Black and low-income students are underrepresented in Virginia AP classes, report finds

Black and low-income students are underrepresented in Virginia AP classes, report finds
Richmond Public Schools seniors outside their graduation ceremony. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Black high school students in Virginia are sharply underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses even when they’re not low-income — and even when they attend advantaged, largely homogeneous schools, a new report says.

The same findings don’t hold true for other student groups and are part of a larger focus on disparities in Virginia’s public school system. Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University and Penn State’s Center for Education and Civil Rights have been exploring those differences over the last year, starting with an analysis of school segregation within district boundaries released in November.

“We really set out to take as full a snapshot of school segregation in Virginia as we could,” said lead researcher Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an associate professor at VCU’s Department of Educational Leadership. The group’s latest papers, released Tuesday, examine state and national data to explore relationships between race and poverty in public schools.

A core finding was that the number of schools with “concentrated” racial and economic disadvantage — defined as those where more than 75 percent of the student population is Black and/or Hispanic and eligible for free or reduced-price meals — increased from 97 in 2009 to 156 in 2018. Enrollment in those schools has nearly doubled overall and climbed 60 percent among Black students.

At the same time, low-income students of all races and ethnicities — which Virginia defines as eligibility for free and reduced lunch in addition to other federal aid such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — are four times less likely to take AP classes as their peers. Black students, who make up nearly 22 percent of the state’s high schoolers, are generally underrepresented in AP classes (with just 12.7 percent of total enrollment). Non-disadvantaged Black students make up 7.3 percent of AP enrollment, while low-income Black students make up only 5.4 percent.

Siegel-Hawley said the work aims to illustrate the de facto learning disparities that still exist in Virginia schools — even as districts increase the diversity of their student populations. But parsing the reasons for existing inequalities, and the complicated relationships between race, poverty and academic success, is a tougher question.

It’s one that the Virginia Department of Education has been highlighting. Spokesman Charles Pyle said the studies were conducted under contract with the department, and researchers have “regularly updated” state Education Secretary Atif Qarni with their findings and recommendations, according to Siegel-Hawley.

In some cases, Virginia’s growing focus on addressing inequities has garnered national attention. Furor broke out last week after conservative outlets covered a potential initiative to restructure the state’s high school math curriculum. Fox News also wrote a widely circulated story on a suggestion — addressed in a Board of Education subcommittee — to consolidate the state’s standard and advanced diplomas into a single diploma. A similar idea for establishing one “Virginia diploma” was explored by the state’s Board of Education in 2016.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.