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“A Ditcher and a Scholar”: Figuring College-Going Identities in an Urban Magnet High School

by Julia C. Duncheon & Stefani R. Relles - 2019

Background/Context: To enhance postsecondary completion and minimize equity gaps, researchers have focused on defining, measuring, and developing students’ college readiness, or the preparation required to persist in higher education. While this work has been useful to identify the ingredients of postsecondary success, the emphasis on individual achievement runs the risk of portraying marginalized students as deficient. Culturally relevant studies that highlight institutional accountability for college readiness are needed to inform policy and practice.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Using Holland and colleagues’ (1998) figured worlds theory, this study examines college readiness through the lens of student identity in an urban magnet high school. We investigate how first-generation, low-income students of color interpreted and negotiated local discourses and artifacts to “figure” college-going identities—that is, who they should become and how they should behave to earn a college degree. The purpose of this empirical approach is to contribute information that can inform college readiness efforts nationwide.

Research Design: The study utilizes an ethnographic approach that focused on how students conceptualized and developed their identities within the figured world of the magnet school. Data collection took place over the course of one school year and included over 200 hours of participant observation, in-depth interviews with 25 students and school staff, and document analysis.

Findings: The figured world of Jackson Magnet fostered and reinforced a hierarchy that consisted of magnet students (“scholars”) and their counterparts in the regular school (“ditchers”). A local feedback loop implied that the magnet school provided more rigorous college preparation than the regular school and, by extension, magnet students figured they would be ready for college. However, real-world feedback (standardized test scores) suggested magnet course rigor did not accurately reflect postsecondary standards. The result was that magnet students were underprepared but did not know it, an outcome that positioned them to experience a drastic identity reckoning in college.

Conclusions/Recommendations: While most college-readiness research focuses on academic skills preparation, our findings reveal the need to consider how high schools prepare students in terms of identity. In particular, our data suggest the threat of well-intentioned achievement discourses on pre-college identity development. Salient questions include whether and how to increase postsecondary opportunity without socializing students either to discriminate against their peers or to figure a false identity that undermines preparation and future cognitive stability.

Although more than 90% of young people aspire to obtain a postsecondary degree, college completion data reveal disparities by race/ethnicity, class, and parent education (Roderick, Coca, & Nagaoka, 2011). On average, students who are low income and/or of color enter and finish college at lower rates than their higher-income White peers (Kena et al., 2015). First-generation studentsdefined here as students whose parents do not hold bachelors degreesalso have a lower likelihood of four-year degree completion relative to students with college-educated parents: 27% compared to 42% (Clauss-Ehlers & Wibrowski, 2007; DeAngelo, Franke, Hurtado, Pryor, & Tran, 2011; Pike & Kuh, 2005). To address these disparities, the completion agenda has sought to improve pre-college preparation in urban high schools that disproportionately serve students from these historically marginalized populations (Venezia & Jaeger, 2013).

One strand of research has focused on the construct of college readiness, or the preparation needed to enroll in credit-bearing courses and persist to graduation (Conley, 2014). This body of work has examined how college readiness is defined and measured and how it can be enhanced via policy and practice (Duncheon, 2015). While these studies have been useful to identify the ingredients of postsecondary success, the benchmarking of individual achievement against standards runs the risk of portraying marginalized students as deficient. Assumptions of student deficit disregard the role schools play in developing the skills and dispositions needed for college transition and persistence (Nasir, McLaughlin, & Jones 2009; Nygreen, 2013). Thus, scholars have called for more culturally relevant approaches to the study of college readiness that focus on underrepresented students and their high schools to bolster research and reform efforts (Nagaoka et al., 2013; Rosenbaum, 2001).

To that end, we investigate the schooling experiences of first generation, low-income students of color enrolled in an urban magnet high school (Welton & Martinez, 2014). We focus on how the seniors in the magnet not only experienced academic preparation, but also internalized college readiness, based on the messages they received at school. Drawing on ethnographic data (Wolcott, 1999), the study uses figured worlds theory (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998) to understand how students interpret and negotiate school-based interactions with classmates and school personnel as a way to figure college-going identitiesthat is, who they should become and how they should behave to earn a college degree (Urrieta, 2007a). Figured worlds theory suggests that students will develop their educational identities to match their assumptions about school. This figuring process has high stakes because the extent to which a students figured world assumptions reflect postsecondary standards indicates the likelihood that the school is fostering productive academic behaviors and, in turn, the likelihood that the student is actually ready for college-level coursework. Accordingly, figuring ones world is part and parcel of figuring oneself, or identity development.

The present study asked: What college-going identities do first generation, low-income students of color figure in an urban magnet high school? In preview, findings indicate a disconnect between the college-going identities magnet students figured and the academic behaviors they practiced to meet the schools expectations, which were consequential to the academic skillsets they ultimately acquired. Students perceptions of their readiness were strongly shaped by the schools magnet designation, which they believed signified access to rigorous preparation. However, because magnet courses did not reflect postsecondary standards, most students graduated with an inflated sense of their own readiness. We conclude with implications for college-readiness research, policy, and practice.


College readiness is the assumed consequence of academic preparation, which is considered the strongest predictor of postsecondary success (Adelman, 1999, 2006; Long, Iatarola, & Conger, 2009; Perna, 2005). The existing literature divides into two strands of research that are related, but have important conceptual distinctions. The dominant strand frames college readiness as a set of skills, while an emergent strand considers college readiness to be a component of student identity. The dominant viewpointwhat we call the skills perspectivefocuses on defining, measuring, and supporting college readiness. This literature answers basic questions such as: What does it mean for a student to be college ready? What indicators can be used to evaluate whether a student is ready? And what should be done to ensure students are college ready upon high school graduation? The alternative viewpointwhat we call the identity perspectivecomplements these findings by examining how social and cultural experiences mediate college skill acquisition.

The skills perspective undergirds institutional policies and practices that suggest college readiness is an either/or proposition: ready or not. This perspective raises equity questions because it ascribes deficit to the disproportion of historically underrepresented students who do not meet readiness benchmarks. In doing so, it covertly pardons institutions from accountability for structural inequalities. The identity perspective offers an alternative to deficit discourse by conceptualizing college readiness on a continuum and its achievement as a process. While the skills perspective assumes that student achievement reflects individual merit or effort, the identity perspective suggests achievement is mediated by school and classroom contexts. The former presupposes equal opportunity. The latter recognizes that institutional blind spots reduce opportunity for some.


