Last fall, the average freshman admitted to the University of California (Berkeley) and the University of California (Los Angeles) had a weighted high school grade-point average higher than a 4.0—that's higher than straight A's. The average freshman didn't just get good grades: she got good grades in honors and advanced placement courses.
Nationwide, admissions officers at selective colleges look for students who have challenged themselves academically. But not all students get the chance to build a stellar transcript. Black, Hispanic, and Native American students are less likely to attend high schools that offer advanced courses, such as physics and calculus, and they're less likely to participate in those courses when they are offered.
"We are not sending a message to those students that we expect them to succeed, that we are ready to educate them, that we will prepare them for their futures," Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for Civil Rights at the Education Department, said at an October National Journal event in Des Moines.
The racial disparities persist despite years of efforts at the federal, state, and local levels to get more college prep courses into high schools.
About 69 percent of public high schools offer Advanced Placement classes or the International Baccalaureate program, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And 82 percent of schools offer a dual credit program—often a partnership with a local college—that allows students to earn college and high school credit at the same time. It's also now possible to take a wide range of advanced courses online.
Yet the students who actually take college-prep courses and pass them are disproportionately affluent, white, or Asian. Black and Latino students make up 37 percent of high school students but only 27 percent of students taking an AP class and 18 percent of students passing AP exams, according to the Education Department.
And minority students are less likely to go to high schools that offer a college-prep curriculum. About one-quarter of high schools that serve the highest percentage of black and Hispanic students don't even offer a second year of algebra, according to the Education Department, even though two years of algebra are usually required for college-level courses in math and science.
The achievement gap in advanced courses partly reflects an achievement gap that starts before kindergarten. But that doesn't mean high school teachers should throw up their hands. First, schools need to set the expectation that a broad range of students can succeed in advanced courses.
Then counselors can help identify kids who are close to being ready for honors work and nudge them into tougher classes. In the class of 2012, there were 300,000 students whose Preliminary SAT test scores indicated they were ready for advanced placement courses, according to the College Board. But in general, white and Asian students were more likely to go on to take AP courses. Sixty percent of Asian students with strong math skills took AP math, compared with 30 percent of black students with strong math skills, for example.
And teachers and staff can step in with strong instruction and academic supports that will get students up to speed. "You really don't have access for traditionally underserved students unless you have sufficient supports for them while they're taking AP classes," says Kristin Klopfenstein, executive director of the University of Northern Colorado's Education Innovation Institute and the coauthor of a book on the AP program. Ideally, support would begin with a rigorous elementary school and middle-school curriculum that would prepare students for advanced work in high school.
"It's not just about preparation—it's not just a pipeline problem," says Christina Theokas, director of research at the Education Trust, a Washington think tank. In her research, she has found schools that have achieved equity in advanced-course participation.
This month, National Journal's Next America project will profile schools, districts, and organizations that are trying to achieve that goal.
Libby Isenstein contributed to this article