When Rasheed Adewole’s friends from other high schools used to complain about their heaps of homework, he would feel a flood of shame.
The other teens, whom he met through a college-prep program, attended magnet and suburban schools in New Jersey that offered an array of demanding Advanced Placement courses. He attended a Newark charter school that offered just one advanced class: AP U.S. History, which he took his senior year. In most of his other classes, expectations were low and homework was scarce.
“The regular classes sometimes were just sad,” said Adewole, who graduated from Marion P. Thomas Charter School in 2017. “I felt like I was just going to school to sit there rather than to learn.”
Who takes advanced courses in New Jersey?
- 68% of Asian students
- 41% of white students
- 23% of Hispanic students
- 19% of Black students
- 22% of economically disadvantaged students
in grades 11-12 took one or more AP or IB classes in the 2020-21 school year.
Adewole, who is Nigerian American, was on the losing end of a stark divide in New Jersey. Students who are Black, Hispanic, or poor are far less likely than their white and Asian peers to take the most rigorous high school courses, including Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, which often serve as springboards to college.
Among last year’s juniors and seniors, just 19% of Black students and 23% of Hispanic students took at least one AP or IB class, according to newly released state data which, for the first time, include course enrollment by race. By contrast, 41% of white students and 68% of Asian students enrolled in one or more of those courses.
In hypersegregated Essex County, where Adewole went to school, the disparities are on vivid display. At one extreme is wealthy Livingston township, where the vast majority of students are white or Asian and less than 2% are poor, while at the other end is Irvington township, where nearly every student is Black or Hispanic and two-thirds are poor. In Livingston, 76% of 11th and 12th graders took at least one advanced course last year, compared with only 12% in Irvington.
In Newark, the state’s largest district, just 19% of juniors and seniors took an AP or IB class last year — about half the statewide rate.
There were some notable exceptions. Two Newark charter schools — KIPP and North Star Academy, where almost all the students are Black or Hispanic — had the highest AP enrollment rates in the county. However, those students were less likely than their peers in several of the county’s wealthy districts to pass the AP exams, which is more closely associated with college success.
But, for the most part, Black and Hispanic high schoolers in New Jersey are vastly underrepresented in advanced courses. Those who do enroll face long odds of earning passing scores on the course exams, which generally is required to earn college credit.
In New Jersey, 207 out of every 1,000 white high schoolers take an AP class, and 119 pass an AP exam, according to recent estimates by the thinktank Center for American Progress based on 2015-16 data. But only 81 out of 1,000 Black students take an AP course, and just 23 pass an exam.
New Jersey’s racial gap in access to advanced courses is wider than the national average, and likely has multiple causes, including biased admission policies and schools that struggle to prepare students for advanced classes. The result is thousands of Black, Hispanic, and poor students who are left out of rigorous high school courses, their talents squandered and ambitions frustrated.
“It puts kids who are already at a disadvantage in an even worse situation,” Adewole said.
Advanced courses can act like jet fuel for ambitious high schoolers.
The classes can help prepare them for college-level work, give them an edge in college admissions, and potentially let them earn college credits or place into higher-level courses. Students who take AP classes are also more likely to attend college and earn degrees, though it’s not clear whether the AP program causes those outcomes or simply enrolls higher-achieving students.
Pointing to that uncertainty, along with Black and Hispanic students’ low pass rates on the AP exams, some critics question efforts to expand AP access. Yet students themselves report that AP and IB classes are often the most academically challenging courses available in their schools.
However, those classes rarely reflect the student population.
Black students account for about 15% of high schoolers nationwide, but only 9% of AP students, according to federal data from 2017-18. The rate is even worse for AP science courses, including chemistry and biology, which enroll less than 3% of all Black and Hispanic students, according to a new report by the Education Trust.
“It’s not a matter of students’ desire or interest,” said Allison Rose Socol, the advocacy group’s assistant director of P-12 policy. “Black and Latino students don’t have the kind of access that they deserve.”
Exclusion from advanced courses can happen in two ways: The courses aren’t offered, or certain students aren’t enrolled.
The latter type occurs in relatively diverse schools, where Black and Hispanic students tend to be underrepresented in AP classes. For example, at Columbia High School in Maplewood, 78% of white juniors and seniors took at least one AP class last year, compared to just 24% of Black students, according to state data.
Experts cite different causes for Black and Hispanic students’ under-enrollment in advanced courses, including educator bias when recommending students; students lacking information about the classes or feeling unwelcome; and admission policies that prioritize students’ past academic achievement over their interests and motivations.
“We have a structure where AP and IB has been deemed the place where rigor occurs, and we set up gates that prevent some students from accessing it,” said Sasha Rabkin, president of Equal Opportunity Schools, a national organization that helps schools expand course access.
