Leveling Up: A Behavioral Nudge to Increase Enrollment in Advanced Coursework
Taking advanced courses in high school predicts a broad array of positive postsecondary and labor market outcomes. Typically, decisions about which students are eligible to take advanced courses are based on teacher or counselor recommendations, parent requests, or student self-selection. However, evidence suggests that these approaches may contribute to inequitable advanced course enrollment, particularly for Black students, Hispanic students, and students from low-income backgrounds.
To increase equity in advanced course enrollment, more than 60 districts in Washington state implemented an automatic enrollment policy called Academic Acceleration. The policy requires schools to automatically identify students for advanced coursework based on their standardized test scores and make advanced courses “opt out” rather than “opt in” for these students. Districts implemented the policy in waves, beginning in the 2014–15 school year. In this paper, AIR experts compared advance course enrollment patterns between districts that adopted the policy at different times.
The results suggest that automatically identifying students for advanced coursework and requiring those students to opt out rather than opt in to advanced courses may help increase equity in advanced course enrollment.
We also found that districts implementing the policy may have looked beyond standardized test scores to identify students for automatic enrollment, particularly students from low-income backgrounds and/or from racial/ethnic groups that are historically underrepresented in advanced courses.
In districts that implemented the policy:
- All students—regardless of whether they were considered qualified for advanced coursework based on their test scores— were more likely to enroll in at least one advanced course in any subject relative to students in districts without the policy.
- Students from low-income backgrounds and/or from racial/ethnic groups that are historically underrepresented in advanced courses—regardless of their qualified status—enrolled in advanced mathematics and English language arts/social studies courses at higher rates compared with peers not from either group.
- Students considered qualified for advanced coursework were more likely to enroll in advanced mathematics courses relative to students considered qualified in districts without the policy.