Skills Perspective

College readiness is typically defined as a range of skillsets assumed necessary to enroll in credit-bearing college-level courses and persist to degree attainment (Conley, 2014; ConnectEd, 2012; McAlister & Mevs, 2012). Readiness frameworks identify a host of cognitive and non-cognitive competencies that enable students to persist. This focus on skills dominates how college readiness has been traditionally measured as well as how high school preparation and postsecondary remediation have been conceptualized in policy and practice. A primary assumption is that college readiness, like other achievement outcomes, reflects individual ability. Thus, traditional assessment measures often serve as readiness proxies (Porter & Polikoff, 2012). For example, benchmark scores on standardized college admission tests such as the SAT or ACT are widely used to determine the academic readiness of incoming freshmen, though this relationship is not causal (Wiley, Wyatt, & Camara, 2010). Passing scores on Advanced Placement (AP) exams are strongly associated with various measures of postsecondary success, including better performance in college courses (Patterson & Ewing, 2013) and higher likelihood of college completion (Smith, Hurwitz, & Avery, 2017). High school grade point average (GPA) and class rank are also used to assess college readiness (Astin & Oseguera, 2012; Cimetta, DAgostino, & Levin, 2010; Desjardins & Lindsay, 2008).

The skills perspectives reliance on standardized measures, however, creates difficulties for marginalized students. SAT scores, for instance, correlate with parental income, suggesting that high performance may reflect availability of educational resources more than cognitive ability (Mattern, Shaw, & Williams, 2008; Zwick & Greif Green, 2007). The effects of socioeconomic status on the SAT are even larger for Black students, suggesting an added element of racial disparity (Dixon-Román, Everson, & McArdle, 2013). Yet because the skills perspective tends to assume college readiness is an equal opportunity proposition, alternative explanations for achievement disparities—access to SAT preparation, for example—are often ignored (Carter-Andrews, 2009). Instead, scoring poorly on the SAT is assumed to reflect students skill deficiency. Although grades are less overtly mired in biases than standardized tests, measures such as GPA also raise equity questions. For example, the standards for earning an A in a low-performing Title I high school, where teachers may feel pressured to focus on tested content (Au, 2007; Crocco & Costigan, 2007) and emphasize rote skills (Wong, Anagnostopoulos, Rutledge, & Edwards, 2003), may be lower than in a better resourced, high-performing high school. The most credible measure of college readiness is academic rigor, which appears to control somewhat for the biases in other measures; the effect of rigorous course-taking on postsecondary outcomes is even larger for African American and Latina/o students than for their White peers (Adelman, 1999).

Thus, recent reforms have sought to support readiness for all by increasing academic rigor in low-performing high schools (Allen, Ndum, & Mattern, 2017). One common approach to increase college readiness has been for schools to enhance student access to high-level course options such as AP or dual enrollment (An, 2013; Ward & Vargas, 2012). Some states and districts have implemented college for all policies, in which high school graduation depends upon completion of core academic courses that meet university admissions criteria (American College Testing, 2007; Hoffman, Vargas, Venezia, & Miller, 2007). The Common Core State Standards were created to encourage college- and career-ready skill building across the curriculum, and states have adopted new assessments aligned with those standards (Conley, 2015). Another trend has been to improve information sharing (Venezia & Jaeger, 2013). Researchers, for example, suggest the need for networked interventions that enable students to triangulate the readiness signals they receive (Adelman, 1999; Iatarola, Conger, & Long, 2011; Karp, Calcagno, Hughes, Jeong, & Bailey, 2007). One approach has been to implement early assessments that alert students of their readiness prior to their senior year in high school (Kurlaender, 2014; Venezia & Voloch, 2012). Early assessment reforms can enhance students self-awareness and help college counselors serve their student populations (Hill, Begman, & Andrade, 2015; Stephan, 2013).

These reforms potentially increase access to higher academic standards and empower students to seek (and counselors to recommend) extra support if needed. Yet such policies still reflect the deficit assumptions embedded in the skills perspective. For example, requiring students to complete a college preparatory curriculum does not guarantee the institutional support required for their success, yet students suffer personal consequences for course failure (i.e., not graduating high school). Providing early signals of under-preparedness still puts the onus on the student to fix his or her presumed skill deficiencies. The limitation of the skills perspective is that its cognitive focus ignores the social, cultural, and structural forces that mediate readiness. In so doing, the skills perspective encourages the segregation of students into either/or categories that privilege some and stigmatize others (Castro, 2013).

Identity Perspective

Although the skills perspective dominates, another strand of college-readiness research focuses on the interplay of identity, social context, and practice (i.e., behavior; Edgerton & Roberts, 2014). This strand of readiness research is consistent with the literature on identity formation in academic settings. As Urrieta (2007b) explains, identity is not fixed, but rather a process of becoming, one that depends on a persons social, cultural, and institutional contexts. Thus, school is not simply a place where students learn academic content and skills (Bettie, 2003; Eckert, 1989; Fine, 1991; Nasir & Hand, 2006); it is also a place where they develop a sense of what kind of people they are, where they belong in this world, what they are capable of and entitled to, and what they can expect in the future (Nygreen, 2013, p. 9). The identity perspective upends the policy precedent to identify and treat underprepared students as skill deficient through attention to the ways in which college readiness is socialized via schools and classrooms (Relles & Tierney, 2013). While skill preparation remains important, this strand of literature suggests that schools additionally ought to create college-going cultures that build students postsecondary aspirations and awareness (Corwin & Tierney, 2007; McDonough, 1997).

Research from the identity perspective has examined how a schools culture shapes students perceptions of achievement and college going and, in turn, how they see themselves as students. By culture, we mean the patterns of behavior, beliefs and language shared by administrators, teachers, staff, and students within a particular school (Creswell, 2007, p. 68). Our view of culture foregrounds social and institutional practicesas opposed to individual students background characteristics or traits (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003)—to resist deficit assumptions about marginalized youth (Artiles, 2015). One study by Cooper and Liou (2007), for instance, examined how high school counselors mediated students’ access to high-stakes information about school and college, and in so doing, limited the opportunity for some students to develop college-going identities. Another study used Bourdieus concept of habitus, which can be conceptualized as identity, to explore how low-income students interpreted their college admissions test scores (Deil-Amen & Tevis, 2010). Findings revealed that the schools enhanced students college-going aspirations but not their capacity to accurately interpret their test scores, which left students with a false sense of college preparedness.

How students come to see themselves in school influences their academic behaviors. Rubins (2007) research on a low-performing urban high school found that students associated smartness with completing low-level assignments. Similarly, at one alternative school with a majority high-needs population, students viewed success as an outcome of basic actions like attending class (Nunn, 2014). Participants in these studies saw themselves as high achieving if they conformed to their schools expectations, but the expectations did not support the acquisition of high-order thinking skills required for college success (Nunn, 2014; Rubin, 2007). Thus, students aspired to college, but did not necessarily acquire the competencies to ensure college persistence. This research suggests the importance of developing a college-going identity that squares with postsecondary institutional standards.

From an identity perspective, however, the schools, not the students, fail to promote a national standard of high achievement. This viewpoint broadens the scope of college-readiness accountability to include institutions, yielding more explanatory power with which to understand inequitable student outcomes. Low-income students of color are more likely than their higher-income peers to attend schools without the necessary resourcesqualified teachers, rigorous course offerings, high-quality college counselingto develop college readiness (Barton & Coley, 2009; Roderick, Nagaoka, & Coca, 2009; Schott Foundation, 2009; Wyner, Bridgeland, & Diiulio, 2007). Many under-resourced schools are also subject to negative pressures from high-stakes accountability reforms. For instance, Welton and Williams (2015) studied one low-performing high school where teachers and administrators tailored instruction to state exit exams to avoid sanctions. The emphasis on the exam fostered a negative school climate, which in turn undermined college preparation.

