Fewer students of color take advanced courses. This Colorado bill aims to help close that gap.

Olivia Batist is taking honors math and physics, but her friend — whom she thinks is just as smart — is not. Batist, a ninth grader at DSST: Conservatory Green in northeast Denver, believes the difference is that her friend’s parents aren’t able to advocate for their daughter the same way her own parents have advocated for her.

“Not being in advanced courses despite being fully prepared for them doesn’t just hurt a student academically, it hurts them psychologically too,” Olivia said, using a pseudonym for her friend. “I have to watch as Lily starts to believe that she’s not smart enough, and is just too dumb because nobody believes in her the way she believes in herself.”

A bill that passed unanimously out of the Senate Education Committee Thursday would make it more likely that students like Olivia’s friend will get to realize their potential. Its backers also hope that it will reduce racial and economic disparities in who takes Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and other more challenging classes.

According to data from the Colorado Department of Education, Hispanic students make up more than 33 percent of K-12 students, but just 15 percent of the students taking Advanced Placement courses in science, math and technology. Black students account for 4.6 percent of the student population, but less than 3 percent in those courses.

There are a variety of reasons for this. Students whose families are less familiar with the range of academic options might be less likely to encourage their children to enroll in advanced classes. Schools with a high percentage of students of color or those living in poverty sometimes don’t offer as many advanced classes as more well-to-do schools do. And some teachers might be less likely to recognize academic promise in students from certain backgrounds.

It’s hard to find concrete evidence of “tracking” or steering students away from harder classes based on their demographics, but information from middle school math tests suggests that black and Hispanic students who do well in math in sixth grade don’t end up taking advanced math at the same rates as their white and Asian peers.

Of those who scored in the top two percentiles on state math test in sixth grade in 2015, 41 percent of Hispanic students and 44 percent of black students went on take one of the state’s advanced math tests in eighth grade, compared with 59 percent of white and Asian students. Similar discrepancies exist for students who qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, and those who do not.

The state now administers the same math test to all middle school students, so that figure can’t be tracked moving forward — but advocates don’t think it will get better without attention to the problem.

Senate Bill 59 sponsored by state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat, encourages schools to automatically enroll students in advanced courses if the student has “demonstrated proficiency” in the material or course that precedes it, whether that’s measured by state tests or another metric determined by the school. 

It would do that by making $500,000 a year in grant money available to schools and districts that offer automatic enrollment. That money could be used to expand advanced course offerings, develop curriculum, improve parent and community engagement related to advanced coursework, and provide incentives to teachers, including through specialized training.

State fiscal analysts estimated that 32 schools or districts a year could benefit, with grants of about $15,000 each. The Colorado Department of Education would determine the criteria for administering the money.

Parents would be able to opt their child out of those courses if they didn’t think they were appropriate.

So much energy gets focused on helping students who are below grade level that students who are at grade level but could be achieving more get forgotten, said Sheldon Reynolds, principal of the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, a Denver elementary school. Teachers need training in how to recognize students with talent and support them.

“It’s not enough to just offer the course if you don’t set the student up for success,” he said.

Prateek Dutta of Democrats for Education Reform, which backed the bill, said that racial and economic disparities in schools aren’t just about students who are not meeting grade-level expectations.

“We don’t often talk about high-performing students of color or those who are low-income, and they are too often tracked into less challenging classes,” he said.

Aya Saad-Masri, an eighth grader at DSST: Byers, told the committee that expanded access to advanced classes would better prepare students for college and eventually help diversify the ranks of professions like medicine and law.

“It would help us reach our potential, succeed in high school and college, and lead a strong life where we don’t have to worry about money,” she said.

The bill still needs to pass the full Senate and the House before it becomes law.