Examining Student Access to Rigorous Coursework in Arizona

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The mission of Helios Education Foundation is to create opportunities for individuals to succeed in postsecondary education.  Ensuring students are prepared for success in college includes many factors, but one critical issue is access to rigorous academic coursework, including Advanced Placement, Dual Enrollment, and International Baccalaureate (IB).  This advanced level academic work helps prepare students for the rigors of college coursework.  The data shows that students who are successful in these types of courses are more likely to succeed and persist toward a postsecondary degree. 

Recently Helios, in partnership with the ASU Helios Decision Center for Educational Excellence embarked on a research study to understand the data around college-going preparation, persistence, and completion in Arizona.  In this research, we examined the trends in student’s access and success in high school preparatory courses or “rigorous courses” as we defined them.  We worked with five Arizona school districts to understand course taking trends in these types of courses – specifically as it relates to availability to traditionally underserved students.  We wanted to understand who takes rigorous courses at the five districts and examine the impact of these courses on college-going and college persistence. 

Research items of note include:

  • While Advanced Placement course taking and test taking has steadily increased over the last twenty years, only one in four (26 percent) of students have taken an AP exam.
  • Lower-income, male, Hispanic, and Native American students are underrepresented in these more rigorous courses and test taking as well as postsecondary enrollment.  
  • Approximately 235 Arizona high schools offer no AP or dual enrollment courses.  
  • Of the approximately 26,000 Arizona students who took AP tests and courses between 2014 – 2018, 58 percent took both the course and the exam, but 38 percent took only the course.  Without scoring a 4 or a 5 on the exam, students are not eligible for college credit on those courses.  

This research suggests that there is much work to do in our state to ensure equitable access to rigorous coursework and that we need to focus on improving educational opportunities for all students in our state.   To that end, we also include recommendations for districts, schools, education leaders, and community leaders about how to help increase access to rigorous courses and encourage students participation in both the courses and test-taking.

We hope the data and recommendations presented will lead to meaningful discussion about how to ensure more students – and particularly Latino, rural, and low-income – are prepared for success in college and career.