In addition to foregrounding institutional accountability for college readiness, the identity perspective recognizes how structural factors such as poverty, racism, and segregation compromise schooling quality and educational attainment (Anyon, 1997; Noguera, 2008). Research from this lens considers, for example, how race and ethnicity intersect with high school context to shape student identity and achievement (Howard, 2003; Valenzuela, 1999). Studies have identified relationships among positive racial/ethnic identity, academic success, and college persistence (Castillo, Lopez-Arenas, & Saldivar, 2010; Flores, Ojeda, Huang, Gee, & Lee, 2006). Urrieta (2007b) showed how engaging with like-minded peers in ethnic and multicultural spaces led Mexican American college students to gain a sense of empowerment and develop Chicana/o activist identities. Research has also examined how students of color negotiate mainstream educational settings. Carter (2003) found that African American students drew upon diverse cultural codes to navigate the expectations of Black culture at home and White culture at school. How students aligned themselves with particular racial/ethnic peer groups in school had implications for their relationship to the institution. Carters study and others demonstrate that non-White youth may choose amongor feel forced intolimited identity categories made available within a particular school, such as book smarts or street smarts (Hatt, 2007), school-oriented or street savvy (Nasir et al., 2009). In sum, the identity perspective acknowledges the influence of institutional, social, and cultural contexts on students opportunities to become college ready, and in so doing, rejects framing marginalized youth as in deficit.


Figured worlds theory is useful to investigate the co-constructed nature of the relationship between schooling context and student identity (Urrieta, 2007a). Developed by Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, and Cain (1998), the theory assumes a world is a context that is not objectively fixed, but rather subjectively performed by those who inhabit it. Such an assumption can be applied to worlds that are generalized, such as schooling, or concrete, such as a specific district or a magnet high school within it (Nygreen, 2013). When considering the figured high school world of first-generation students, for example, the theory implies that rigorous educational work needs to respond to the dilemmas of the outside world by focusing on how young people make sense of their experiences and possibilities for decision-making within the structures of everyday life (Giroux, 2003, p. 12). How students interpret high school, in particular, has high educational stakes as adolescence is a critical life phase in which college-going aspirations are either pursued or abandoned. This study uses the theory to highlight an emic viewpoint on college-bound students, exposing what they actually perceive about collegeinstead of what the high school assumes they should learnthat informs their identities.

A figured world is defined as a socially and culturally constructed realm of interpretation in which particular characters and actors are recognized, significance is assigned to certain acts, and particular outcomes are valued over others (Holland et al., 1998, p. 52). These basic assumptions dovetail with identity formation research in psychology and sociology. Inhabitants construct and negotiate identities within their worlds; they interpret social and cultural cues to figure not only what is important, but also who they are and should become (Urrieta, 2007b). The crux of figured worlds theory is the concept of a feedback loop based on ones ongoing experiences and interactions in the world (Osborne, 1997). On the one hand, how one initially figures his or her world necessarily shapes how he or she aspires to behave within it. On the other hand, how one behaves and the feedback that behavior earns (re)shapes how one (re)understands the world, and so on, creating and recreating a process of figuring ones world and identity over and over again. In the context of this study, an underrepresented student will construct an educational identity (and college-going aspirations) based on classroom and school cues. How he or she is treated by teachers, counselors, administrators and other students steers identity construction and behavior, and that behavior, in turn, steers subsequent iterations of the figuring process. The nature of the feedback loop implies that identities are fluid, dynamic, and negotiated through practice.

Although a figured world may be small, its feedback loop is influenced by the conditions of larger worlds. Figured worlds are microcosms of cultural and historical phenomena, including systemic forms of discrimination that are linked to broader systems of power. Tajfel (1982) noted the tendency of individuals to classify themselves in relation to social categories defined by gender, race, ethnicity, and class; students will bring the meanings, activities, and expectations affiliated with their background characteristics to bear on the process of figuring a school world and configuring an identity within it (Burke, 1991). Also important is how the school staff interpret and apply social categories in their policies and practices; for instance, a large comprehensive high school may disproportionately track students from historically underrepresented groups out of college preparatory courses (Oakes, 2005). In turn, how an underrepresented student interprets classroom and school cues will influence how he or she negotiates not only high school, but also the broader structures that marginalize students from households with low educational attainment (Carter, 2003; Steele, 2003). The implication for students from single or multiple marginalized categories is that their positioning in society writ large can shape their sense of who they are and what is possible in school (Weick, 1995).

In sum, figured worlds theory suggests that students figure their schools and themselves through a feedback loop, or the cyclical interactions among student identity, behavior, and experiences within their school context. While figured worlds theory identifies several sources of data for feedback, this study focuses on local discourses and artifacts, which we explain in more detail under data collection in the articles next section.


This study examines students college-going identity development in the figured world of an urban magnet high school using an ethnographic approach. Consistent with the figured worlds premise, ethnography focuses on culture (Geertz, 1983; Wolcott, 1999), or the shared patterns of behavior, beliefs and language of a social group in a particular setting (Creswell, 2007, p. 68). The goal is to understand linguistic and cultural practices through which actors make meaning (Spradley, 1979). Ethnographers seek participants insider knowledge, or an emic perspective (Slembrouck, 2005). Ethnographic methods supported inquiry into how students interpreted cultural meanings from school discourses and artifactswhich figured worlds theory suggests are integral components of the feedback loopto figure their college-going identities (Holland et al., 1998).


The study took place during the 20142015 school year at a magnet school associated with Jackson High School (a pseudonym), a traditional comprehensive school located in a large urban district in Southern California. The magnet and Jackson High School share a campus and name affiliation, but have distinct school codes and operate independently in some respects.1 Jackson Magnet has its own mission, assistant principal, counselor, teachers, and set of classrooms. However, students from both schools share the same campus, calendar, bell schedule, extracurricular programming, principal, and some classes and teachers.

Jackson is located in the heart of a high-poverty neighborhood with low educational attainment and high unemployment. The campus serves 2,500 students, of which 300 attend the magnet program. Of those students in Magnet, 95% are categorized as Hispanic, 5% as Black, and 10% as English Learners (EL). Over 90% live below the poverty line. Based on data from the whole campus (the comprehensive school and the magnet), Jackson is one of the districts lowest-performing schools, having met only one of 18 criteria for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in the 20132014 school year. Only about 35% of students on campus graduate eligible for state university admission. The district does not disaggregate data by program, but Jackson Magnets reports show higher achievement on average than the host school (see Table 1).

