Experiencing MN’s Patterns of Exclusion in Advanced Coursework
By Riyan Said
In this day and age, we’re constantly told how much closer we are to equality than our predecessors, that the fight isn’t as precarious as it once was. I can dine where I want, work where I want, and receive the same education as my white peers. Time and time again, I’m told that this idyllic equality is just within reach. So what should I think then when my school counselor warns me that the majority-white higher-level courses may be “too difficult” for a student like me?
Right now, I’m taking a full course load of AP and IB courses—courses my counselor encouraged me not to take.
As a Muslim Black girl born to two immigrant parents, I’m no stranger to high expectations. My parents’ struggle for freedom amidst war led them to this land, and all their aspirations and (too short-lived) ambitions slowly became synonymous with my own—at least as far as anyone knew. So pushing myself to the furthest limits and taking any opportunity for success is expected. Right now, that’s a full course load of AP and IB courses—courses my counselor encouraged me not to take.
My persistent struggle is not academic; it’s discrimination. Not only are my advanced classes overwhelmingly white, but the whitewashed content and intolerant environment don’t leave even an inch of breathing room for people who look like me.
AP and IB courses have a reputation for low enrollment for students of color across the state. For a presentation to a school board member, I analyzed a set of data from my school detailing the dropout rate by race. From this data, I found that the dropout rate for the first 14 days in advanced level courses is concerningly high for students of color. It even varied by subject and instructor, with some percentages so high they resulted in removing those courses entirely. But looking at the dropout rate tells another important story, representation isn’t the only issue. In a school survey, 60% of Black students and 42% of students of color felt uncomfortable after enrolling in AP/IB classes compared to the 23% of white students. I can attest to this. As someone who constantly feels the pressure to prove myself because of my identity, unable to ask for help where I’m already under-estimated, it is a stifling environment—one where I am not taken seriously.
Why must students in “regular” or “lower-level” courses feel ashamed or less smart when it is not their fault or a reflection of their ability? Why are we perpetually plagued by the dismissal of teachers and counselors when we hope to learn the same content as our white peers?
This issue affects a great number of students with hopes and dreams as grand as anyone else. Why should we be discouraged and outright barred from a major stepping stone to success? Why must students in “regular” or “lower-level” courses feel ashamed or less smart when it is not their fault or a reflection of their ability that they’re not in AP/IB courses? Why are we perpetually plagued by the dismissal of white teachers and counselors when we hope to learn the same content as our white peers? For these reasons, it is an issue I hope to see change at not only an institutional level, but for the education system in Minnesota as a whole.
This isn’t just my lived experience; I’ve done extensive research on it. A subtle process that sorts students into a particular level of difficulty based on race begins early in elementary school with gifted and talented and often overwhelmingly white programs. The conditioning resulting from a student’s participation either within or outside of gifted and talented not only sets up a student’s view of themselves, but others’ perception of their capabilities as well. It continues into high school, where most students of color and students from low-income households are discouraged from taking or not recommended for advanced classes. When you factor in all the other possible variables in this situation, it suddenly makes sense why there is such a significant racial divide. It is simply by design.
So I want you to imagine you were me a few months ago, excited to register for classes as a first-semester senior. Consider being told that advanced classes may be too difficult for you and that you might prefer a general course—despite successfully passing numerous AP/IB courses previously. Feel the disbelief. And yet, what’s worse is that this isn’t what even surprises or hurts you most. That moment comes when you tell your friends. Your Black friends experienced the same thing one by one, but not a single white friend can relate. In fact, their experiences were the complete opposite.
This was my experience—this school year. So can I believe equality is really just within reach?
How is it feasible to allow hundreds of thousands of students like me to wallow in the pain of those experiences? Every child deserves the right to equitable, quality education. No demographic should be excluded from opportunities to learn and excel, nor is there reason to discourage anyone from enrolling in advanced classes. It is for all our futures that I hope we address this issue. Because what truth is there in “equality” if not every voice is included and heard?
EdAllies seeks to elevate diverse voices and foster a candid dialogue about education. While we provide our blog as a platform for EdVoices and other guest contributors, the views and opinions they express are solely their own. Click here to learn more about becoming an EdVoices contributor.