Uncovering and Addressing Gaps in Advanced Course Enrollment for English Learner Students

By Havala Hanson
February 2017

Emerging research shows that successfully completing advanced high school courses (such as dual-enrollment and Advanced Placement classes) is an important predictor of positive postsecondary education outcomes, including college enrollment and persistence. A new REL Northwest study examined enrollment in advanced courses among students from different language groups in Washington state between 2009–10 and 2012–13.

The study found disparities in advanced course enrollment among students from different language groups. Notably, Spanish-speaking students (the largest language-minority group in Washington) tend to take fewer advanced courses—and earn lower grades in them—than students who speak other languages, including English-only speakers.

However, when students with the same GPA and state standardized test scores in math and reading were compared, the study found that Spanish-speaking students take about as many advanced courses as their English-only classmates.

Beyond GPA and standardized test scores, other factors impede language-minority students’ enrollment in advanced courses—the study also found that Spanish-speaking students in Washington have fewer opportunities to take advanced courses.

The reason? Schools with larger numbers of Spanish-speaking students tend to offer fewer advanced courses than comparable schools with few Spanish-speaking students.

What do the study’s findings mean for schools? Here are three takeaways:

Monitor the academic progress of students who speak different primary or home languages to identify groups that struggle more than others

Look at advanced course enrollment rates not just through the lens of racial/ethnic composition and poverty rates but by monitoring the percentage of current and former English learner students, as well as students in each language group (for example, Spanish speakers, Russian speakers, English-only speakers, etc.). These data can help guide planning to improve school and student outcomes by targeting the student groups most in need of additional early academic support.

Improve early instruction for students in language-minority groups identified as less likely to enroll in advanced courses

The study’s findings suggest advanced course enrollment rates for English learner students can improve in Washington, especially if efforts to accelerate Spanish-speaking students’ mastery of academic content in early and middle grades are successful.

School leaders who want to take steps in this direction can start by reviewing curriculum and instructional and assessment practices, as well as educators’ professional development that relates to the early academic preparation of English learner students, with an eye toward identifying and scaling up promising practices in these areas.

Identify barriers that keep schools from offering advanced courses

To close equity gaps, all schools must offer equal opportunities to take advanced courses. Schools can start by pinpointing the barriers that prevent them from offering advanced courses in the first place. The process can include assessing whether certain characteristics—such as the qualifications of teachers or counselor-student ratios—can explain some of the differences in the number of advanced courses schools offer.

Download the study