Jackson Magnet was founded in 1980 to counteract low academic achievement and overcrowded conditions in South Los Angeles. Yet unlike a select number of magnets with a gifted designation, Jackson Magnet does not have specific admissions requirements. All students in the district are eligible to apply. Nevertheless, the application itself can create a self-selection effect; students who are high performing, have been enrolled in higher academic tracks, and/or have involved parents are more likely to seek admission (Hoxby & Murarka, 2009). Jackson Magnet was therefore part of a sampling strategy designed to identify urban high school youth committed to attending college. The intent was not to examine the specific influence of magnets (i.e., as opposed to traditional or charter schools). However, as elaborated in the findings, the magnet label emerged as a central part of students identities.

Table 1. Achievement Indicators for Jackson High School and Jackson Magnet

Achievement Indicator

Jackson High School   

(including Jackson Magnet)

Jackson Magnet High School

% graduating in four years



% meeting or exceeding proficiency in English



% meeting or exceeding proficiency in math



API score (out of 1000)1



1 The states proficiency benchmark is 800.


The sample included 25 college-bound seniors (of the 75 total seniors in Magnet), and was purposive based on three factors: (a) achievement, students earning a 3.0 and above and taking one or more AP courses; (b) college plans, students who were eligible for and applying to four-year institutions; and (c) demographics, students belonging to traditionally underrepresented groups. All participants qualified for free and reduced lunch, and all but one lived below the poverty line. All were of color (i.e., 23 Latinas/os and two African Americans). All were the first in their families to pursue a bachelors degree, though two had siblings in college. Of the 25 students, six males and nine females became informants who provided a unique inside perspective on events that the investigator is still outside of (Denzin, 2009, p. 202). In other words, informants were the students who offered insight when questions arose during fieldwork (e.g., Why do all the seniors think Mr. Roberts class is so difficult?). The 15 informants were selected to represent a range of achievement levels, college goals, and extracurricular involvement. Informants academic profiles, which offer insight into students readiness and the quality of the schools preparation, are presented in Table 2. All participant names are pseudonyms.

Table 2. Informants Academic Profiles and College Aspirations


GPA          (out of 4.0)

SAT             (out of 2400)

AP Courses Taken  

AP Exams Passed

College Goal












Priv Univ






























Priv Univ






Lib Arts Coll






Lib Arts Coll




































Lib Arts Coll

In addition to students, 12 staff members participated in the study. Given its small size, Jackson Magnet only had one administrator, one counselor, and nine teachers. Seven of the nine teachers participated (representing English, Math, Physics, Government/Economics, U.S. History, Biology, Art/Music), including the five who taught seniors. The assistant principal, the counselor, the former campus-wide college counselor, and two program staff members were also in the sample.


Data were collected to explore how Magnet students not only figured their high school, but also configured their college-going identities within it prior to postsecondary transition. Data collection spanned from late August 2014 to the end of June 2015, encompassing students senior year. Methods were designed to capture discourses and artifacts, data sources that comprise students feedback loop. Below we explain the theoretical relevance of these data sources in addition to itemizing our ethnographic approach.


Discourses are patterns of everyday language shared by the members of a particular context, or what linguists call a speech community. In schools, discourses are learned through repeated participation in particular routines [that] socialize [students] . . . into a range of culturally defined relationships and activities (Schieffelin & Ochs, 1986, p. 172). Via school discourses, students not only learn who they can and should be, but also practice who they want to become (Cazden & Beck, 2003). Urban schools in particular may position students in relation to discourses of achievement and failure in schools, from which emancipation is not possible (Caraballo, 2011, p. 167), which has implications for college-identity development. A figured worlds discourse, then, is a situated narrativetold and reinforced through language usethat organizes the worlds inhabitants and socializes newcomers to its norms. We employed observations and interviews to capture the discourses students and staff used for figuring in the world of Jackson Magnet.

Observations. The bulk of the 240 hours of observations took place at the school site where the discourses surrounding Jackson Magnet were practiced. Fieldnotes were generated during and immediately following each observation. Passive observations of students were conducted in the Magnet Office and the surrounding common areas such as the computer lab, which students frequented during their off periods. Students were also observed attending college events and school-based programs. Participant observation methods included active mentoring by the articles first author, helping students create lists of potential colleges, register for admissions exams, revise personal statements, and submit applications.

Interviews. Discourses were also captured via formal one-on-one interviews with 25 students and seven staff. At least one informal follow-up interview was conducted with each of the 15 student informants. In addition, four 90-minute focus groups were completed with groups of five to nine students. The student interviews ranged from 45 to 130 minutes with an average duration of just over an hour. A semi-structured protocol sought to understand how students figured the school and their identities within it. Probes solicited students personal views about, for example, their academic preparation and their readiness for college. Focus groups supported triangulation of students figured world interview findings as they emerged. Staff interviews also served triangulation and lasted approximately an hour. Interview questions centered on how school agents defined and estimated the college readiness of students. All one-on-one and focus group interviews were audio recorded and transcribed for analysis.


According to figured worlds theory, artifacts are similar to discourses insofar as they also embody cultural meanings, but the sources are different andin this studyrepresent the institutions contributions to the feedback loop. Artifacts commonly take the form of documents, either physical or digital. Report cards, for example, are school artifacts that students use to interpret their institutional standing. Artifacts can also be evidence of participation in membership activities or rituals. Enrollment in an AP course as verified on a transcript is an artifact that high schools often associate with college going. Postsecondary institutions reward students whose AP artifacts demonstrate college-level achievement on a standardized exam. This study used document collection techniques to gather artifacts from students feedback loop.

Documents. All students completed demographic questionnaires and provided copies of their academic transcripts, college applications, and financial aid documents. Scholarship essays, job applications, and class assignments were also collected, as were electronic sources including emails, text messages, Facebook posts, Instagram pictures, and tweets. Apropos the school, documents such as data summary sheets, internal evaluations, school report cards, and the school websites were also reviewed. Fliers relevant to college going (e.g., SAT testing deadlines) that were publicly posted or distributed and announcements written on a whiteboard in the Magnet Office were collected, if not by hand then captured in situ with a cellphone camera.


Data analysis took place concurrently with data collection. Reflective memos were dictated into an audio recorder, which were later reviewed and transcribed. Miles and Hubermans (1994) three stages of iterative data analysis were implemented: (a) data reduction, (b) data display, and (c) conclusion drawing and verification. The first stage entailed organizing, selecting, summarizing, and memoing about data. Data were organized by date and type (e.g., fieldnotes vs. interview transcripts). Coding and creating categories were also part of the data reduction stage. A list of a priori codes based on theory (e.g., artifacts, discourses, identity) and literature (e.g., college-ready skills) were applied in conjunction with open coding. Examples of codes that emerged through analysis included magnet and scholar. Additional coding cycles facilitated the development of categories (e.g., characteristics of scholars, classroom experiences, and local feedback). The constant comparative method, whereby similarities and differences were discerned across the data, helped to identify relationships and refine categories (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Rereading and revising categories of data were aided by data display, stage two of the analysis process (Miles & Huberman, 1994). This stage involved generating an organized, compressed assembly of information that permits conclusion drawing and action (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 11). Charts, matrices, and other visual organizers were used to make sense of the data and clarify relationships among concepts. In the third stage, conclusion drawing and verification, interpretations were advanced and scrutinized for saturation.


