Research is mixed on whether taking advanced courses in high school leads to stronger grades in college, but studies do suggest that students who participate in those classes are at least more likely to enroll and continue in college.
But in Washington state, not all students enjoy the same access to college-level coursework, such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual-enrollment classes.
In fact, schools with a lot of students who speak Spanish at home offer fewer advanced courses than schools with lower percentages of such students, according to a new study from Regional Education Laboratory Northwest.
The study’s authors looked at four years of data for more than 1 million students. And while the results aren’t a surprise, they said they wanted to quantify the extent of the problem.
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They also didn’t try to figure out why the disparities exist, but suggested that it would be good to study whether teacher qualifications are a factor, along with counselor-to-student ratios and other differences across and within school districts.
Havala Hanson, lead author of the study, said “digging into not just why the number of courses varies but what types of courses (and content areas) could shed more light on the next steps to create more opportunity” for students learning English.
The IB program, for example, already allows schools to teach and test in three languages, including Spanish. The College Board also offers AP courses in Spanish language and literature.
More than two-thirds of students learning English in Washington speak Spanish at home, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Aside from the disparity in course offerings, the REL Northwest study found Spanish speakers enroll in fewer advanced courses and earn lower grades in those classes than English-only speakers and students who speak other languages.
That’s true regardless of whether Spanish-speaking students are proficient in English, or are still learning it.
However, once researchers compared students with similar academic performance in the prior school year, the gaps in course enrollment and grades shrank. That suggests schools and districts in Washington may want to provide more support to students learning English before they reach high school.
“If efforts to help Spanish-speakers and other language minority students are successful early on to help them acquire both (academic) content and English proficiency, we might expect to see those gaps diminish or disappear,” Hanson said.
Hanson stressed the findings reinforce the idea that a “one-size-fits-all approach” doesn’t work for student learning English.
“There’s no one intervention for all,” Hanson said. “Focus on the types of supports – emotional or academic – that the groups that seem to be struggling more need to advance to the next level.”