Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Ability Signals and Advanced Math Coursework: Evidence from Massachusetts High Schools

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 10:35 AM
Tuttle Center (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Joshua Goodman and Christopher Avery, Harvard University
Low-income and minority high school students are substantially less likely to enroll in Advanced Placement Calculus than their higher income and white/Asian peers. This is one potential reason for subsequent gaps in college enrollment and success. This AP coursework gap persists even when conditioning on prior academic skill, suggesting that the ways in which students, families or schools use information on academic skill to place students into courses differs by income and race. We provide clear evidence that such information does affect course placement.

In particular, we examine Massachusetts, where 10th graders' parents receive a detailed report explaining which category of math achievement a student earned on their end-of-year exam. We collect 10 years of such test score data, eight years of AP test taking results and four years of detailed high school transcripts. We focus on the threshold between the two highest categories, "proficient" and "advanced", using a regression discontinuity design to compare the nearly identical students just above and below this threshold.

We have three main findings. First, receiving the "advanced" signal substantially increases the probability that a black or Hispanic student ultimately enrolls in AP Calculus and takes the corresponding AP exam. There is no apparent effect on white and Asian students. Second, the "advanced" signal has no impact on the fraction of students earning passing scores on the AP exams, suggesting that the marginal students induced to take AP Calculus largely fail such exams. Third, the effect of the "advanced" signal appears only in years after the state began sending such reports home to families and is not apparent in prior years when only schools received such information.

These preliminary results suggest that information provided to students and parents can play a substantial role in the high school course selection process and may provide one channel through which educational systems can improve coursework gaps. In subsequent work, we plan to study the impacts of signals from standardized tests taken in earlier grades, as well as the impact of such signals not only on coursework but also on college outcomes. We believe this is some of the first evidence on the impact of positive ability signals on student outcomes.