A variety of approaches were used to ensure trustworthiness (Guba, 1981; Lincoln, 2001). In addition to triangulating data sources (Mathison, 1988), informal member checks were regularly employed to insure interpretive continuity between what was said in the interviews and what was observed in the field. Two additional strategies were prolonged engagement (Spradley, 1979) and thick description (Geertz, 1973). The first author also engaged in reflexive memoing and bracketing to diminish bias from her dual role as a researcher and mentor and to address her positionality as a white woman doing research with students of color. For transparency, we disclose limitations that speak to the transferability of our findings. The first is time, because the process of preparing for college begins long before the senior year of high school tracked in this study (Conley, 2014). The second is sampling, which reflects a self-selected subgroup of high-performing, college-bound students willing to participate. The sample also did not include teachers or students from the main campus who would have been useful to gain additional perspectives into the Magnetnon-Magnet dynamic.


Six Magnet students sat in a circle in the computer lab sipping on sodas and passing around slices of pepperoni. The late afternoon sunlight peered in through a door that opened to an outdoor hallway. It was Friday, and apart from the occasional straggler, most students and staff had gone home for the weekend. The students were discussing how the schools administration treated Magnet students differently. Cindy offered an observation she had made the week prior: So the principal was walking by, and a Magnet student said Hi to him and he was like, Hi, and then a regular studentand I think he was ditchingwas like Hey! And the principal did a whole handshake with him. And I was like, Where was that for the Magnet student? Carmen shook her head disapprovingly. As if citing common knowledge, she sermonized: Like you have a ditcher and a scholar.

Carmens comment describes a figured world that socialized students into two groups, in which Magnet students believed they were different from the general school population. Scholars were students who actually want to go to college, whereas ditchers were gang-bangers [who] dont care about their futures. The Magnets social hub was an Office, where a large red bulletin board read Dare to Dream. The room was located between an outdoor hallway and the entrance to the assistant principal and counselors offices. It was here that seniors often gathered during their lunch or free periods to work on homework or college applications. The room was small and crowded, but utilitarian. Furniture included a table with four chairs by the entrance and, to the right of the doorway, a desk with a computer beside a large fish tank. Opposite the fish tank were four additional computers and a printer. Near the doorway to the back offices, a revolving book tower overflowed with brochures and fliers, a collection of information about SAT and ACT registration, financial aid, and college application deadlines. Hand-written notes decorated the red bulletin board, bearing messages of encouragement to students entering the office: College . . . the way to success! and College will change your life!

In what follows, we present data according to the two types of local discourse that Jackson Magnet students used to figure their world and their college-going identities: scholar talk and ditcher talk. Our intention is to capture students emic perspective; we are describing the figured world of Jackson Magnet from their point of view.


Magnet students referred to themselves as scholarsa catchword that Daisy originated in 11th grade and that had since become common in all the seniors lexicons. She explained, I was just sitting in Mr. Martinezs class one day and I thought to myself, were all scholars! This status was based, in part, on the shared belief that, in Natalias words, college was the main goal of Magnet. Thus, being a Magnet student was synonymous with being a scholar, which was inextricably tied to college going. Students used the word magnet as an adjective to reference their scholar status. The phrase since were Magnet & was code for a number of traits categorically associated with school success. Graciela, for example, the Magnet class valedictorian, associated being studious and high performing with having attended magnets since elementary school. Daniel defined himself as a top student, explaining, I guess Im very intelligent and I do my work. While Cindy reluctantly acknowledged her tendency to procrastinate, she was nonetheless certain of her brainpower: I see myself as someone whos smart. Magnet was also synonymous with motivation. Paz called herself very dedicated and Natalia used the term proactive.

Most Magnet students intended to go to college, some since they were young. Analucia explained, I knew that one day in my life I was going to go to college. Earning potential was a driving motivation, as well as making their families proud. Daniel, for example, sought to get a good job and make a big salary to support my mom. Family support sometimes intimated pressure to succeed. As Juan shared, My parents are really excited [for me to go], and hopefully I can show them that all their hard work was not for waste, you know? Alex confided he worried about not making it because so many people . . . depend on me and . . . . Thats scary sometimes.

College going at Jackson Magnet was a team sport. With the office as their home base, the seniors attended afterschool tutoring together, reminded each other of college deadlines, and attended college application workshops as a group. When asked how they maintained their focus, Graciela reflected: I think its pretty much people who have a common goal. Like we all have the common goal to go to university, so what were supposed to do is thatthe same thing. Affirmations were shared on Instagram via hashtags: #magnet 2015, #magnetseniors, #scholars, and #professionalscholars. When admissions anxieties were high, students took emotional care of one another. Daisy delivered a pep talk: Were all scholars. Well get in. Natalia offered these words:

But you guys we have to remember also though, that so long as you do what you gotta do, and were determined, regardless of if you go to a prestigious college or not-so-known college, you should be proud of that, that youre going.

Being a scholar buoyed confidence around college preparedness. Looking ahead, Daniel boasted, Yeah, Im ready! Im ready for anything honestly. Bryan was similarly expectant: I feel like Im going to do good in my classes. I feel like Im going to do very good. Some filtered their optimism. Ximena shared, I think [Im ready]. I think I will be successful at this point, uh, whatever college I go to. Analucia acknowledged, It depends on the subject, and Edward felt ready for anything that involves math and science. Others pinpointed specific areas where skill was a little lower than it could be such as Cindy who reported, other than [time management], I do feel ready. For most, being scared or nervous about college had less to do with academic preparation than with being a first-generation student. While Graciela felt ready for college academic wise, she also confessed to feeling anxious about her future, cause I hear stories that theres students that are like me when they start off in college, but something happens and they go downhill. She saw attending Magnet as a kind of insurance: I guess if you study at an early age, youre going to do well pretty much.

Consistent with the role of scholar, Magnet students got good grades and often referenced their As and Bs as evidence of their achievement and commitment to preparing for college. Alex, for example, proudly recalled earning a perfect score on almost every trigonometry exam. In the Magnet Office, most conversations revolved around who had done the best on a test or in a class. Assignments returned with minimal comments and an A or 100 marked at the top were sources of pride, though it was not uncommon for Magnet students to receive high grades without devoting long hours to studying. As Ximena shared, I dont usually do homework. Daniel clarified: Sometimes you dont have to study a lot because you can remember everything. Others strategically skipped assignments when doing so would not substantially compromise their college eligibility. Instead of completing a 2,000-word report for the science fair, for example, Cindy confessed: Once I hit that lab report, I was like, Naw. Cindy was not alone in her decision as reportedly only about half of the seniors turned in a report.

