taken, as seen in Figure 3. Of the 30% raw gap in readiness between Black and White students, 25.8% of it was explained by our empirical model (see text box for a brief description of our empirical strategy). For each set of factors in our model (e.g., demographics, educational needs, highest math course, etc.), we calculated the contribution that was made toward explaining the raw gap. For example, 13 percentage points of the 30% Black–White gap was attributable to students’ prior test scores, eight percentage points to differences in the highest math course taken, five to other factors, and four percentage points were unexplained. Thus, 43% of the raw gap between Black and White students was due to prior test scores, and 28% was due to differences in the highest math course taken. Over one third of the Hispanic–White and poor–non-poor gaps were explained by the highest math course taken, and over three quarters of the Asian–White gap was explained by the highest math course. These represent significant portions of the readiness gap and offer support for more advanced course taking as a means by which to reduce achievement gaps in college readiness.


Figure 3. Gaps in college readiness by source


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Sample: Progressive cohort of Florida public school students who started eighth grade in 1998–1999, restricted to those students (1) who were observed in at least three of the four high school grades (ninth through 12th), (2) whose highest math course was categorizable, (3) who entered a Florida public postsecondary institution by 2003–2004, and (4) who had data on their college math readiness. Source: Long, M. C., Iatarola, P., & Conger, D. (2009). Explaining gaps in readiness for college-level math: The role of high school courses. Education Finance and Policy, 4(Winter), 1–33.


Empirical Approach

Long, M. C., Iatarola, P., & Conger, D. (2009). Explaining gaps in readiness for college-level math: The role of high school courses. Education Finance and Policy, 4 (Winter), 1–33.

Unit of Analysis: Students

Outcome of Interest: Readiness for college math (readiness as measured by the students’ scores on the Florida Common Placement Test that has a cutoff of elementary-level algebra. Students exempt from taking the placement exam if they scored above 440 on the math SAT-I or above 19 on math ACT.)

Variable of Interest: Highest math courses taken (Florida has common course codes)

Controls: Student demographic characteristics (race/ethnicity, poverty status, and gender), educational needs (limited English proficiency, exceptional education), pre-high school achievement (eighth-grade standardized test scores), and eighth-grade campus (fixed effects)

Model: Probability model of readiness for college, controlling for the variables noted above, which include campus fixed effects that help with omitted variable biases (e.g., parental taste for education, early investments in education). Use a Blinder-Oaxaca variance decomposition to parcel out the contribution of the groups of controls listed above with respect to the gaps in readiness between groups of students.

Data: Student-level data from the EDW

Sample: Progressive cohort of students who were in the eighth grade in 1998–1999 and who entered a public postsecondary institution in Florida, representing approximately 21% of all students in the cohort. It should be noted that most students do stay in state; only 10% attend a private institution or a public out-of-state institution. The Bright Futures merit-based program that pays for college for students who do well in high school incentivizes attendance at a public postsecondary institution in Florida.



EFFECTS OF HIGH SCHOOL COURSES ON SECONDARY AND POSTSECONDARY SUCCESS


In our study of the effects of high school courses on secondary and postsecondary success, we used propensity score matching to generate estimates of the causal impact of taking advanced courses (Long, Conger, & Iatarola, 2012). We find quite large effects of taking even one rigorous course in any subject. Doing so increased students’ 10th-grade FCAT scores and their likelihood of graduating high school and attending a four-year college. The largest impact resulted from taking a more rigorous course within the first two years of high school. The effects cut across all core subject areas (math, science, English, social studies, and foreign language). The returns were slightly higher for Hispanic, Black, and poor students when the courses were taken by the 10th grade. When considering course taking across all four years of high school, we found that when taking one rigorous course before graduating, students were five to six percentage points more likely to enroll in a four-year college. Table 3 presents our propensity score estimates of the effects of taking a more rigorous course by fall of 10th grade. For instance, taking a rigorous course increased 10th-grade FCAT scores by a quarter of a standard deviation (0.26). Taking courses in additional subject areas ranged from 0.19 to 0.33 standard deviations. Interestingly, as noted above, taking even one rigorous course increases a student’s likelihood of graduating high school and enrolling in a four-year college by 9.5 and 10.6 percentage points, respectively. Taking courses in other disciplinary subject areas did not further increase the likelihood of graduating by much, but it did increase the likelihood of attending a four-year college.


