WASHINGTON — Four years ago, Federal Way, Wash., school officials looked into the classrooms of their high schools’ college-prep classes and decided they didn’t reflect the district’s income and ethnic diversity.
The students in the classes were middle-class, mostly white students headed for college anyway. Few were minorities or from low-income families.
Opting into the classes, assuming a student qualified academically, had been voluntary. But the school district just to the northeast of Tacoma decided to try something it hadn’t seen done anywhere else. It automatically enrolled all students who qualified with scores on state achievement tests into the schools’ most challenging classes.
The only way to opt out was with a parent’s permission.
But nearly all students stayed, and as a result, the numbers of minority and low-income students taking the classes increased. Test scores overall went up as well. And the district superintendent, Rob Neu, has been talking about the program at education conferences around the country.
“It was a pretty dramatic shift that first year,” he said in an interview. “But four years later, what we found is we’ve re-cultured the district. It’s a new normal.”
Baasheera Agyeman, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Auburn, part of Federal Way Public Schools, said her experience was typical of her peers.
“Doing well showed me I did have the potential to be a better student than I was,” she said. “That’s why I stayed in the class.”
And the idea is taking off in nearby Tacoma, where the schools will automatically enroll students next year in advanced classes if they meet the standards on statewide assessments.
“Sometimes students aren’t your high-flying A and B students, and yet they have the skills necessary to be successful in college-level classes,” said Doug Hostetter, director of secondary education for Tacoma Public Schools.
“They didn’t see themselves as college-level students, and yet we’re telling them, ‘Yes, you are,’” he said.
Tacoma schools won’t get the state exam scores until June, and students already are registering for classes, so the timing is difficult, Hostetter said. The district plans to estimate the number of Advanced Placement, or AP, courses it will need based on the percent of students last year who met the state standards, he said.
Students who fall just under the standard can still opt in, he added: “We encourage them to do so.” The district’s AP teachers will be trained in how to present material in ways that meet the different needs of students and help those who need to catch up, he said.
The message the district doesn’t want to send, he added, is “all the elite students get into AP, and if you’re not elite, you don’t.”
Federal Way’s four high schools offer Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge Preparatory Academy classes. All are rigorous programs aimed at preparing students for college work. This month, students nationwide are taking AP and IB exams. Those who score well qualify for class credits at some college and universities.
Overall participation in the accelerated classes in Federal Way’s high schools went up nearly 200 percent between 2008, before the policy change, and 2013. But the district lags behind Washington state and the nation in exam results. In 2013, 35 percent of its students who took AP classes passed, compared with 59 percent statewide and 57 percent nationwide.
The College Board, which administers the AP, advertises it to students as a way to challenge themselves and develop skills they’ll need in college, as well as a chance to save money on college tuition if they do well on the AP exams.
Liz Drake, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School in Auburn, said that before the district’s automatic enrollment program began, many students shied away.
“Our students of color would not feel confident that they would be successful, and no matter what we did, it was an uphill battle,” she said.
At first there weren’t enough programs to give struggling students extra help, and some students failed, Drake said, but added: “I think we definitely turned that around.”
Two years ago, the high schools improved the 9th- and 10th-grade classes that prepared students for the AP and IB classes they take in 11th and 12th grades. The school system also has after-school programs to help students. Neu said that 70 volunteers from AmeriCorps, a federally sponsored community service program, are an important part of the support system.
Agyeman, whose parents are from Ghana, took IB French and literature as a junior and was one of the few students of color in the literature class. Now planning to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the fall, she said, “There’s still more people to reach, and there’s still more that can be done. But for the most part, it is dropping seeds into something that can be big.”
A report last year by The Education Trust and Equal Opportunity Schools, two groups devoted to closing the achievement gap, found that about 12 percent of high school students attending schools with AP classes take them. It also found that if low-income and African-American, Latino and Native American students took the advanced classes at the same rate as their peers, more than 600,000 additional students would be in the classes.
“AP and IB courses are a powerful means of disrupting high-end achievement gaps, but too many low-income students and students of color are missing out,” the report said.
The College Board is trying to expand the AP program to more schools, but there’s still much more to do to increase participation within schools that already have AP classes, said Christina Theokas, director of research at The Education Trust and a co-author of the report.
Drake, the Thomas Jefferson principal, said half of her students are from low-income families. The district is 38 percent white, 22.5 percent Latino, 17 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, and 15 percent African-American.
“We’re a very diverse school, and our IB program is now getting closer and closer to representing that diversity,” she said.
Elena Peyton Jones of Kent, a multiracial student and a junior in the IB program, said students she didn’t expect to see in the classes are taking them.
They’re “incredibly difficult,” she said of the classes. “Anyone who tells you they can fly through IB easily is not being completely truthful.”
Federal Way also has worked with the College Board to hold a College Prep Day on a school day in the fall. The district pre-registers all its seniors for the SAT, which the College Board administers. It also pays for all the costs of IB, AP, SAT and PSAT tests for all students. Each AP exam costs $89. IB has a $157 registration fee and a cost of $108 per exam.
Dave Davis, the district’s assessment director for Federal Way, said the district’s advanced testing budget is $435,000 for next year.
“I have no reason to believe we can’t sustain this,” he said, “especially if we are serious about breaking down opportunity barriers and supporting students to be college and career ready.”