All over the country students experience racial isolation in schools that on paper are very diverse. While the yearbook photos may hide racial disparities, recent studies have uncovered the truth: Forty percent of all the racial segregation experienced in schools occurred within schools as opposed to between them.

There is a fair amount of academic gatekeeping going on around advanced classes, and not enough people are talking about it. White students are often overrepresented in high ability classes and there is evidence that it is keeping black and brown students out of classes in which they could be pushed harder and excel. 

The most common rebuttal to these findings is the idea that advanced, and honors class demographics are the result of meritocracy. After all, we have heard about the “achievement gap” for decades so conventional wisdom would say the lack of Black and Hispanic students in advanced courses is the manifestation of that phenomenon. While that makes sense, in theory, it doesn’t stand up to the facts. That could explain some of it. 

But studies have shown that even when achieving at a similar or equal rate Black, Hispanic and lower socioeconomic status students are less likely to be classified as advanced or gifted relative to their white upper-class peers. 

I’ve witnessed this gatekeeping firsthand. 

I went to one of those fancy high achieving, diverse magnet schools… and you know what? It was great. I have virtually zero complaints. I never felt racially isolated. I never had a teacher I thought was prejudiced against me in any way. My graduating class was about 50 so it was way too small of a school for us to have a bunch of different level core classes. I was in class with the kids that at a larger traditional school might have “tested out.” So my experience was not the same as many of the students referenced in the above studies. 

With that said I did notice a disparity when it was time to try and take the AP tests. There was no actual institutional barrier to these opportunities, but you see who the teachers handed the AP information out to… Who the guidance counselors pulled out of class to convince. I wasn’t one of the students. I understood at the time. I didn’t make super great grades. Though all the teachers knew I was a great test taker, I was perceived as lazy… because I was.  But my mom made me take it anyway.

On the first day of the study group for the AP exam, one student remarked, “What’s Pillow doing here?” She said it in a joking manner but any comedian will tell you that the joke is funny because it’s based on a real-world perception or observation and in her mind, she and the other students probably really were wondering what I was doing there. I didn’t really think about this at the time, but I was the only black student too. As we studied, I learned that many of them had been preparing for the test via summer programs and prep courses at the behest of teachers and school administrators who thought they had the potential to score well. Things I wasn’t even aware we offered or referred people to.

I wish this was a cool story about how I passed the AP exams I took, and they all failed, and everyone learned a lesson about how you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But I didn’t get a three on either of the exams I took. However, I wasn’t far off and one of the guidance counselors remarked, “I should have had you doing all the prep work before. You probably would have got it.” I’d like to think she was right especially considering the fact that I did do better than a number of the students who had all the preparation she referenced.

Though that anecdote didn’t end the way I wanted it to at the time, it is a more apt example for this story. Representation in honors, advanced, and gifted courses is not solely a function of ability, it’s also a function of perception thus it is subject to the same bias everything else in the world is and that bias has real-world consequences, not just lost AP credit. With this in mind, we need to focus on segregation within the schools just as much as we do with the segregation between the schools. After all, it should be much easier to fix.


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