Dallas Increases the Number of Hispanic and Black Students Taking Advanced Classes

  • In 2019, the Dallas Independent School District implemented a policy in which all students in grades 6-8 who scored well on state exams were automatically enrolled in advanced mathematics, reading, science and social studies — or some combination of the four.

    Previously, students who wanted to enroll in honors classes had to opt in themselves or get a recommendation from a teacher or parent. Under the current model, students were unable to opt out without written parent permission.

    As a result of the new policy, the Dallas school system has seen an increase in the number of Hispanic and Black students in honor classes, according to a report from The 74, a nonprofit news organization covering education.

    The increases have been profound, particularly in mathematics.

    Prior to the new policy, only 20 percent of Dallas 8th graders were enrolled in Algebra I compared to 60 percent currently. The increase in the percentage of students is important because eighth-grade Algebra is a prerequisite for more advanced coursework in high school.

    "Advanced coursework in high school is a pipeline," Shannon Trejo, Dallas’ chief academic officer, told The 74. "You have to get it in middle school. The question was, 'How do we ensure students who are prepared are enrolling?'"

    And according to district officials, the opt in policy has not led to a decrease in student scores. The passing rates for eighth-grade Algebra I students was similar to previous years, with 95 percent of Hispanic students passing the test and 76 percent meeting grade-level proficiency; 91 percent of Black students passing and 65 percent meeting grade level; and 95 percent of English learner students passing the state exam and 74 percent meeting grade level. 

    Hispanic students make up 71 percent of the district’s enrollment, Black students 20 percent, English language learners 49 percent, and White students 5.5 percent.

    Yet prior to the opt in policy, students of color were underrepresented in the district’s advanced courses. Data revealed that only 33 percent of Hispanic sixth graders, 17 percent of Black sixth graders, and 31 percent of English learners enrolled in 6th-grade honors math classes in the 2018-19 school year, while 51 percent of white sixth graders took advanced math that year. 

    By the 2022-23 school year, 59 percent of Hispanic sixth graders, 43 percent of Black sixth graders, and 59 percent of that grade’s English learners were enrolled in 6th-grade honors math classes. The percentage of white sixth graders in advanced math also increased, to 82 percent.

    District officials will track outcomes year over year, with a focus on whether students continue on an advanced pathway in high school. 

    Dallas Schools Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde was the chief of schools when the new policy was adopted and was instrumental in its implementation. She said the fact that scores in advanced courses have not decreased is proof that the program is working. “More kids have higher access to rigorous material, which of course will give us better results,” said Elizalde.

    For former Dallas schools superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who was at the helm of the school system in 2019, the opt in policy was a simple but very profound solution to increasing the number of students of color in advanced courses.

    During a recent Zoom call the Council of the Great City Schools held with superintendents, he recalled that many parents in Dallas have no agency and did not know they could request their children enroll in advanced courses. In addition, some teachers did not have high expectations for students of color.

    “So, we said if a student has high grades, they’ve proven that they can do well and will be automatically enrolled in high-level coursework,” said Hinojosa. “And that was a simple solution that has had profound results.”

    He noted that the decision paid off for the benefit of many students of color and it shows that with high expectations combined with resources and support educators can move the needle on things “we might not have thought otherwise.”

    Hinojosa hopes that other urban school districts across the country will implement a similar policy. “It takes time for it to pay off but if you don’t start now, when are you going to start? Efforts are good but results are better.”