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Data show significant disparities in ‘rigorous course taking’ among Minnesota high school students

MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Students of color are least represented in concurrent enrollment courses, college classes taught at the high schools, where they only accounted for 17 percent of public school participants.

While participation in advanced courses at Minnesota high schools has increased both overall and for black, Hispanic and Asian students, new data reveal that large disparities in participation between students of color and white students still exist.

Information on this comes from two places. As part of this year’s release of student education data, the state Department of Education included a new category in the Minnesota Report Card: rigorous course taking. The category encompasses four types of courses that can translate into free college credits for Minnesota high schoolers when they enroll in a postsecondary program. The four categories are AP courses, Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO), Concurrent Enrollment and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses.

This data portal, however, does not break this data down by race. That information is housed in a separate place — in an annual “Rigorous Course Taking” report that the state DOE submits to the Legislature. 

Minnesota Department of Education

The latest report shows that total participation in rigorous course programs increased 6.5 percent from 2017 to 2018. But a closer look shows that while participation increased in 2018 for black, Hispanic and Asian students, there are still large disparities between those groups and the participation of white students in rigorous course taking.

For instance, black student participation in AP courses has increased 27 percent from 2016 to 2018. Yet, while black students currently make up roughly 11 percent of the total student body, statewide, they only represented 5 percent of the total AP course participant pool in 2018.

Participation among American Indian students has actually decreased.

Best represented in IB courses

Of all four advanced course categories, students of color are best represented in IB courses, where they account for 39 percent of the public school student population that participated in IB testing statewide. 

Students of color are least represented in concurrent enrollment courses —  college classes taught at high schools — where they only accounted for 17 percent of public school participants, despite the fact that students of color make up 31 percent of students in grades 9-12 in Minnesota public schools.


When it comes to PSEO courses — in which students typically travel to a postsecondary campus to take college courses on-site — students of color made up roughly a quarter of participants.

Likewise, students of color are under-represented in AP courses, where they made up 25 percent of participants and took 22 percent of all AP exams administered. 

State funding for exams

Dating back to 2006, the state Legislature has appropriated $4.5 million each year to help cover teacher training for AP and IB programs, along with student AP and IB exam fees. The majority of this allocation — 75 percent — is designated for AP programs.

According to state statute, the education commissioner is responsible for using this allocation to pay all AP and IB exam fees for low-income students and to pay a portion of the exam fees for other public and nonpublic students. But advanced course offerings are not distributed evenly among all public school districts, or even among all secondary schools within a single district.

Minnesota Department of Education
The “Rigorous Course Taking” report includes appendices that list state reimbursements for AP exam and teacher training expenditures. These reimbursements speak to the differences in participation.

For instance, in the Minneapolis Public Schools district, the bulk of state funding for AP exam fees and teacher training went to three secondary school sites: South High ($36,304), Southwest High ($34,699), and Washburn High ($24,784). By comparison, both Patrick Henry High School and Roosevelt High School — two secondary schools in the same district serving more diverse student bodies — received less than $1,000 in from the state for AP exam fees and teacher training. 

The numbers speak to a dynamic that is often obvious to students. At a Minneapolis Public Schools board meeting last spring, Janaan Ahmed, the board’s student representative, addressed this equity issue during a conversation about integration. In talking about diversity with her peers across the district, she says, many brought up concerns related to their advanced classes.

“When we talk about diversity, a lot of students will bring up how their IB classes and AP classes in their schools are not diverse. But when they leave their advanced classes, they see their hallways are very diverse,” she said. “When we go to our classes, we can see who is getting handed these opportunities for higher-achieving classes.”

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Jay Davis on 09/20/2019 - 12:01 pm.

    Regarding the statement that Patrick Henry and Roosevelt high schools in Mpls do not get much state funding for AP tests and teacher training – this is because they have chosen to be IB schools. While some schools offer both AP and IB, many (including Highland Park) choose to concentrate in one.

    I’m under the impression that AP students are more likely to get credit that counts for college as compared to IB students. If so, these urban schools that only offer IB might be putting their students at a disadvantage.

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/20/2019 - 12:48 pm.

    My kids went to a diverse school (St. Paul Central) but the advanced classes they took were overwhelmingly white.

    I’m curious about the comment by Mr. Ahmed (who has observed the same at his school) who talks about who is getting handed opportunities to take the advanced classes. The classes are available at the schools these kids go to. If they are capable of doing the work, why aren’t they in the classes? Is he saying they aren’t allowed?

    My kids were in advanced classes because they were good students all the way through school and we’d always planned on them going to college. We also had the financial means to make this happen, which isn’t true for a lot of kids.

    I expect the problem is that a lot of kids fall behind the advanced students early on and aren’t able to succeed in those classes in high school. The equity problem is less about what high schools offer, than kids being ready to take those classes once they get to high school.

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