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Access and Diversity in Rigorous Courses

“Rigor without support is a prescription for failure. Support without rigor is a tragic waste of potential.”
– Mary Catherine Swanson, AVID Founder

More than 30 years ago, AVID began in one classroom with one teacher who believed that ALL students deserved the opportunity to succeed in the most challenging courses her school offered in order to be prepared for college and life. 

Despite the efforts of AVID and other innovators, advanced courses still lack diversity. Numerous studies show that minority students are often underrepresented in those classes. Equity is a challenging issue on many levels and was recently the focus of a Los Angeles Times article, questioning whether open access to rigorous courses leads toward academic failure and overcrowded classes or if it is an educational right.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron and her colleagues decided that they were unhappy with the lack of diversity in their school’s honors courses. Below is her blog that details their efforts to promote diversity in their most rigorous classes. It was first published by Edutopia and on Heather’s own site, TweenTeacher. The work that she and her colleagues have done to promote equity is an inspiration. Heather is a good friend of AVID, and we are honored to feature her here.

More Diversity in Honors Classes: An Update

By Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Middle School Teacher and Staff Blogger for Edutopia.org and TweenTeacher

In my post from March, I shared a little about what my school is doing to help a common problem, that of homogenous honors classes. With a school make up that is almost 50 percent Latino and 50 percent Asian, you would like to think that the honors classes are similar to that break down. Unfortunately, they are not.

There are, as I explain, many reasons for this, not the least of which is students' own assumption or discomfort that certain classes are reserved for certain races. We sought this spring to dissuade that myth. Today's post is an update of the results of that experiment, an experiment that is sure to become more permanent in future years as we continue to build on its small success.

The Day of the Writing Test...

To recap: we realized that many Latino students were not getting into our honors classes simply because they weren't applying for the classes themselves. So we began developing a different process of outreach so we could change the face of the applicant pool.
This year, the number of Latino students in the eighth grade English language arts honors class was roughly two out of approximately 70 honors kids. Yikes.

So we did the following:

  • I went around to all English language arts (ELA) classes, including English language development (ELD) classes, to talk about honors earlier in the school year
  • We personalized calls to families in their home language from both translators and the student's counselor encouraging them to apply and inviting them to a family workshop on the process
  • We held a Parent Education Workshop with translators focused on the application process
  • We asked AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) teachers to talk about the honors process during their periods

When the day finally came for the cold writing test, we were all holding our breath. It would be the first time we saw the pool of kids who were applying for the program. And the whole department was invested in what we were trying to do. We had teachers walk in to see if certain students they had encouraged to apply had made it there. There were a lot of waves from the tables and thumbs up and whispered "good lucks!" as the teachers made eye contact with those kids. The principal, assistant principals, and teachers all came in to see the group, walked around the tables, and wished kids good luck, hopeful of this first step.

We all believe that all students can achieve. There are just only so many things we can do by the time we get those students in middle school. This was our first, small step towards trying to balance out early tracking as we see it.

The Need for Multiple Measures

Now, you might ask why we don't just base our honors admissions on test scores and grades. I had a comment along those lines from my last post from a parent. It's a question I get frequently, and one that deserves a response. Here's what I said in my reply:

I know it sounds totally counter-intuitive, but in a way, having students apply and go through this process is far fairer than going by grades and/or even by test scores. This has to do with differences in teaching styles as well as bias and stereotyping in the tests themselves....

Putting aside the issue of race, however, one cannot totally trust alignment between teachers. One teacher focuses on Project Based Learning. One teacher only uses the district-adopted textbook. One teacher scores really hard and has more Fs than any other teacher in the school. Another recommends every kid as "highly recommended," and let's face it, how can all your students really be "highly recommended?" We use rubrics. We calibrate. Nevertheless, teachers are humans and there is some subjectivity.

In terms of using test scores like standardized tests, the fact is that the current tests stink. I mean they really stink. Sure, they might give an indication, but they are chronically biased in favor of certain demographics and are out of touch with today's kid. Having a student apply through a process that assesses by multiple measures is a fairer option because they can show us that the number of their test score does not represent them.

There is a merit checklist of sorts that goes into the equation. Grades + test scores + teacher rec + writing test equals a number. You fall above that number, you are in. The bottom line was, that since our goal was to get more diverse students to even apply, we achieved that goal. And, in the end, we didn't lower standards to accept different groups; we only had to reach out in targeted ways. We have a more diverse honors cohort, all of who deserved to be there AND went through the process of applying (a college and career ready skill, right?).

We didn't solve every problem, but we started with one and moved it ahead.

The Results

In the end, we are expanding our program to reflect the total amount of students who qualified. After all, my principal decided (and rightfully so) that if we have the number of students who are achieving high enough to open up three sections, then so be it.

And the new percentage, while not ideal, is headed in the right direction. For this school year, over 14 percent of the eighth grade ELA honors classes will be Latino. It's the biggest percentage we've had, and we hope it only gets better from there.

Another outcome was that we had many more students apply from outside the current honors program. This bodes well for all demographics. In other words, while many times you get a huge percentage of current honors students applying for the next set of honors classes, this year we also had many more apply who were not currently in honors classes. This is also a good thing because whether the student gets in or not, the fact is that going through the application process demystifies it for that kid. Just going through it helps increase the possibility of his or her trying to get in to higher classes later on in high school or beyond.
Earlier in this post, I called our experiment a success. That is, of course, compared to what we had before. However, none of us are satisfied. Already, the talks are happening to start earlier, outreach better, and of course, continue to push teachers and parents and students beyond their assumptions and into a more positive perspective of what all our students can do.

What is your school doing to help make advanced classes more diverse? Please share with us in the comment section below.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher who was a California Regional Teacher of the Year in 2004. She is also a Writing Project Fellow at the University of California at Irvine and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. In addition to being a classroom teacher, she is also a contributor to Teacher Magazine and a staff blogger for The George Lucas Foundation’s Edutopia.org. Her articles have also appeared in Imagine Magazine. She is currently working on a book for tween teachers for EyeOnEducation Publishing and has just completed two workbooks of activities and lessons to help teach Internet Literacy for Teacher Created Materials. Wolpert-Gawron is dedicated to mentoring teachers and students alike. She blogs at www.tweenteacher.com.

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