Empirical Approach

Long, M. C., Conger, D., & Iatarola, P. (2012). Effects of high school course-taking on secondary and postsecondary success. American Educational Research Journal, 49(2), 285–322.


Unit of Analysis: Students who were expected to graduate in 2002–2003

Outcome of Interest: 10th-grade FCAT, high school diploma, enroll in four-year college, enroll in two-year college

Treatment: Advanced courses

Approach: Propensity score matching, average treatment effect on the treated

Data: Student-level data from the EDW

Sample: Students who were observed in at least three high school grades and who received a high school diploma or general equivalency degree (GED) within four years of entering school.


DETERMINANTS OF SCHOOLS’ COURSE OFFERINGS


In our study of course offerings, we examined the determinants of high schools’ course offerings, particularly schools’ advanced course offerings in the form of AP or IB courses (Iatarola, Conger, & Long, 2011). There had been, to date, very little research on factors associated with a school’s decision to offer higher level courses. The most notable studies, now 20 plus years old, focused on offerings in relation to school size (Haller, Monk, Bear, Griffith, & Moss, 1990; Monk & Haller, 1993). Other studies that examined tracking within schools offer some insight into how and why schools track, but do not offer insight into what factors shape a school’s decision to even offer advanced courses. Over time, as alluded to in the introduction of this chapter, advanced courses have assumed a prominent role in curricular reform. This is in part due to the emphasis that has been placed on advanced courses in the policy debates, but also because teachers perceive that the courses will bolster the reputation and rankings of schools (Duffett & Farkas, 2009). This effect was highlighted in a recent New York Times article on the plethora of high school rankings by national media outlets, such as U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, and The Washington Post, and by local media outlets, such as the Chicago Sun-Times (Winerip, 2013). Further, AP and IB courses signal a more rigorous curriculum and are used in college admissions processes (Geiser & Stantelices, 2004). As previously noted, states—most notably Florida—offer incentives for taking AP/IB courses and passing the related exams, and now related measures are included in the accountability grading scheme. Recent policies, such as Florida’s new high school grading scheme and Race to the Top competition that weighed access to advanced courses as key criteria, are placing more emphasis on rigorous curricular offerings.


The decision to offer AP/IB courses reflects a number of considerations that are not fully captured by the quantitative data that include issues related to the capacity to offer advanced courses (e.g., qualified teaching force) and demand for courses (e.g., demand by parents, students, or that created by teachers and administrators). Our study, once again, relies on rich student and school-level data from Florida to examine which factors are most critical in determining advanced course offerings (see text box for a brief summary of the empirical approach utilized in the study).


In our analysis, we found that a majority of schools, but not all, offered AP/IB courses. Over time, from 2001–2001 to 2005–2006, the percentage of schools offering AP/IB increased. Figure 4 graphs the share of schools offering an AP/IB course by total enrollment. While most of the schools above the median offered an AP/IB course, there was quite a bit of variation below the median and a steep slope that suggested that as schools get larger they are more likely to offer AP/IB courses.


Figure 4. Share offering advanced courses as a function of school size

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Source: Iatarola, P., Conger, D., & Long, M. C. (2011). Determinants of high schools’ advanced course offerings. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 33, 340–359.


While a simple indicator of offering AP/IB courses does not tell us much about the extent to which the courses are offered, there has been growth in participation. In the average school in 2005–2006, 50 students took one AP/IB math course, up from 37 in 2001–2002, which is a 62% increase. The number of students who took science and English courses increased 40% and 43%, respectively. The largest growth in AP/IB course taking as well as the highest participation levels was in social studies. We found a 71% increase in the number of students taking these courses. I should note at this point that we take a somewhat unique approach in examining the relationship of school size to offerings. Rather than simply including student enrollment as a variable, we categorize enrollment by “preparedness” as measured by students’ eighth-grade scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), grouping them based on how far above the median their scores are—e.g., slightly above average (0–1 standard deviation above the median) or far above average (over 1 standard deviation above the median), with the comparison group of students being below the median.