By reputation, however, the Magnets academic preparation was competitive, and many cited the science fair as an example of the schools rigor. Students also spoke with trepidation about Mr. Roberts 50-page Life Plan assignment. Billed as a college research paper, the Life Plan asked students to chronicle their future goals (e.g., what career they want and where they hope to live) and the steps required to meet them (e.g., what degree they will need and how much rent will cost). The mission statement posted on the schools website read, Students are college prepared with rigorous curriculum. A school evaluation from 2014 listed the Magnets purpose to raise the number of students achieving high school graduation, college/university acceptance and overall preparation for a future beyond high school. Juan affirmed, At [Jackson Magnet] youre always challenged, youre never, theres never a time that you can let go like this is an easy class. . . . They really push you. According to Carmen, They expect a lot but in the long run its best for you. Natalia added, You learn a lot. Students reported Magnet courses were hard, really rigorous, pretty competitive, and challenging.

A notable exception was AP English, which was uniformly criticized for being too easy. Students felt unchallenged because they had only been asked to write three short essays all yearone based on watching the movie Raisin in the Sun rather than reading the play. Several described getting perfect scores on these essays despite having spent 25 minutes writing the night before the due date. Analucia complained that the class doesnt even feel like an AP class. It feels like a regular class. Emi acknowledged that, in general, some of their courses were not at a level that [they] should be to prepare [us] for AP exams. Alex described variations in Magnet course rigor: Sometimes I feel like the school expects less from us. Not all but some teachers think our academic ability is lower than it really is. Daniel recognized that easy classes were a disadvantage, If were here [at Jackson] and we are already at the top, were already better than most, how can we be as good as [students at better schools] if we are not getting the option? Easy classes, however, did not diminish ones scholar status. Apart from Analucia who conceded the possibility that she might only be half ready, students remained confident that attending the Magnet program meant they were college ready.

Students believed college readiness was greater than the sum of its parts. Standardized test scores, for example, were interpreted in combination with other indicators. Several students assumed test scores were less important to admission committees than other criteria. Regarding the ACT, for example, Daisy counseled one of her classmates: Dont worry. Its just one part of the application. Plus you took a bunch of APs so the colleges will see that too. And you joined clubs. In contrast, Nataliawho held a fairly strong GPA of 3.6felt insecure about her first composite SAT score of 810 out of 1600, so she registered to retake the exam. Ultimately, a third of the informants met the college-readiness benchmark on the SAT (see Figure 1). The students passed, on average, half of the AP tests they took (see Table 2). All scored well on the Spanish Language exam, and one student passed the AP English Literature exam.

Figure 1. Combined SAT scores relative to college-readiness benchmark, ranked lowest to highest


* The SAT Benchmark score of 1550 (critical reading, mathematics, and writing sections combined) indicates a 65% likelihood of achieving a B average or higher during the first year of college (College Board, 2011).

Teachers and administrators reinforced Magnet students scholar identity. In Natalias words, Our counselors and our teachers in Magnet, they actually want you to go to college. As the math teacher Mr. Martinez reflected, Were really emphasizing itcounselors, teachers, everyone. Its common throughout [the school] that going to college is important. The assistant principal echoed the message: I can tell you that our Magnet school here really focuses on providing a rigorous curriculum. And so that in itself I think is legitimate in terms of preparing our students. In service to this mission, the school sponsored college application and financial aid workshops and issued reminders of admissions deadlines. When students submitted applications in the office, the counselor initiated a round of applause. The government teacher shared, The students know and we preach all the time: You are part of this Magnet family. And we have high expectations for you. The assistant principal believed that even our 2.7 GPA students have received enough quality instruction to be able to survive in the college environment, just because of the rigor of the curriculum. Though support for college going at Magnet was undisputed, the biology teacher worried that the higher standard might not be high enough:

So they think, Well Im gonna go to college and just by doing my work, get As. And [Im going to] study for a test for like 30 minutes and get an A. While you know in some high schools, students study for three or four hours to get a C.


Being a scholar involved a rivalry with students in the regular high school: Like you have a ditcher and a scholar. Students reported tensions between the factions: Theres a certain hate toward us where theyll be like, Magnets not really smart! Edward shared how after he transferred to Magnet from the regular school, There was some hostility like Oh, youre in Magnet now? Oh you think youre all that? Yet while Magnet students gave lip-service to resisting the idea that they were all that, their egos often drew strength from ditcher comparisons. Alex, for example, had the highest SAT score of the Magnet informants, and confessed that In honesty, when I first saw my SAT score I bragged about it a lot because other people scored lower. Though he acknowledged it was not the highest score you could get, Magnet students always came up as the higher achievers when benchmarking against ditchers.

Magnet students justified ditcher comparisons on various counts. Those who transferred from regular Jackson cited discipline as their principal motive. Alex recalled, I signed up during the ninth grade because I thought it was a better opportunity seeing that in the regular classes the students were all sorts of crazy. . . . I remembered my aunt telling me that in the Magnet program the students are more toned down and everything. He visited the Magnet Office, asked for an application, and transferred. And when I got there, he added, everything was settled down, it was quiet. Magnet students also pointed to the inferior quality of college preparation at the regular school. Compared with Magnet, Graciela noted, they dont prepare everyone. She clarified,

Like they prepare them just enough to just graduate high school. They just tell you, Pass all your classes with a C or better. Whereas, in Magnet, our personnel encourage us to pass our grades with a B or higher and if we can an A, and to take AP classes.

Magnet students believed the expectations were lower for regular students. According to Hector, our [Magnet] teachers, they expect us to work, while in regular Jackson not so much. Alex submitted proof: I can slack off in [regular Jackson] and still receive an A, but I cant slack off in my [Magnet] classes because it would hurt my grade. From these comparisons, Magnet students extrapolated likelihood of college success. Reflecting on why her brothers girlfriend had dropped out of college, Ximena surmised,

Its hard coming from [a high-poverty urban neighborhood], maybe not from, from magnet schools like me. But usually from regular schools Ive seen a lot of students drop out because the rigor is just too much and theyre not used to it.

Magnet teachers and administrators routinely compared Jacksons programs and students. Recruitment, for example, hinged on distinguishing Magnet from its host campus. As a disclaimer at recruitment events, the counselor asked middle school parents not to focus on the negativity that you might have heard in the community about [regular] Jackson High School. Marketing also involved citing the Magnet programs relatively higher outcomes. One senior teacher explained, We can say to middle schools Look, our score is 200 points higher [than regular Jacksons]. Indeed, the Magnet program outperformed regular Jackson 790 to 620 on the states Academic Performance Index, based on measures of high school proficiency such as attendance, state test scores, and exit exam pass rates (see Table 1). These metrics reinforced the comparative viewpoint shared by staff that it was easier to talk about Magnet students relative to the regular kids.

