The Racial Makeup of a School’s AP Classes May Perpetuate Within-School Segregation
Separate and Unequal Under One Roof: How the Legacy of Racialized Tracking Perpetuates Within-School Segregation
Dania V. Francis, William A. Darity Jr.
- Publication Date:
Even after racial school segregation was deemed unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education US Supreme Court decision, schools continued to implement policies that resulted in racial segregation within individual schools. These policies included the creation of “advanced curriculum” programs that placed primarily white middle-class students in advanced classes, while placing Black students in standard or remedial classes. This study examines how current within-school segregation affects the likelihood that future Black high school students will take advanced math courses.
Using public school data from North Carolina, the authors followed three cohorts of public high school students, totaling more than 240,000 students in more than 500 schools from 100 school districts. They created student-level datasets that included test scores, courses taken, and demographic information. Then they combined the student datasets with school characteristics and demographic data to determine the school-level shares of Black students taking Advance Placement (AP) courses. The researchers restricted their analysis to AP math courses because the subject’s sequential nature allowed them to more easily determine student’s eligibility for AP courses. This decision helped them compare data across schools and districts where eligibility for other AP courses may have differed. It also allowed them to restrict analysis to only those students who were eligible to enroll in AP courses.
To estimate the effects of current within-schools segregation on future within-school segregation, the authors calculated the propensity of a ninth-grader taking at least one AP math course in their high school career as a function of the share of older Black students in AP math classes when the student first entered high school. The authors controlled for student characteristics, such as eighth-grade test scores and parent education levels, as well as controlling for which cohort a student belonged to. The authors also analyzed differences in their results based on if a school was racially diverse or predominately Black, and how the effect varied based on a student’s gender.
Their findings suggest that a Black student may be more likely to take an AP class if they see older Black students taking those courses, but a visible racial divide in AP courses could contribute to Black students’ fear of racial isolation in higher-level classes and discourage them from taking those courses. Once the initial pattern of white students being overrepresented in higher-level classes and Black students being overrepresented in lower-level classes is established, this can create self-reinforcing effects that maintain racialized tracking.
- A 1-percentage point increase in the percentage of Black 11th and 12th graders in AP math courses increases the likelihood that an academically eligible Black student will take an advanced math course before they graduate by 22 percentage points in racially diverse schools and 11 percentage points in predominately Black schools.
- A 1-percentage point increase in the share of Black female students in the upper grades in AP math courses increases the likelihood of a Black female ninth grader taking an AP math class by the time she graduates by 23 percentage points in racially diverse schools, and 11 percentage points in predominantly Black schools.
- A 1-percentage point increase in the share of Black male students in the upper grades in AP math courses increases the likelihood of a Black male freshman taking an AP math class by the time he graduates by 39 percentage points in racially diverse schools and 28 percentage points in predominantly Black schools.
- To overcome the legacy of school segregation, schools could work to increase the enrollment of Black students in advanced courses.
- Addressing practices like the racially biased distribution of information about advanced courses and the inconsistent enforcement of prerequisites for Black students could help reduce racial barriers to enrollment in advanced courses.
- Decisions about who may take advanced courses shouldn’t be made by only a few stakeholders, but instead, should include parents, teachers, students, and other school professionals.