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Set Up to Fail? How High Schools Aren't Preparing Kids for College

Small schools and high poverty schools are putting their students at the biggest disadvantage, according to a new report.

Education Grant
(AP/LM Otero)
Students in small schools or schools with high concentrations of poverty are less likely to be offered the kinds of higher-level classes that prepare them for college, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

As the share of poor students in schools rises, the prevalence of advanced math and science courses drops. Small schools and charter schools, regardless of the socioeconomic makeup of the student body, are also less likely to offer those types of classes, the report found.

The condensed course offerings are just one way that students in poorer schools are disadvantaged.

"High-poverty schools may not offer rigorous courses, such as Advanced Placement (AP) courses, due to lack of resources or teaching staff," the report reads. "Students in high-poverty schools also face other stressors that can make going to college challenging, [including] homelessness, hunger and trauma."

In many ways, says one education policy observer, the report's findings are merely the effects of historic school segregation along racial and class lines.

“The questions asked and answered in the report only make sense in a stratified, segregated school system," says Kevin G. Welner, chairman of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. "If our schools were truly integrated by race, class and ethnicity, you couldn’t ask whether the course offerings were equal."

For rural high schools, the biggest challenge is funding. 

According to a separate report from Education Week in 2016, 40 percent of the nation’s high schools didn’t offer physics. But in Alaska and Oklahoma, states with an especially high number of small rural schools, 70 percent of the high schools didn’t offer physics. Across the country, the schools that didn't offer physics classes had an average student population of 270; those that did offer physics had, on average, 880 students. Many of the smaller schools had a single science teacher who taught both high school and middle school classes.

Urban schools face a different set of challenges. Their funding is also tight, but Welner says the driving force behind the disparity in course offerings in those schools is the demographic makeup of the students. They're more likely to have more black and Latino children, and according to Welner, "educators don’t hold high expectations for minority students, and that often permeates course offerings at the school."

In some cities, elected officials have mandated that schools offer more college prep classes. In 2015, high schools in Washington, D.C., for example, were required to increase the number of AP offerings from a minimum of four to at least six. The idea is that even if students don’t score well on the AP exam, the experience can better prepare them for higher education.

“Even if they struggle with it, they’ve gone one-on-one against the academic equivalent of Michael Jordan," Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews told the journal Education Next. "They’ll have a visceral sense of what they’re going to come up against in college.”

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