By consensus, the primary difference between student groups was motivation. As the math teacher stated, In the regular school, theyre very apathetic, the majority of the class. But over [in Magnet], most of the students do work throughout the period. Ms. Velasquez, the counselor, summarized the viewpoint: The biggest difference is the number of kids who want to achieve and are hoping to go to college is much bigger in the Magnet school. Differences in motivation were assumed, in part, because Magnet students had to apply to the programsignaling a preexisting, shared intention to go to college. According to the physics teacher, Its not necessarily that the [Magnet] kids are smarter. Its like a selection bias. Because theyve decided to go to the Magnet, that means that theyre actively interested in their education or they have parents who are. A math teacher confirmed, Theres a big difference between [Magnet and regular students], just in applying. Mr. Kyle, the students favorite science teacher, explained, A magnet program really is a way of tracking without tracking. Because youre saying, Look, if you care about your future and you care about your education, go to Magnet. The self-selection rationale lent credibility to archetypal distinctions between regular Jackson and Magnet students.

Teachers and administrators nonetheless made use of the distinctions to achieve different ends. Certain types of endorsements strengthened staff camaraderie with Magnet students. When his Magnet students charged, Oh my god, those [regular] kids are horrible! They dont do anything! Mr. Roberts response was: I know! I used to teach over there! Thats why I appreciate you guys. Others used the distinction as a motivator for Magnet students: This is not like the regular school; we are holding you to a higher standard. Some teachers questioned the value of the comparative viewpoint for college transition. As the math teacher pointed out:

A lot of the [Magnet students] SAT scores are not at the level of the typical student who attends, for example, UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], but they are way above the average of Jackson, so they kind of have something to compare. Like, Well Im way above average here, so Im doing well.

The government teacher pointed out the liability of such comparisons: They might be better than everybody else [in the regular school], but in a sense that brings its own set of problems. In turn, he utilized the contrast with students as a cautionary measure:

I remind them all the time, This is not your competition. You cant just be better than everybody else here. You have to be better than all the kids from other places who have all the advantages you dont have, who have parents who pay for tutors, whose schools dont have all the dysfunction and turmoil going on around them.

Ms. Velasquezwho had attended a high school like Jackson but now lived with her family in a nearby middle class communityagreed: Even though theyre more committed and theyre hardworking and theyre higher academically than the rest of [Jacksons] population, theyre still disadvantaged because they still lack what kids in my neighborhood have.

Several Jackson employees regretted the social implications of comparing Magnet and regular students. Mr. Kyle, for example, expressed concern about promoting a discriminatory dynamic: Wethe teachers is what I mean when I say wegenerally reinforce that perspective. Like we say, Were Magnet. Were not like them. After a pause, he added, But I mean, if we didnt say we were Magnet, we wouldnt really be, if that makes sense. As it turned out, the overall AP pass rate did not vary substantially between Magnet and regular Jackson: 37% compared to 35% (see Table 3). These data square with the words of one science teacher: Theres still a lot of really high-performing kids that arent Magnet.

Table 3. AP Outcomes in Jackson High School and Jackson Magnet High School, 20132014


Calculus AB

English Language2

English Literature

U.S. History2

Spanish Language2















# Passing Scores1













# Tests Taken













Passing Rate













Note. Reg stands for Jackson High School (regular campus) and Mag stands for Jackson Magnet.

1 AP exams receive scores from 15. A score of 3 and above is considered passing.

2  Participants took these tests as 11th graders.

3 Totals include other tests not shown in this table. This figure denotes the total number of AP test-takers at each school during that testing period, and the resulting pass rates.


The archetypes of a ditcher and a scholar figured prominently into not only the figured world of Jackson Magnet High School, but also the college-going identities students figured within it. The local feedback loop suggested Magnet provided more rigorous college preparation than regular Jackson. Magnet students, in turn, figured their position as scholars relative to their peers. Yet the studys standardized artifacts call into question the students scholar status relative to the national college-going population. In what follows, we use figured worlds theory to explore how Jackson Magnets context ultimately led Magnet students to graduate high school with an inflated sense of their readiness for college.


The lifeblood of Jackson Magnet culture was the local discoursecomprised of scholar and ditcher talkthat socialized its students into identities as scholars. Scholar talk focused on getting good grades and applying to college. Underlying scholar talk was an assumption that Magnet students priorities set them apart from their peers in the regular track. Hence a complement to scholar talk was ditcher talk, which typecast regular students as academically inferior. Consistent with studies showing that schools offer urban youth limited identity options (Hatt, 2007; Nasir et al., 2009), being a scholar at Jackson Magnet meant choosing not to be a ditcher. Indeed, identity is always related to what one is notthe Other (Sarup, 1996, p. 47).

The Magnet school fostered and reinforced scholar/ditcher discourse in various ways. Marketing campaigns and teacher feedback implied the academic superiority of the Magnet program and its students. Consistent with the mission of Magnet, faculty and staff promoted a college-going culture by encouraging students college aspirations and achievement (Corwin & Tierney, 2007). Local artifacts (i.e., grades) were signals of academic excellence. In these ways, scholar talk empowered Magnet students to claim a privileged educational status that research suggests is often reserved for middle and upper class White students (Oakes, 2005).

Yet in propping up its students as scholars, Jackson Magnet also promoted a brand of elitism that ghettoized regular students, a finding that echoes research on gifted and talented tracking (Bui, Craig, & Imberman, 2014; Ford, Coleman, & Davis, 2014; Reis & Renzulli, 2010). All students on Jacksons campus lived in a high-poverty urban neighborhood, but scholar/ditcher discourse encouraged Magnet students to figure their college-going futures at the expense of their regular school peers. Through the appropriation of urban stereotypes (e.g., gangbangers), the figured world of Jackson Magnet replicated social and cultural hierarchies that systemically disadvantage non-dominant groups (Holland et al., 1998).


Beyond the figured world of Jackson Magnet, students standardized test scores broadcast real world feedback that casts doubt on the schools scholar narrative. On the SAT, only one third of the informants met the college-readiness benchmark (see Figure 1). Of the AP exams they took, most Magnet students passed fewer than half (see Table 2). Though admission tests are poor predictors of college achievement (Maruyama, 2012; Niu & Tienda, 2010), particularly for traditionally underrepresented students (Sedlacek, 2004), average AP score is strongly associated with college performance (Shaw, Marini, & Mattern, 2013). These real-world artifacts suggest thatlike some college for all tracks in urban high schools (Martinez & Deil-Amen, 2015)the Magnet program did not actually deliver the high-quality academic preparation of its branding. In fact, comparable AP passing rates in the Magnet and regular school suggest little, if any, variation in the quality of college preparation offered in each setting (see Table 3).

Students classroom experiences also raise questions about Magnet course rigor. Students described AP classes that were not at the level they should be. AP English required little writing, and the Life Planthough promoted as a college research projectmerely involved Googling. Low expectations, in turn, fostered poor academic behaviors. Only half the senior class completed the science fair report, and others reported not doing homework. This pattern echoes research showing the importance of teacher expectations for student achievement, as well as the tendency of teachers in Title 1 high schoolseven those with the best intentionsto set lower expectations for historically underserved students (Diamond, Randolph, & Spillane, 2004; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Peterson, Rubie-Davies, Osborne, & Sibley, 2016; Rist, 1970). The real-world feedback embedded in standardized artifacts and corroborated by students classroom testimony suggests that Magnet students had not been well prepared for college.

