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FALLING OUT OF THE LEAD: New Ed Trust Report Presents Stark High School Experiences Among High-Achieving Low-Income and Students of Color, Compared to White Peers

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Although high-achieving students, regardless of race, are just as likely to take advanced courses, enrollment gaps begin to emerge in more advanced courses.

Black and Latino students from low-income families who enter high school as high achievers typically finish high school with lower grades, lower Advanced Placement (AP) exam pass rates, and lower SAT and ACT scores than their high-achieving white or more financially advantaged peers, according to Falling Out of the Lead: Following High Achievers Through High School and Beyond, a new report from the Education Trust (Ed Trust). Although high-achieving black and Latino students take similar courses in high school as their white peers, they attend schools where instruction, school culture, support, and guidance “render [them] less competitive upon high school graduation,” the report notes.

“These are the students who arrive at high school most ready to take advantage of rigorous and high-level instruction,” said Marni Bromberg, research associate at Ed Trust and coauthor of the report. “But to reach the academic levels that they are capable of, they need exposure to challenging curriculum as well as support and guidance from their schools, including in selecting a college that can really challenge them.”

According to the report, approximately 1 in 17 black and 1 in 9 Latino high school sophomores perform in the top achievement quartile, which is substantially lower than white and Asian students (1 in 3). Among low-income students, 1 in 10 performs within the highest achievement quartile, compared to nearly half of the most advantaged.

Compared to high-achieving white students, high-achieving black and Latino students are much more likely to attend urban schools, schools that serve predominantly students of color, and schools with higher enrollments—the average school enrollment for high-achieving black (1,700) and Latino students (2,000) is much higher than for white students (1,400), the report notes.

Although high-achieving students, regardless of race, are just as likely to take advanced courses, enrollment gaps begin to emerge in more advanced courses. According to the report, only 26 percent of high-achieving black students and 31 percent of high-achieving Latino students enroll in calculus when it is offered at their school, compared to 38 percent of high-achieving white students. When breaking out students based on income, the report finds that only 36 percent of high-achieving low-income students take calculus, compared with 45 percent of high-income students.

When examining AP courses, the report finds that high-achieving black, Latino, and white students take these courses at roughly the same rate, but students of color are less likely to receive passing grades; only 36 percent of high-achieving black students score a 3 or better on AP tests, compared to 51 percent of high-achieving Latino students, and 68 percent of high-achieving white students. Among high-achieving low-income students, 45 percent score a passing grade, while 73 percent of high-achieving high-income students do so.

On college placement tests, such as the SAT and ACT, 24 percent of high-achieving black students and 29 percent of high-achieving Latino students do not even take these tests, compared with only 12 percent of high-achieving white students, the report finds. When high-achieving students of color do take the SAT or ACT, they score significantly lower than their white peers.

The report finds similar disparities in academic grade point averages (GPAs), with the average high-achieving black student receiving a 2.90 GPA, the average high-achieving Latino student receiving a 2.97 GPA, and the average high-achieving white student receiving a 3.24 GPA.

With lower scores on college entrance exams and lower GPAs, high-achieving black students (86 percent) and high-achieving Latino students (81 percent) are less likely to enroll in postsecondary education than their white peers (91 percent). While those percentages are fairly close, the report notes that the “real inequities” appear when examining where students enroll. According to the report, only about half of high-achieving black students and 40 percent of Latino students enter a moderately or highly selective college, compared to about 66 percent of their white peers.

“Unfortunately, these institutional differences matter when it comes to college graduation,” the report notes. “Students who attend more selective colleges and universities are ultimately more likely to graduate, compared with otherwise similar students who attend less selective colleges.”

In addition to the data summarized above, the report includes reflections from five high-achieving low-income students on their experiences in different high schools around the country. The students also offer advice on how high schools can better serve their high achievers.

“Serving high-achieving students well is a serious responsibility for our high schools,” said Christina Theokas, director of research at Ed Trust and coauthor of the report. “Our nation can’t afford this loss of potential. With attention, schools and educators can disrupt the inequitable outcomes experienced by black and Latino students and students from less-advantaged backgrounds.”

Falling Out of the Lead: Following High Achievers Through High School and Beyond is available at http://www.edtrust.org/fallingoutofthelead.

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