We found that the best predictor of AP/IB course offerings was a school’s having a critical mass of students with very high eighth-grade achievement as measured by FCAT scores. These students were the ones who were most likely to take advanced courses, either through their own demand for the courses or as determined by the school. We also found that schools with more students below average were more likely to offer advanced courses as well. In effect, it appears that this was a net transfer of offerings from students with lower achievement to those with higher achievement. One might hypothesize that offering advanced courses in schools with more low-performing students is a mechanism by which schools seek to keep their higher performing students in the school. Interestingly, we found that the more students who were slightly above average, the less likely schools were to offer English and science courses. Notably, schools’ likelihood of offering advanced courses was not associated with having more teachers or having teachers with more experienced and education.


Figure 5 presents a year-by-year breakdown of the changes in marginal effects for adding 100 slightly above average students and 100 far above average students. There was convergence over time with schools responding less to the far above average students and more to the slightly above average students, whereby the gap between the two was lessening. Thus, it appears that schools are responding more equally to all students over time. Course taking patterns for both groups of students, as seen in Figure 6, however, suggest that differences between the slightly above and far above average students are still quite evident over time and increasingly divergent, meaning that prior achievement levels are still driving course takings.


Figure 5. Change in marginal effects of “Slightly Above Average” and “Far Above Average” students on advanced course offerings over time

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Source: Iatarola, P., Conger, D., & Long, M. C. (2011). Determinants of high schools’ advanced course offerings. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 33, 340–359.


Figure 6. Change in marginal effects of “Slightly Above Average” and “Far Above Average” students on number of students taking advanced courses over time (conditional on the course being offered)

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Source: Iatarola, P., Conger, D., & Long, M. C. (2011). Determinants of high schools’ advanced course offerings. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 33, 340–359.


Empirical Approach

Iatarola, P., Conger, D., & Long, M. C. (2011). Determinants of high schools’ advanced course offerings. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 33, 340–359.


Unit of Analysis: Schools, 2001–2002 through 2005–2006

Outcome of Interest: Offer Advanced Placement course (by subject—math, English, science, and social studies)

Variables of Interest: Teacher number and characteristics, school size, and student preparation (prior achievement)

Controls: Schools’ student demographics (race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, educational needs, gender and progression rates)

Model: Probability model of offering course with and without district-fixed effects

Data: EDW student-level data and publicly available school-level data from the Florida School Indicators Report

Sample: All high schools in operation between 2001–2002 and 2005–2006 that have all grades ninth through 12th and at least 20 students. We exclude schools in the deaf and blind operating district and university lab schools. Our analytic sample includes 407 schools of which 88% are observed in all five years.


EXPLAINING DISPARITIES IN COURSE TAKING


In our study of course taking (Conger, Long, & Iatarola, 2009), we examined well-documented racial/ethnic, income, and gender gaps in advanced course taking. We tested three possible hypotheses for the disparities: differences in preparedness (e.g., eighth-grade achievement and educational needs), differences in offerings (e.g., attending schools that do not offer advanced courses, and differences in access across schools (e.g., attending high schools that lower their likelihood of taking advanced courses even if offered). There are a number of studies that document the disparities, including reports by the College Board. Notably, Klopfenstein’s (2004) research delves the deepest, examining racial disparities in AP course taking among high school students in Texas. As we note in our study,


[S]he finds that students of all races are more likely to take an AP course if they attend a school that is smaller, in a large urban area, offers a variety of AP courses and implements programs that incentivize teachers to receive additional training and students to take more difficult courses.


She also finds that magnet programs may have some positive impact for White and Hispanic students. In our study we also find that magnet schools have a positive impact for Black and Hispanic students.


