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Why advanced coursework in high school can lead to success in college

New paper from the Arizona Chamber Foundation and the Foundation for Excellence in Education examines barriers to advanced courses, explores options for increasing participation rates

PHOENIX – The Arizona Chamber Foundation and the Foundation for Excellence in Education today released a joint policy brief that examines the challenges to ensuring more Arizona high school students are able to access advanced coursework that will prepare them for the rigors of college, as well as the benefits to students who take such courses in their future academic endeavors.

The paper, “Expanding Access to Advanced Coursework in Arizona High Schools,” finds that completing rigorous coursework in high school is one of the best predictors of success in college. Unfortunately, too few of Arizona’s high-schoolers, especially those in low-income and rural areas, have access to advanced courses like those in the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge International curricula.

“Nationally, students in low income areas are less likely to take coursework that will prepare them for college. In many cases, they attend schools that simply don’t offer the courses,” Arizona Chamber Foundation Executive Director Katie Fischer said. “Low participation rates are of particular concern in Arizona. Only 10 percent of Arizona high-schoolers in the 2014-15 school year were enrolled in AP courses, the lowest participation rate of Southwestern states. If we’re going to increase our students’ college-going rate, we need more students enrolled in advanced courses.”

The paper identifies a number of barriers to increasing the availability of advanced courses, including a lack of qualified teachers, who require specific professional development, as well as a failure to identify students who would likely be successful in more challenging courses, via assessment tools like the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), which is taken by sophomores and juniors. Strong performance on the PSAT is a good indicator of preparedness for advanced coursework and is a qualifier for college scholarships, but few PSAT takers come from low income families and minorities are under-represented.

There are options, however, for improving Arizona students’ access to college-prep classes, many of which do not require additional legislation, but rather simply a reprioritization by schools and districts.

Recommendations explored by the paper include providing financial bonuses to teachers for each of their students who receives a qualifying score on an end-of course exam; offering teacher prep courses that count towards professional development hours; using federal grant dollars to cover the bulk of students’ exam costs; taking advantage of the $26 exam discount offered by the College Board to low income students taking the AP exam; and factoring a school’s rate of preparing students for college and career – as evidenced by advanced course exam passage rates or the number of students receiving a professional credential – into the school’s rating in the state’s accountability system.

Dr. Matt Ladner, senior adviser for policy and research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, called the proposals outlined in the paper an excellent way to direct funding where it is needed most and where it can be the most impactful.

“By rewarding college credit by exam, Arizona high-schools can make money the old-fashioned way: by earning it,” Ladner said. “Providing greater opportunities to students to earn college credit at disadvantaged schools can help break down stereotypes about whether students are ‘college material’ and move us toward a better educated, brighter future.”

Fischer says the foundations’ analysis makes clear that increasing Arizona high-schoolers’ participation rates in advanced curriculum is achievable with the conscious commitment from the state’s education leaders.

“There are several practical steps that schools and districts can take to increase their students’ exposure to the types of classes that will get them ready for college,” Fischer said. “Most of the options our paper examines can be done with little to no additional funding and don’t require any action by the state Legislature. They do, however, require education leaders to recognize the importance of advanced coursework and to make the decision that increasing students’ participation rates in advanced coursework is something worth pursuing with real energy.”

More on this topic:

  • Read the complete policy brief.
  • Read Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry President and CEO Glenn Hamer’s recent column on the value of advanced curricula.
  • Read a blog post from A for Arizona Executive Director Lisa Graham Keegan about the importance of increasing advanced coursework participation rates.

The Arizona Chamber Foundation is a non-partisan, objective educational and research foundation. The Foundation produces research studies on Arizona public policy issues such as the state budget and taxation, education, health care, regulation, energy, and others in an effort to inform policy makers, business leaders, and the general public.

​The mission of the Foundation for Excellence in Education is to build an American education system that equips every child to achieve his or her God-given potential. Its vision is of an education system that maximizes every student’s potential for learning and prepares all students for success in the 21st century.