The Cues and Conditions of Belonging in AP

The team at Equal Opportunity Schools came up with a radical way of figuring out what students needed for success in Advanced Placement classes: they asked the students.

“Everything we do is driven by data and student voice,” said Kimberly Thomas, the partnership director for Equal Opportunity Schools, during College Board’s 2021 Forum. “We’re very committed to not making assumptions about how students are experiencing an advanced course, but to simply ask them to tell us.”

That openness to student feedback as given Thomas and her colleagues a trove of fantastic insight about how to build a more welcoming, more diverse, more successful AP program in high schools across the country. At a time when access to advanced coursework is considered a key equity issue in American education, Equal Opportunity Schools is making a major impact by translating student perceptions into useful intelligence for school leaders. 

“We really see data as something that should be actionable,” said Alison Gazarek, managing director for EOS. “It should help us take action, and take action urgently….  I can’t stress enough how transformative it is to lay out this data.”

For example, the team might approach a school principal or AP coordinator with a straightforward chart showing the demographic breakdown of the school compared to the demographic breakdown of AP classes. Highlighting that discrepancy is the first step in helping teachers and counselors figure out how to correct it. 

In many cases, that’s as simple as changing the prerequisites for AP enrollment. According to EOS surveys of teachers, the most predictive qualities for success in AP aren’t GPA or even previous course enrollment, but motivation and a growth mindset. Many highly capable students might be performing poorly in regular courses not because they can’t handle the work, but because they’re not sufficiently challenged by it. 

“When we look at our data, students are saying, ‘I’m actually not as challenged as you think I am,’” Gazarek said.

Reaching those students means creating a sense of belonging in the classroom, according to research from the EOS team. They shared results from an extensive survey that sought to measure feelings of belonging or exclusion among students of color in advanced classes, offering advice for teachers on how to shape their approach to welcome a broader population of students. “Belonging means that you want to work really hard in that class,” Thomas said. “You have a sense of investment in the class.”

Creating more structured assignments, taking care to make the curriculum more culturally relevant, and generally providing plenty of encouraging feedback are some of the core practices for building a more diverse AP program, EOS found. Students can tell when they’re being genuinely supported, explained Holly Karakos, director of effectiveness and learning for EOS. “We wanted to make sure we were hearing from students, hearing their voice,” she said. “Students have a very strong sense of when they do not belong in a class.”

Sometimes, just asking the question makes all the difference.