By Irie Sentner | July 9, 2018
Hi. My name is Irie Sentner. I’m 15 years old and a rising junior at Durango High School. I’m the perfect candidate for an AP program: I’m labeled by my district as a “Gifted and Talented” student, I have a high GPA, motivation to go to college, and high percentiles on standardized tests. I’m white, and I live in a well-off mountain town in Southwest Colorado. This past school year I took five AP classes, and a couple of months ago I took five AP tests. I’m who the College Board sends their promotional emails. Academic counselors assume that I’m already familiar with AP curricula. Because I look the way I do and live in the place I live and am positioned where I am on the PSAT or CoGAT or PARCC bell-curve, on paper I am the perfect candidate for AP. And when I take my seat in AP Calculus and look around the classroom, nearly everyone else is too.
Disparities in ethnic demographics among Advanced Placement students are extreme. In 2010, among students who had high potential to excel in AP classes and coursework, only four out of 10 hispanic and latino students, three out of ten black or African American students, and three out of 10 American Indian students actually took an AP science class. Black students represented 14.5 percent of all high school graduates, yet only 9.2 percent took an AP class, and a bleak 4.6 percent received qualifying scores. In 2013, although 48.1 percent of the K-12 student population qualified for free or reduced lunch, just over a quarter of the exams ordered were taken by these low-income students. The statistics continue, and they proceed to paint an ominous picture: 640,000 children who have demonstrated great potential to excel in AP programs are being disadvantaged by the American education system due to its inherent discrimination of racial and economic minorities. Although Brown v Board of Education made school segregation unconstitutional 64 years ago, equity gaps still exist and thrive within American public education.
The danger in this is extreme. While many teachers primarily cater their advanced classes towards students who fit my profile in the hopes of finding those who will be the most successful, they often also unconsciously close out students who, if given the opportunity, would have extremely valuable and formative experiences within AP. When considering a student’s PSAT scores, it is clear that minority students are intelligent enough and driven enough to excel in an AP setting. The problem arises when bias—and in some cases bigotry—overpowers fact and leads to the exclusion of these students from AP, contributing to the widening of the equity gap.
Additionally, because test scores and measured academic performance are often heavily correlated with race and economic factors, Advanced Placement programs marginalize underrepresented students and contribute to unhealthy stereotypes.
According to the College Board, “There is one clear, undeniable benefit awarded to every single student who enrolls in AP: opportunity. When coupled with a student’s hard work, that opportunity can have myriad of outcomes, whether it is learning to craft effective arguments, discovering a lifelong passion, building confidence, earning credit for college, or persisting to graduate from college on time.”
It is clear that currently, the opportunity that AP is supposed to grant every student is unevenly balanced away from many eligible students for no reasons other than their racial or economic circumstances. The truth is, many underrepresented students are unlikely to enroll in advanced curriculums on their own. As victims of marginalization, they have—for their entire lives—been fed a narrative that convinces them that they will fail, and thus they are never provided access to the situations necessary for success. Additionally, students of color may feel uncomfortable in classroom environments or surrounded by others who do not share their own ethnic or cultural background. The responsibility to recruit AP students falls on teachers like you, and so far these students’ needs are not being met. It is the responsibility of the teachers in this nation to nurture the ability of every student and to present them every single possible opportunity in order to provide my generation both the skills and the confidence that we need for success.
Once equity is found within the demographics of AP classrooms, it is of equal importance that that teachers amend their practices in order to not just retain underrepresented students, but ensure that they thrive. The expectations that AP carries are designed with students like me in mind. I have the ability to complete hours of homework each night because I don’t have a job that is necessary to support my family. I can afford the TI-84 graphing calculator that is necessary to complete my Calculus worksheets. I don’t have to worry about finishing my Computer Science projects because I have internet access and multiple devices that are able to connect to it. If I am falling behind, my parents offer to pay tutors to help me catch up. Other students aren’t so lucky. After recruitment, it is your responsibility to recognize the unique circumstances of your students and, instead of teaching only for students like me, broaden your scope and recognize the ways that every student can thrive. I’ve seen this at my own school, where teachers like Ms. Haller and Ms. Creeden offer their rooms at lunch and after school for help and for access to equipment. For these reasons, the number of students taking AP classes at my high school has nearly tripled over the last three years. If you would, Ms. Haller and Ms. Creeden, please stand because you represent Durango High School as two of its best teachers.
It is time for those of you who do similar things to lead by example and to promote the educational success of every child in every classroom so that the state of Colorado and the United States as a whole, can encounter a revolution in equitable education.
It is institutionally wrong for a child to be denied an opportunity based upon the circumstances that they were born into. Students cannot change their race or their class, but you (the teachers), as the people that we look up to most, can ensure that every single person that walks into your classroom has the ability to forge the life that they want and the opportunity to succeed. The fact that you are here at this Summer Institute is wonderful. It is reassuring to me that this nation’s educators do care about educational equity. It is my hope that over the course of this week you further view the grand importance of this issue and return to your school districts with a spirit of change. Recognize how inequality manifests at your own school. Recruit broadly, recruit inclusively, and take the time to understand the unique circumstances of your students.
You have the ability to make a change, so that when your students step into your AP class, they enter a room that is representative of their own communities and not simply filled with faces like mine.