How then did Magnet students reconcile this real-world feedback with their scholar identities? A skills perspective might suggest that students simply misunderstood the real-world implications of their test scores and classroom experiences; this viewpoint, however, assumes student deficit. A figured worlds perspective recognizes the ways in which the local feedback loop at Jackson Magnet shaped students interpretation of these data points. Thus, in the abstract, Magnet students understood that students from more affluent schools might score better on standardized tests. But they could only make sense of their preparation and performance in relation to local reference pointsin this case, concrete comparisons with ditchers. Alex therefore conceded that his SAT score was not the highest you could get, but bragged about it because he outperformed his peers. Even registering for the SAT helped solidify ones scholar status at Jackson by signaling ones intention to attend college. Magnet students trusted that their As and Bs reflected college readiness regardless of how easily they earned them, because they assumed Magnet was more rigorous than the regular school. Consistent with studies showing local contexts mediate student perceptions (Deil-Amen & Tevis, 2010; Rubin, 2007), Magnet students figuring process was fundamentally tied to the world of a ditcher and a scholar.

Ultimately, Jackson Magnet High School socialized students into identities as scholars without providing substantive opportunities for them to develop college-ready skills and behaviors. Dependent on the local feedback loop to figure their college-going identities, students graduated with an inflated sense of their college readiness. Magnet students were underprepared for higher education but did not know it, a phenomenon that put them at risk of failure once enrolled (Deil-Amen & Tevis, 2010, p. 164).


While the bulk of college-readiness research focuses on academic skill preparation, figured worlds theory enables us to consider how high schools prepare students in terms of identity. Jackson Magnet was intended to disrupt intergenerational cycles of low educational attainment, but our data suggest the threat of well-intentioned achievement discourses on pre-college identity development. The deceptions imposed by Jackson Magnets local feedback loop may have inadvertently positioned its scholars to endure a drastic identity reckoning in college. What happens, for example, when Alex, who bragged about his high SAT score at Jackson Magnet, discovers that many of his college classmates scored better? What happens when Magnet students learn that their college classmates spent hours studying in high school, or earned credit for passing AP exams? Will Magnet students have the resilience to persist when they confront postsecondary academic standards and realize the shortcomings of their high school preparation, and as a consequence, their own under-preparedness?

Figured worlds theory suggests the magnitude of cognitive disadvantage incoming college students may face to reconcile their college-going identities with the real-world standards of higher education. All entering college students will encounter new feedback loops that will require identity adjustment. Yet not all students will have to deconstruct their pre-college identities drastically in this process. The greater the misalignment between ones high school world and the real postsecondary world, the more one must actively reinterpret old feedback to merge past and present identities. This hindsight-based identity deconstruction and reconstruction may place undue cognitive burdens on underrepresented students who already face a host of social and cultural obstacles when transitioning to college (Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, & Gurin, 2002). Such identity work also potentially compounds the academic difficulties associated with skill under-preparation.

Additional concerns about the breadth of identity preparation in urban high schools pertain to the myriad forms of discrimination—racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and linguistic—that stratify educational opportunity on college campuses (Kohli, Pizarro, & Nevárez, 2017). Neither race nor ethnicity, for example, figured prominently into the college-going identities of Magnet students. That is not to say Magnet students were colorblind. On the contrary, Latinx students expressed pride in their culture by regularly speaking Spanish with one another and celebrating Mexican and Salvadoran traditions. But apart from their excitement to encounter more diversity, they did not discuss race/ethnicity when reflecting on their college futures. Perhaps race/ethnicity was not a central aspect of their figuring process because they attended segregated K12 schools, or because they did not perceive their academically elite Magnet community to be culturally subtractive (Valenzuela, 1999). Nevertheless, the absence of race/ethnicity from Jackson Magnets scholar discourse reflects a culturally neutral vision of college readiness (Castro, 2013). Since research suggests students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups are prone to experience alienation that can hinder college persistence (Torres, Howard-Hamilton, & Cooper, 2011), Magnet students may be underprepared to negotiate the racial and ethnic identity challenges they are likely to face in higher education (Kanno & Harklau, 2012).


Academic skill preparation has been the primary focus of reforms to increase college opportunity (Porter, McMaken, Hwang, & Yang, 2011), while identity preparation has been a peripheral concern (Wilkins, 2014). Our findings suggest that there is also a need to consider the identity implications of equity-minded college-readiness research, policies, and practices. It goes without saying that urban schools need to increase instructional rigor to enable students to develop college-ready skills. At the same time, K20 stakeholders ought to consider the repercussions of local college-going discourses and artifacts on student identity. To increase postsecondary opportunity, urban schools will need to develop college-going programs that minimize the potential threat of cognitive disadvantage. This means addressing gaps between local feedback loops and the real-world feedback students are likely to receive in higher education. More research to understand how college-going cultures (and the identities they promote) influence students college transition is warranted. Studies are also needed to further unpack how local feedback loops, particularly in segregated urban schools, shape the relationship between race/ethnicity and college-going identity, and the implications for students postsecondary persistence.

Another set of questions pertains to the role of tracked programs in college preparation. In this study, tracking created social and cultural circumstances that undermined college-going identity development for regular Jackson and Magnet students alike. More research is needed to better understand whether and how college-readiness programs promote a culture of exclusivity, and the consequences for marginalized students who do and do not participate. Salient questions are whether and how to increase postsecondary opportunity without socializing students either to discriminate against their peers or to figure a false identity that undermines preparation and future cognitive stability. Research and reforms that strengthen the capacity of high schools to improve skill and identity preparation simultaneously for all students are needed.

In the meantime, given that raising expectations in low-performing schools is a slow, ongoing effort, we ask that our colleagues in the research community undertake this pressing line of questioning. How can stakeholders provide the gift of perspective to urban youth imminently facing college? How can stakeholders help students understand the particular struggles they may face without causing them to feel success is impossible? These ambiguities warrant consideration to better address the immediate college-going needs of historically underserved students.


1. In the remainder of the text, we use the term Jackson Magnet or simply Magnet to refer to the magnet program, borrowing the terminology used by participants. Jackson or Jackson High School is used to refer to the entire campus, inclusive of the magnet school.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 1, 2019, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22474, Date Accessed: 9/15/2021 6:09:26 AM

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About the Author
  • Julia C. Duncheon
    University of Texas at El Paso
    E-mail Author
    JULIA C. DUNCHEON is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Leadership and Foundations Department at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her research broadly examines issues related to college access, readiness, and equity for underserved student populations. Her work has appeared in journals such as Review of Educational Research, American Educational Research Journal, and Urban Education.
  • Stefani Relles
    University of Nevada, Las Vegas
    E-mail Author
    STEFANI R. RELLES is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Higher Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her work focuses on college readiness, access, and equity for students from historically marginalized groups. Current fields of inquiry include writing education, digital literacies, public policy, and qualitative methods.
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