We found that students were more likely to take an AP/IB course in English and social studies (16% and 18%, respectively) than math or science (11%). There were clear and distinct disparities across racial/ethnic groups, with Black students being the least likely to take an AP/IB course (5%–9%, depending on subject) and Asian students (35%–43%, depending on subject) being the most likely. Non-poor students were three times as likely to take an AP/IB course than poor students. Interestingly, female and male students were equally likely to take AP/IB math and science courses, but more females take AP/IB courses in English and social studies.


Empirically, when we controlled for the three possible explanations that may account for the raw differences in course taking among racial/ethnic, income, and gender subgroups of students—preparedness, offering disparities, and across-school access disparities—the gaps reduced in almost every comparison. The exception was the male–female difference that was actually greater after the adjustments. In the case of Black–White and Hispanic–White gaps, deficits in raw differences were overcome and, ultimately, advantaged Black and Hispanic students as compared to White students.  For example, the eight percentage point raw gap between Black and White students in advanced course taking reversed to favor Black students by 2.4 percentage points, after also adjusting for high school offerings and contexts. Thus, schools make a positive difference for Black and Hispanic students after controlling for differences in prior achievement, demographics, and educational needs. For poor–non-poor, the poor deficit in course taking is greatly reduced by schools, but is not overcome in its entirety. So what is it about schools that may be a factor in reducing these gaps? Size matters a bit, with students in smaller schools being more likely to take advanced courses, but the factor that is the strongest in reducing and overcoming the gaps is whether a school is a magnet or not. But when we dug deeper, we found that magnet schools advantage Asian, non-poor, and female students. Thus, we do not have very insightful evidence in how schools matter.


When we ran the same analysis for the later cohort of students (2005–2006), we found that advanced course taking increased in all subject areas, with the largest increase in social studies—from 19% to 26% of the students.  Both raw and fully adjusted gaps, however, increased as course taking expanded. Whereas in 2002–2003 the fully adjusted gaps for Black students was in their favor, the effect for the later cohort advantaged White students. In each comparison the gaps were widened. In our study we hypothesized that the worsening of gaps may be due to other trends and may not be due to adverse effects of state and federal policies. And we suggest that “[A]t the very least, it appears that such reforms have not succeeded in eliminating the demographic disparities.”


Empirical Approach

Conger, D., Long, M. C., & Iatarola, P. (2009). Explaining race, poverty, and gender disparities in advanced course-taking. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 28(4), 555–576.


Unit of Analysis: Students who were expected to graduate in 2002–2003 and 2005–2006

Outcome of Interest: Take AP/IB course by subject area (math, science, English, and social studies)

Controls: Demographic characteristics, pre-high school characteristics (e.g., limited English proficiency, achievement scores), and school characteristics (e.g., size, spending, teachers, magnet school)

Model: Probability model of taking AP/IB course

Data: EDW student-level data and publicly available school-level data from the Florida School Indicators Report.

Sample: Students who progress regularly through high school (so that we have complete transcripts records). Students who dropped out of high school or who entered a Florida high school after ninth grade are omitted.



IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH, POLICY, AND PRACTICE


As summarized above, we find evidence that taking higher level math courses increases the likelihood that students will be ready for college math, and that taking more rigorous courses increases high school test scores and the likelihood of graduating from high school and enrolling in a four-year college. The mechanisms, then, by which schools offer advanced courses and the factors associated with students’ taking of advanced courses help us unpack how we might think about policy and practice. Schools are more likely to offer AP/IB courses in response to having more students who enter high school far above the median student, and to having more students who are the lowest performers. This complicated relationship deserves greater attention to better understand whether or not schools are responding to real demand by students and families or are driven by schools’ perceived demand for courses. Further, while there are significant gaps in advanced course taking among students along racial/ethnic, income, and gender lines, much of the gap can be ameliorated by schools. How to do so, however, is still the question. Is it early-warning systems, which are described in another chapter of this section of the volume? Is it taking subjectivity out of course assignments, as Broward County Public Schools attempted to do (Iatarola, Rutledge, Kim, & Brown, 2014)? Or is it shifting accountability systems to focus on advanced courses, as Florida did in 2010 (Iatarola & Gao, 2015)? We do not have definitive answers, but there is evidence that these ways may work.