The other type of exclusion relates to course offerings, or lack thereof. In New Jersey, Black students are more than four times as likely as white students to attend a high school with 3 or fewer AP classes, according to the Center for American Progress analysis. At the same time, white students are more than twice as likely as Black students to attend a school with 18 or more AP classes.
In the Newark school district, where more than 90% of students are Black or Hispanic, access varies by school. The selective magnet high schools average 12 AP and IB courses, while the open-enrollment comprehensive high schools average seven courses, according to Chalkbeat’s analysis of state data.
At Science Park High School, about 54% of juniors and seniors took at least one advanced course last year and nearly 30% passed an AP or IB exam. At Barringer High School, just 10% enrolled and too few passed the exam for the state to report the figure.
In interviews, educators at three comprehensive schools said they have tried to increase AP enrollment by recruiting more students, broadening eligibility requirements, and creating pre-AP classes to better prepare students. However, because so many students arrive at the comprehensive schools academically behind, teachers struggle to get them ready for the rigor of AP classes by their junior or senior years, the educators said.
“Most students are not even close to being at grade level upon entering the school,” said one teacher, who requested anonymity in order to speak openly about her school. “You do the kids a disservice if you just throw unready students into an AP course.”
As high schools nationwide have expanded access to AP courses in recent decades, more students have failed the AP exams, which some researchers attribute to a growing number of academically under-prepared students taking the courses. The tension between access and readiness has led some schools to move away from AP.
At People’s Prep, a charter high school in Newark, only 6% of juniors and seniors took an AP class last year — the lowest rate in the city. Keith Robinson, the school’s executive director, said People’s Prep has shifted its focus to more “inclusive” programs, including honors classes and dual enrollment, which allows high schoolers to take courses and earn credits at local colleges.
“When we have to make strategic decisions about limited resources,” he said, “the impact that we can have for students is just better with the other programs that we offer.”
Some New Jersey schools manage to enroll many students of color in advanced courses.
At North Star Academy, Newark’s largest charter school organization, 87% of juniors and seniors took at least one AP class last year. About 31% of students also passed at least one AP exam, which was nearly twice the statewide rate.
“It comes down to three things,” said Brett Peiser, CEO of Uncommon Schools, the nonprofit that oversees North Star. “First is access, second is enrollment, and third is what we do to try to ensure student success.”
To make sure schools offer the classes, Uncommon created ready-to-use teaching materials for 15 different AP courses, he said. To prepare students, the schools provide pre-AP classes. To help students choose courses, counselors use data analytics to show students their odds of passing different AP exams based on their grades and test scores. And to boost pass rates, students take multiple practice AP exams and receive tutoring when needed.
“We still believe strongly in the value and importance and rigor of AP exams,” Peiser said.
In the Newark school district, a few magnet schools boast advanced-course enrollments that surpass the statewide average. They include Science Park, which offered nearly 30 AP and IB courses last year.
Ayomikun Fisher, an 11th grader at the school, said the suite of IB courses she’s taking challenge her intellectually, strengthen her study habits, and hopefully will help her secure a spot at a top university, where she plans to study chemical engineering.
“It really prepares me for that,” she said, adding that almost all of her IB classmates are Black or Hispanic.
In 2016, the district partnered with the College Board, which oversees the AP program, to boost the number and rigor of AP courses. Three years later, the College Board awarded Newark for increasing AP enrollment while maintaining or raising exam pass rates.
More recently, the district has pushed elementary schools to offer gifted-and-talented classes and eighth-grade Algebra, which is considered a gateway to advanced math in high school. At the same time, the district has established dual enrollment partnerships with a growing list of colleges and universities.
“It’s about access and readiness,” said Newark school board member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas.
Similar work is underway at Marion P. Thomas Charter School, which includes two elementary schools and the high school that Rasheed Adewole attended. Under a new superintendent, former Science Park principal Angela Mincy, the high school has added honors and dual-enrollment options, and will offer five AP classes next school year — up from just two available now, said Assistant Superintendent Chris Abbaleo.
“We have the students who are capable of handling the rigors of an AP course,” he said, adding that the goal now is to give them more AP options.
Adewole, now 23 years old, managed to excel even without access to many advanced courses in high school.
Last spring, he graduated from Franklin & Marshall College, a private liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, and was hired by an investment management firm in Philadelphia. But he also went to great lengths to overcome the limits of his high school education: He joined the college-prep program, found a mentor to guide him through college, and spent days or weeks working on papers that his peers completed in one night.
“I wanted to walk confidently like they did freshman year,” Adewole said, but instead he had to scramble to catch up. “For me it was like, I can’t be found out.”
He’ll never know for sure whether taking more advanced courses in high school would have smoothed his path to college. But he does know that if his school had offered the classes, he would have been the first to sign up.
“There’s a difference between not wanting to do the work,” he said, “and the opportunity not being there.”
Patrick Wall is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city and across New Jersey. Contact Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.