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First-in-Nation Law to Reduce Barriers to Advanced Classes

Olympia, Wash. -- Washington state has become the first in the country to break down historic access barriers and adopt an automatic enrollment policy for advanced math, English, and science classes in all high schools. The policy, also known as Academic Acceleration, is designed to increase access for all students to dual credit and advanced class enrollment, especially underrepresented students who were often left behind even when they were talented enough to progress to the next level. School districts have until the 2021-22 school year to implement the policy and the law also allows families to opt their student out of the advanced classes if desired.

The policy is part of HB 1599 (section 502, page 49), passed by the state legislature on April 22 and signed by Governor Jay Inslee (WA-D) on Tuesday, May 7.This legislation was championed by Stand For Children Washington, a non-profit education advocacy organization.

“Stand for Children and our tireless advocates will continue to strengthen programs that work to lift more kids toward bright, successful futures. If students are qualified for advanced coursework, we expect to see them challenged and ultimately surpassing every indicator of student success,” said Libuse Binder, Executive Director at Stand for Children Washington, a longtime champion of the policy and legislation.

Through Academic Acceleration, students who meet standard on state-level exams are automatically placed into the next more rigorous course in the matching content area(s). As of 2018, at least 50 school districts in Washington have already implemented the policy and a majority have improved the equity of access for historically underserved students enrolled in advanced classes (Stand for Children analysis of OSPI data, 2018). The program seeks to rectify historic bias that has limited access for students of color and other disadvantaged groups to advanced education options.

Research on Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate, and dual enrollment programs (partnerships between high schools and colleges) show that participation in these advanced, college-credit earning programs increase students’ likelihood to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and to perform better in college. There is also evidence that these effects are particularly strong for low-income students and students of color.

The 2019-2021 biennium budget passed by the Washington State Legislature includes funding to provide for dual credit programs including subsidized Advanced Placement exam fees and International Baccalaureate class fees and exam fees for low-income students.

The commitment to ensuring equitable opportunities in advanced coursework was pioneered by Federal Way Public Schools - the state’s 9th largest district - when its school board implemented the policy in 2010-11. The district saw a dramatic rise in enrollment of advanced classes and a notable increase among students of color.  According to 2019 data, passing rates for advanced classes at Federal Way are now at 92% and all racial subgroups are passing at rates of 87% or higher.

Inspired by the success in Federal Way, in 2013 the Washington State Legislature passed HB 1642, championed by Stand for Children Washington, which established the Academic Acceleration Incentive Program to encourage adoption of the policy with grants for school districts. As recently as 2016-17, school districts who received the grant and implemented the policy saw significant gains in enrollment by students of historically underrepresented populations (OSPI, 2018).

Other school districts in Washington have implemented these policies and also experienced success. Since implementing a program similar to that of Federal Way, in Tacoma Public Schools enrollment in advanced classes has increased from 27.5% to 71.1% for all students since 2013 and tripled for historically underserved students of color from 19.5% to 60%.

“We’ve seen huge results in Tacoma with more kids taking these classes and these exams. And that corresponds with more kids graduating. And as those numbers go up, we have to remember that each one of those numbers is a kid,” said Josh Garcia, Deputy Superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools and one of the original architects of the policy in Federal Way.

Washington’s success is being mirrored in legislation in at least two other states in the nation including North Carolina and Colorado. Last year, North Carolina passed a law (H986), requiring the automatic enrollment of qualified students into math courses in high school. Meanwhile, the Colorado General Assembly passed legislation in April launching a grant program similar to the one established in Washington in 2013 (SB19-059). While other states do not automatically enroll students, states like Delaware and Kentucky, require schools to notify parents that their student’s test scores signal they are ready for advanced work.

States around the country have been implementing efforts to increase the diversity of students of color and low-income students in advanced classes and college-credit earning classes. According to the College Board, in 2018 only 50% of Black, Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander students who qualified for advanced classes were enrolled in them (College Board), equating to about 750,000 students nationwide (EOS). In fact, data from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, show white students are twice as likely to take dual credit courses as Black or Latino students (Columbia University Teachers College).

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