With respect to future research, quantitative analyses such as those summarized here are very helpful for us to understand generalized patterns of behavior and how different factors are associated with different outcomes of interest. But such analyses do not provide us with insight into how these relationships develop or what specific programs and practices might be driving the results. Research efforts, such as those conducted by the National Center for Scaling Up Effective Schools, dig deeper and offer evidence from qualitative data collection and analyses as to what are the essential components of reform. Thus, our studies’ first implication for future research is to join in on efforts to bring mixed methods to bear on these larger questions, so that we can at once draw general conclusions and offer deeper perspectives.


While our research and data do capture periods of increased advanced course taking, further research is needed on better understanding how students’ prior preparation impacts their ability to take higher level courses and shapes their opportunity to take such courses. Moreover, it is critical to better understand how heterogeneity within course sections impacts learning for all students. Clearly, as we expand advanced course offerings and more students take advanced courses, we need more evidence on which instructional approaches or strategies are most effective for students. This is all the more critical when we look to have all students taking more rigorous courses.


One cannot help but think about the role of middle schools, as they too have been overshadowed by reforms aimed at elementary school levels. Middle schools are the link between the lower and upper grades. As we are now aiming to hold high schools accountable for college preparedness, perhaps we need to hold middle schools accountable for high school preparedness.


While our studies do not offer specific advice to policymakers and practitioners, the evidence we provide suggests that advanced or more rigorous courses do matter and that schools can play an important role in ameliorating disparities across students in their access to courses and patterns of course takings. Attention must be given to better preparing students for high school. Further, attention must also be given to the quality and rigor of course, as we find that the returns to the courses do differ. In terms of getting more schools to offer advanced courses, we argue that building a critical mass of well-prepared students is essential. Suggestions have been made that middle and high school curricula need to be better aligned. There is also a role for policymakers and practitioners to play in terms of generating or shaping students demand for more rigorous courses—perhaps through incentives to take the courses and related exams, and for success in both.


Notes


1. This chapter is a summary of research conducted in collaboration with Dylan Conger of George Washington University and Mark C. Long of the University of Washington. It was presented at the National Center for Scaling Up Effective Schools Conference, Nashville, Tennessee, June 10–12, 2012. The research summarized in this chapter focused on course offerings and takings and, ultimately, the effect of high school courses on student outcomes.  Funding for these research efforts was provided by the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, Grant R305B070131. This research could not have been possible without the foresight and support of the Florida Department of Education that also provided seed money for our work and, most critically, the data. Our work benefited from the excellent research assistance provided by our graduate students who at one time or another participated on the projects: Sunghyun Cha, Danielle Fumia, Niu Gao, Ana Karruz, Brittany Richards, and Katie Wise. Moreover, our efforts were enhanced by the critical and helpful feedback of discussants and reviewers over the five years.

2. National figures on educational spending by grade level are not readily available. Thus, the evidence on the shift of resources from high school to elementary schools remains anecdotal.

3. This metric is not ideal in that it does not capture the readiness of all students graduating from high school whether or not they attend in the year following their graduation from high school. It is, however, the only measure available from the state and was constructed as such to give the state legislature a perspective on immediate subsequent enrollment in college.

4. Free or reduced-priced lunch is far from an ideal measure of poverty, especially at the high school level where students tend not to apply for it given the perceived social stigma. It is, however, the only measure available.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 13, 2016, p. 1-22
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 20556, Date Accessed: 2/19/2019 2:24:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Patrice Iatarola
    Florida State University
    PATRICE IATAROLA is an Associate Professor of Education Policy and Evaluation in Florida State University’s Department of Education Leadership & Policy Studies. Her research focuses on high school course takings and offerings with a focus on advanced courses, college readiness, and accountability, particularly with respect to district and state policies. Her research has been published in leading journals in education policy, such as Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis and Education Finance and Policy.
 
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