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Course Placement: Why Do We Need to Understand the Process?

By Dr. Philip Bernhardt, Assistant Professor & Department Chair of Secondary Education, Metropolitan State University of Denver, Former AVID Teacher and Co-School Coordinator

In my current role as an education professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, I often talk with prospective teachers about the years I spent helping to develop, implement, and coordinate AVID at J.E.B. Stuart HS in Fairfax County, Virginia. In talking about AVID’s purpose and the reasons why it is vital for so many students and their families, I frequently share some of the challenges our site team encountered. One such challenge was ensuring AVID students were provided with consistent and equitable opportunities to enroll in advanced-level classes.

Our site team had a difficult time identifying and understanding the various processes being used within the school to recommend and assign students to advanced classes. It was not uncommon for teachers, even within the same subject area, to use different strategies and approaches to assign students to classes for the subsequent school year, and we had no idea how our feeder middle schools made 9th grade course enrollment decisions. As a result, ensuring the curricular pathway of each one of our AVID students was not always easy, and at times, efforts to accomplish this goal created conflict.

I advocate for the AVID College Readiness System because I have witnessed firsthand how AVID increases student enrollment in a rigorous course of study and provides structured guidance and support for gaining entrance into institutions of higher education. I believe developing a deeper understanding of how students are assigned to classes will assist AVID teachers and site coordinators in making even greater strides towards increasing access to advanced-level coursework and supporting AVID’s role as a catalyst for systemic reform and change. When the course assignment process becomes evident to administrators, teachers, students, and parents, it is much easier to increase opportunities for student participation and persistence in AP, IB, and honors-level courses.

A few years ago, I examined the course placement process at a high school in Fairfax County, Virginia. This yearlong study revealed that teachers there received a tremendous amount of autonomy when making course placement decisions; they relied on their own process and self-selected the placement criteria (e.g., GPA, effort, test scores) they deemed most important and relevant. As a result, many students – especially those fitting the “AVID profile”– lost out on opportunities to transition into the advanced-level academic track in many subject areas. While I openly acknowledge this finding relates specifically to one particular research site, it mirrors my experience as as an educator and brings to mind a plethora of stories I have heard over the years from both AVID and non-AVID teachers. Because course enrollment, particularly in the years surrounding the transition into high school, plays such a critical role in determining a student’s future academic pathway, we must take an active role in learning the academic placement process to ensure AVID students have open access to a course of study that accelerates college readiness. If these policies do not already exist, I believe AVID site team members have a responsibility to push for change so that the course assignment process becomes clear and is easy for students to understand and navigate.

From my experience, most teachers do not pay attention to the courses students take as they move through middle and high school. However, AVID teachers do; therefore, we need also to be concerned about the policies, barriers, and issues related to gaining access to advanced-level coursework. Below are a number of recommendations I believe AVID site team members can bring to the attention of their colleagues and school administrators to ensure course placement becomes transparent.

Open and consistent dialogue: Opportunities must be created for school leaders, guidance counselors, and teachers from all subject areas to meet consistently to discuss the school’s course placement practices. These interactions will not only provide opportunities to share perspectives and understandings about issues underlying course placement, but will also provide a forum for discussing how to move forward to make advanced-level courses more accessible. If a clear placement process does not exist, a concerted effort must be made to create fair and equitable policies.

Developing clear policies: A level of consensus needs to be reached regarding how policies related to course placement are to be developed and whether these policies should be created by individual academic departments (math, science, etc.) or by school administrators. Once this is clarified, decisions need to be made about four specific issues: the timeline and process for making course placement decisions; the criteria that should be considered when making recommendations and placements; how information about course options is disseminated to students and parents; and clarifying the roles and responsibilities of teachers and counselors in the course placements process.  

Process needs to be public: School leaders need to ensure that course placement policies are made public so that teachers, counselors, parents, students, and other community members have access to all the necessary information regarding how students are assigned to classes. It is recommended that this information be included in course catalogs, orientation packets provided to parents and students, policy handbooks given to teachers at the start of the year, and in materials typically housed in the guidance office. It should definitely be included on the school’s website. The process simply cannot be kept secret.

Tracking students into classes according to academic capability is a common occurrence in American schools. While the impact of ability grouping on the lives of students is well documented, little attention has been focused on the policies and practices setting this academic process into motion. If our goal is to continue breaking down the barriers that have historically restricted access to advanced-level coursework and higher education for many students, we must work to uncover and examine those factors shaping how students are recommended for and assigned to classes.

This blog is part of a series of blogs that discuss AVID and International Baccalaureate (IB). For more, see: AVID and IB: Success with a Schoolwide Approach and AVID and IB: Complementary, not Competitors.

Dr. Philip E. Bernhardt is currently an Assistant Professor of Secondary Education and Department Chair of Secondary Education, Educational Technology, and K-12 Education at MSU-Denver. Philip has spent more than a decade working in public schools, including eight years as a secondary social studies teacher. Additionally, Philip has presented at national education conferences on a variety of issues relating to the barriers to higher education; college readiness; curriculum development; and teacher preparation, induction, and mentoring. Philip earned his M.A.T. in Social Studies Education from Boston University and his B.A. in Communication Studies from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He received his Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from the George Washington University in Washington, DC.             

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